Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The biggest threat to America is ...

When I start thinking about threats to America, my mind thinks about terrorists, or rogue nations like North Korea and Iran.  But, again, like all great nations, we are our own worst enemy.  

Americans have dulled their senses and wits by disengaging their minds from the written word.  Simply put -- we are not reading and it's hurting us individually and as a nation.  A recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts concluded as much, noting several disturbing trends in society.

The aptly named study, "To Read or Not To Read:  A Question of National Consequence," examined trends from young adults about their reading habits and comprehension levels, comparing students from the early 1980s to their counterparts 20 years later.  The study provided three main conclusions:
  • Americans are spending less time reading.
  • Reading comprehension skills are eroding.
  • These declines have serious civic, social, cultural, and economic implications.
I don't have a difficult time believing the first of these three conclusions.  Ironically, the spectacular changes in technology during the last 20 years, brought on by well educated and intelligent people, now appears to be our undoing.  It didn't come from the Government ... no censorship.  Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick.

Reading a book has a difficult time competing with computers, the Internet, Playstation, texting, Angry Birds or the 140 character Twitter-verse that people live in.  Reading is too time consuming, too difficult, and requires too much thinking for our world of instant gratification.  Anything that can't be done quickly isn't worth doing ― or so the younger generations would have us believe.

Even when young adults are reading, they do so with a level of distraction.  Teens stated in 2004 that when they did read, 58% of them do so while using some other form of media either most of the time or some of the time.

So, if young adults aren't reading, what are they doing?  Are they being productive with the additional time?  Well, yes and no.  The Internet is an attraction no young person can resist, and one would think that to have a positive impact, considering the sheer amount of information on the Internet is nothing short of fascinating.  However, society's most popular websites aren't those seeking to enlighten or inform.

Instead of reading, the youth of America uses its creativity to record strange videos to be posted on YouTube.  Want to see stupid pet tricks?  You can watch and laugh continuously.  Or how about watching those crafty Harlem Shake videos (admittedly, these are clever)?  My personal favorite (sarcasm here), however, is a new series of videos called "I'm Shmacked."

If you aren't aware, "I'm Shmacked" travels to different college campuses across the United States, filming students participating in every form of scandalous behavior conceivable.  The videos claim to present the 'college life' of each school, and though I highly doubt that's the point of their efforts, that's not the actual concern I have.   One of the creators of this series, Arya Toufanian, was quoted in the New York Times, stating, "Kids don’t want to read anymore ... Seeing a video is a much more fun way to learn about a school."

I understand the appeal of the visual, but I believe this statement underscores one of the problems in the previously mentioned study on reading.  The frightening part of Toufanian's statement is that he is telling the truth.  Kids don't want to read and statistics bear out this fact.

Okay, so what, young adults aren't reading.  What's the problem with that? The public stopped reading of its own accord. Maybe older folks like myself are doing what all older generations do -- yearn for the days of old when the world made sense and books reigned supreme.  Or not.  Perhaps the lack of reading poses a serious threat to our way of life.

The "To Read or Not To Read" study revealed a few other disturbing trends, including,
  • 38% of employers find high school graduates “deficient” in reading comprehension, while 63% rate this basic skill “very important.”
  • “Written communications” tops the list of applied skills found lacking in high school and college graduates alike.
  • One in five U.S. workers read at a lower skill level than their job requires.
  • Remedial writing courses are estimated to cost more than $3.1 billion for large corporate employers and $221 million for state employers.
What does this mean for the United States as a whole?  It means businesses and their employees are not as productive, causing multi-national corporations to search for the requisite personnel elsewhere.  Outsourcing often happens as a result of cost effectiveness, but some businesses are moving because people lack the skills necessary to do the work.  What might happen if this trend continues?  Oh, nothing.  Literally.

Stephen Oliner, a UCLA scholar working for the American Enterprise Institute, recently published an article on American productivity and the potential outlook for the near future.  Oliner noted several interesting facets in his article, including a spurred rate of growth in productivity from 1995-2004.  Since 2004, that growth in productivity has decreased to its pre-1995 rates.  (Oliner rightly credits the information technology era as accounting for the key growth, but noted there's no reason IT shouldn't be increasing productivity again.)

His conclusion:
The future will be brighter if we proceed with sensible policy actions on several fronts. These include greater emphasis on high-quality education, immigration reforms that increase the pool of talent in the U.S., investment in infrastructure, and additional government support for basic scientific research. Nothing fancy here ― just taking care of the basics.
An increase in quality of education and top notch talent from other nations?  I agree with Oliner's prescription but I would add that actually carrying out these tasks seems anything but basic.

Oliner's article could be merely coincidental to the fact that readership has decreased.  His study definitely isn't a smoking gun, but I do believe the inability of the nation to reach a higher productivity level is connected with our poor literacy.  The possibility exists that rate of growth in productivity dropped off because of a change in the generational work force.  Hard-working Baby Boomers started to retire while many middle aged and younger IT developers and programmers made millions and quit their jobs.  Who does that leave to fill the void?  Workers in their early 20s (circa 2004) that are part of a generation of non-readers. 

On an individualized level, young adults should be aware that proficient readers typically have more financially rewarding jobs -- more than 60% of employed proficient readers have jobs in management, or in the business, financial, professional, and related sectors, while approximately 18% of basic readers are employed in those same fields.  Those workers with lower reading skills also see less opportunities for advancement in their careers.

Moreover, those young adults who were not avid readers were found to be more likely to drop out of high school.  These citizens have a greater degree of difficulty finding meaningful work and thus, are not always able to support themselves.

The disconnect from not reading also spills over to the political.  The "To Read or Not To Read" study concluded that basic readers are far less likely to vote or participate in any form of volunteer work.  Proficient readers exhibit greater curiosity about current events, public affairs, and government activity, as measured by their use of media to obtain this information.  Those who actively and proficiently read were more likely to use the Internet for the purpose of looking up information about government, leading to a more well-informed population.  Basically, proficient readers use the Internet to find what's important, and not to seek out the latest entertainment buzz.

Reading is essential to American society and without proficiency for all citizens, the nation has suffered and will continue to do so.  Academic achievement and worker productivity have stagnated and the economy as a whole is not reaching its potential.  Citizens are less engaged in civic responsibilities, volunteering, and care less about the arts.

And what have received in return for selling out culture and wealth? Dancing babies, Facebook, memes, instant gratification and  mediocrity. I supposed that's a fair trade.  Reading can be dangerous, you know.

After all, who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?


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