“People of the Book”: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
I recently checked into volunteering, post-Covid, in a local literacy program. If I follow through on this idea, it will mark my third time doing this kind of work since I first engaged in such a task in Detroit in the 1980s. Literacy has always concerned me, and not just at the level of functional literacy/illiteracy. During the 1970s and 1980s I did a good amount of teaching at the undergraduate and graduate level. After a pastoral hiatus, when I returned to teaching in the 1990s I observed a distinct difference in the ability of students, both in extracting information from a text and in their capability with regard to writing assignments. The situation was, at least for me, alarming. As a member of the senate of my university I proposed a remedial course for incoming freshmen. The proposal was trounced by my colleagues who construed it as an insult to the institution! Nevertheless, the issue has apparently persisted.
For many of us, it is almost impossible to imagine a life without reading. At any given time, I have two or three books that I’m working through. I imagine that many of you are the same. So much of what you experience on this blog site and others is rooted in what the authors of the articles have been reading and reflecting upon. Likewise, the authors have an expectation of a literate audience who will take what is read here and will compare and contrast those ideas with what has been taken in elsewhere. Lately, however, I have begun to question that basic assumption as to this foundational concept with regard to the transfer and enhancement of knowledge.
In looking at the local literacy project mentioned above, I came across some sobering statistics. As much as most of our readership is based in the United States, these statistics may be of interest.
– In a study of literacy among 20 ‘high income’ countries; the US ranked 12th.
– Illiteracy has become such a serious problem in our country that 44 million adults are now unable to read a simple story to their children.
– 50% of American adults cannot read a book written at an eighth grade level.
– 45 million Americans are functionally illiterate and read below a 5th grade level.
– 44% of American adults do not read a book in any given year.
– 6 out of 10 American households do not buy a single book in a year.
What this means for me as a writer, is that most of the time I am “preaching to the choir”, that is, people like myself. It also tells me that there is a large swath of the country that I cannot write for, or communicate with using the normal means of the written word.
The Quran calls Christians and Jews “People of the Book” and so, in a very real sense, we are. We turn, often daily, to Scripture for instruction, for inspiration, for comfort. Moreover, we turn to writers of the past and present to provide insight and clarification or to examine points of view that may challenge what we hold to be true. It is an on going dialogue made possible by the printed page or, more recently, characters on a backlit screen. Yet, a sizable portion of Americans are excluded from that dialogue and, I believe, that has implications not merely for our nation, but for the Church.
Years ago I wrote a book on Athanasius. If you read the book, you could get a pretty good idea as to what I thought about him. Every few sentences, you would see a super scribed number which indicated a footnote. In that footnote you would find a reference to another written work that would help to explain why I wrote what you saw in the main text. Now, you might agree or disagree as to what I had written, but there was at least a basis for discussion.
Increasingly, that basis for discussion, is being stripped away. As Thomas Friedman has pointed out, “the world is flat”. “Opinion” and “feeling” have become the measures of our flattened reality and the appeal to authority, whether of a book, or a person, or an office is futile. When we add to this analysis that almost half of our fellow citizens, often through no fault of their own, lack the tools to even access sources of information (good or bad) the realm of “opinion” (with or without a basis in fact) and “feeling” (of the moment and liable to change) become paramount.
This, however, is not a new environment for the Church. Most scholars agree that during the era of the Second Temple and Early Christianity, most people were illiterate. The rate of literacy in this period is estimated at between 5% and 10%. The difference between that era and our own is that both the Jews and the Christians of that era lived out their lives in small local communities in which there was a strong oral tradition and a strong social connection within the community. Additionally, society was “structured” and hierarchical rather than “flat”. We might remember from early Christian writers that one of the highlights of early worship was to hear someone read aloud from the Prophets or the Gospels along with a short discourse on how the hearers should “imitate these good things”.
Of course, we live in a different time. Moreover, the subsequent history of the Church has shown it to be a force for good in terms of literacy and education. Early on, the Church recognized this as part of its particular calling. Is there perhaps a version of the Church that can envision changing society without reference to politics? Perhaps it could be in small intentional communities of believers who imitated not only the Early Church, but also renewed our commitment to changing society one person at a time, first by hearing and then by helping them to join us as “People of the Book”.
There is of course more to this story (Sources: National Institute for Literacy, National Center for Adult Literacy, The Literacy Company, U.S. Census Bureau)
3 out of 4 people on welfare can’t read.
20% of Americans read below the level needed to earn a living wage.
50% of the unemployed between the ages of 16 and 21 cannot read well enough to be considered functionally literate.
Between 46 and 51% of American adults have an income well below the poverty level because of their inability to read.
Illiteracy costs American taxpayers an estimated $20 billion each year.
School dropouts cost our nation $240 billion in social service expenditures and lost tax revenues.
Impact on Society:
3 out of 5 people in American prisons can’t read.
To determine how many prison beds will be needed in future years, some states actually base part of their projection on how well current elementary students are performing on reading tests.
85% of juvenile offenders have problems reading.
Approximately 50% of Americans read so poorly that they are unable to perform simple tasks such as reading prescription drug labels.
I had a strange thought yesterday as this trend troubles me greatly.
T will not read a book…but he will endlessly look for videos on a topic and retain much of what he learned from them.
I wonder if our technology is leading us somewhere new and somewhere as impermanent as the rest of society is becoming…
Those are very saddening statistics, Duane. They are like canaries in a coal mine for their significance in the future competitiveness of the American economy, which also impacts our ability to fund our future national security needs.
In the email I shared with you… If my friend writes a book, 10,000 in sales. If she does a video, 40-50 thousand views. If she does a podcast it goes a million plus. The future is here…
Yes, and I didn’t even go into STEM as it is outside of my expertise. My biggest concern is how a lack of reading and/or literacy affects the church. How do we catechize? Do we just “preach to the choir”? How do we reach out to those on a reduced socio-economic level where literacy cannot be assumed?
Historically, music, iconography, architecture, and liturgy (facilitating memorization) have been employed for the catechizing of illiterate and semi-literate Christians.
…And considering the state of those areas in most churches, we have cause to be worried!
In my later years i have sensed a growing disrespect in the general population for young people/students who are serious about learning. .. even church people find secular “learning” a dangerous pursuit…
It’s interesting Duane, now that I think about it, that in some sense, in the midst of tremendous technological advancement, society is re-entering something of a dark age with respect to literacy, history, and literature. Thanks for directing our attention to this issue.
We used to consider educational attainment a “good” in and of itself. Now, as often as not, it’s the subject of resentment and/or ridicule. (We’ve even witnessed it on this site.) When I have volunteered for literacy projects in the past, the first goal is not reading… it is convincing the person that reading has value and, therefore, it is worth the effort…
When I was in school (high school, college), many people would ask (esp about mathematics) “what the flip am I going to use this for?” Yes, granted no one is going to need to derive the volume of a volleyball using calculus in order to hit the ball over the net, but it is true that mathematics (for this example), is not only REQUIRED to learn the theory behind many things, but also teaches you how to THINK.
I also value education and learning/thinking as a tool to fight misinformation/false beliefs/etc.
Even among adults who enjoy reading often only read Young Adult fiction, that is, books for teenagers.
Recently, I was part of a group that was discussing the difficulties of reading Tolkien’s Silmarilion. Many said it was too hard to read, not anything like the Hobbit, which is easy reading, as it is a children’s book. Since I had been reading “hard” books all my life, including the Old Testament, I had no difficulties. I realized that hose who only read Young Adult fantasy had trouble and couldn’t get past the first few chapters. So not only is there a problem with literacy, even many readers limit themselves to extremely easy material.
The more I think about it, the more it frightens me. When I was teaching full time, I watched the change over the course of a decade… and that was 20 plus years ago. Mentoring some younger clergy, I’ve been appalled at what is not known in terms of literature, history and, yes, even basic theology.
Before it is said by someone else, this is not about an old guy complaining about “young folk”. In some cases they have not been taught well, and in other cases they lack the interest or intellectual curiosity. For them the world is truly flat and they feel that they have nothing to learn.
When I first started teaching, three or four books would be assigned for a course, with others recommended in a bibliography. A decade later, it would be photocopies of select chapters. It is worse than that now…
As usual and esp. re. literacy I couldn’t agree more! Same regarding peace! Love your thinking as usual. Caveat on political issue: a reality is when one reaches out and affects a larger “constituency” in the eyes of pols you become a voting block, therefore for or against them. The more influence the more they view you on that basis. You are not then apolitical, seen as tame or as “the enemy” and thus we have a core issue as followers of Jesus loyal and first about all to Him and His, then to those especially “least of these” around us and beyond nearby. Politics. I wish and long for peace between all but in this world and until Jesus rolls it up like a scroll I don’t believe it’s a practical reality. STILL- “Blessed are the peaceMAKERS”, within and indeed between local and larger church streams as well as between the Church and the world in deep need of the Prince of Peace! -Glenn
Always good to see you here… and, Agreed!
Dan on math, yes what Dr. Duane said! ! !
Our God is the Master of mathematics…. it permeates all of life!
It’s interesting that Christian texts early on took the form of codex. I don’t know if it would be fair to say that Christians pioneered the codex or popularized the codex, but the codex was a significant innovation from a scroll for a bookish religion.
Just wrapping up my teaching day, and I was glad to catch this thread. I am so discouraged when I hear people say they get their information from Facebook memes (which are often false) and some obscure one -opinionated, one-person run news “channel” (on Youtube). The brain is in many ways like a muscles-if you don’t use your intellectual capacities, they get rusty. I blame part of this on the American education system. Forty years ago we obliged teachers to “teach to the test” as if it was some magical way to being brilliant, vs. teaching students to be critical thinkers. I agree that everyone needs a knowledge base (four operations for math, letter sounds to read), but you also need ways to apply those skills. My mother used to say she “only” had a high school education (c 1954), but she wrote better and read much more complicated texts than many of my younger friends, who consider completing an Anime novel a great accomplishment. There is a place for Anime, but let’s not forget Shakespeare.
The book v video comparison is perhaps not a fair one. A 10-30 minute video can only contain a fraction of the content of a 200 page book.
Our attention spans are not that long.
Of course reading is more time-efficient than listening/watching.
“Between 46 and 51% of American adults have an income well below the poverty level because of their inability to read.” That doesn’t sound right, though the statement in many places. Wikipedia “Poverty in the United States” shows a graph with 10-15% of US population in poverty.
Handwriting has all but disappeared, and lots of young people cannot tell time from an analog clock. They don’t know what “a quarter ’till” or “half past” means. Twenty minutes is the standard answer.
I dedicated half of my life to literacy as a literacy specialist in the public schools for 30 years. I’m retired now, but I still tutor children for free or a for a very nominal fee. Both of my children were reading at age three because I knew how to make reading fun ( and I knew how to teach reading well after so many years) One of my children became an English major at UCLA ( and was hired immediately by an international financial company). She started out writing reports and soon was vice president of their L.A.office. Don’t let anyone tell you that an English degree is a useless degree! My other child has,a Masters in Library Science and Media Technology. She has worked for two major universities and she now is the head of the data storage department for the city of Honolulu’s new light rail project. STEM studies are important, but we will always need people who can read, write, communicate, and acquire and communicate written data and knowledge. Reading and writing are how we transfer knowledge, and it is the foundation of all other learning.
My son read The Hobbit in 3rd grade and liked it. In 4th, he started on The Fellowship of the Ring, then the lockdowns and remote schooling happened… it’s likely also my fault, but now he’s into playing Roblox where he can also connect with his friends remotely. I’ve read 21 books thus far this year. Fiction, but it’s instead of TV. The other day he was reading over my shoulder, “I’m done with the page!” I asked him what happened. Silly grin. He’s also ASD1. He reads fast, but isn’t as much into retention. It’s a struggle.
in 1983, my mom moved us from the city to 25 acres in the forest with no electricity. It was the end of 6th grade. I went from having the prime time grid memorized to zero TV. My mom got trashed books from dumpsters, their covers torn off to prevent resale. Thus I became a voracious reader, even of fiction these days (reality is enough for itself).
Volunteering for literacy is a very good idea. once covid is over, I should get back out into the community.
The statistic is referring to 45%-51% of those below the poverty line…
Christians did not invent the codex (probably came out of Egypt, imitating the Roman wax tablet) but the Christians popularized the format. It was probably the greatest innovation prior to the printing press…
TNV-I was heading up a modest ESL program at my church right before the pandemic hit. I am praying for a grand restart in the fall!
The codex format is much more useful than the scroll format.
I wonder if that format was due to the all engineering, infrastructure, and bureaucracy created by the Roman Empire as it made the administrative paperwork easier and more efficient.
Interestingly according to archeologists the majority of Roman wax tablets were around 140mm x 110mm in size, which is about 1/2 the size of the std 11 x 8.5 in paper size we know today. Hmmm….
“I wonder if our technology is leading us somewhere new and somewhere as impermanent as the rest of society is becoming…”
Aldous Huxley’s work Brave New World is prophetic in that regard.
Would be tyrants have learned that the models of Hitlerism and Stalinism are not sustainable and collapse under their own weight.
But a populace that is cowed with pleasure and promised even more pleasure is much easier to steer and control.
“But a populace that is cowed with pleasure and promised even more pleasure is much easier to steer and control.”
We’ve lost the ability to embrace self-sacrifice for the common good as a virtue…
Duane and Muff (regarding your 1:20 pm),
The old adage of bread and circuses still applies….