Friday, February 04, 2011

what's at risk?

Are people reading books as they used to? Looking back a century or so it's easy to see changes that would cause people to read more. Higher levels of educational attainment (more children and adults in school, increases in numbers of high school and college graduates), advent and increase in numbers of inexpensive publications (cheaper production techniques — rotary press, pulp paper, perfect binding, — and cheap publications — dime novels and other pulp literature, mass market paperbacks — much of it in newspapers and magazines — more and better illustrations, increasingly in color, more — and more effective — advertising to help pay production costs), even some changes within the home (less sharing of bedrooms, smaller families with less need for older children to mind younger ones, gas and then electric light to read by, labor-saving devices — the vacuum cleaner, washing machines, gas and electric cookstoves) that increased people's free time, growth in the number of free libraries and growth in their circ stats, and availability and widespread use of audio books and e-books. And alongside these pressures that would be expected to cause increased reading it's easy think of devices that offered competition for the free time that people might otherwise devote to book reading (magic lanterns, phonographs, movies, telephones, radio, TV, and web-connected personal computers) and not just fixtures but increasingly portable devices for entertainment and communication (45rpm records & players, portable radios, Walkmen, iPods, tablets and the rest).

It's pretty easy to imagine that over the long haul the latter group would have increasing impact, the former less. The number of books being read, per person, is probably lower now than it used to be.

A few years back the National Endowment for the Arts tried to use survey data to show that a certain type of reading, which they called literary reading had fallen off dramatically. They produced some press releases, and, a few years later, when the same survey set showed increases in that type of reading, took some credit for waking up the nation to an unfolding "national crisis" which had demanded its attention.

So, the NEA was well-meaning in its scare-mongering and the effort may have been at least a little bit helpful. Nonetheless, there's a problem. The data NEA used really did not show a consistent decline, the NEA releases made claims that couldn't be supported even by the data they did use, and there's no way to tell if the turnaround occurred as a result of their work (if there was a turnaround at all). The press releases show a deplorable tendency to make unwarranted generalizations from the cherry-picked data on which they're based. They say literary reading has declined (without adequately demonstrating that it has) and, a few sentences later, they're saying that reading itself has declined (not just the literary subset). They jump then to unsupported assertions that literacy itself is at risk and that "advanced literacy" is required to nurture cultural and civic life (which may be true, but probably shouldn't be assumed to be so).

What this advanced literacy is we're left to guess. The phrase reminds me of a time when there was a virtual requirement that men (always men) who wrote and spoke publicly must parade their leaning by sprinkling their utterances with quotes from and allusions to writings in the canons of ancient Greece and Rome, as will as the honored greats in English Lit.

The NEA releases don't indulge in that parroting of authorities, but they do give what purport to be quotes from NEA's chairman of the time, Dana Gioia. In them he tells us "This report documents a national crisis." "Reading, he says, "develops a capacity for focused attention and imaginative growth that enriches both private and public life. The decline in reading among every segment of the adult population reflects a general collapse in advanced literacy. To lose this human capacity - and all the diverse benefits it fosters - impoverishes both cultural and civic life." (Notice that he says "reading" not "literary reading" in this quote.) There's more: "America can no longer take active and engaged literacy for granted. As more Americans lose this capability, our nation becomes less informed, active, and independent minded. These are not qualities that a free, innovative, or productive society can afford to lose." I need not say that there's no indication of what "active and engaged literacy" is made of or how is it associated with "literary reading."

To me it seems active and engaged literacy is a growth commodity. Whether people do or do not engage in as much literary reading as they once did, they certainly do engage in a whole lot of verbal expression and much of this is active, engaged, and literary in nature. People, lots of people — a growing number of people I should think — take advantage of easy and cheap opportunities for self-publication, they write vast quantities of fan fiction, and their outpourings in Facebook statuses, tweets, and the like is quite often literary in character.

NEA's press releases were accepted at face value and simply regurgitated in much of the mainstream press. The only exceptions I recall were in the Guardian's internet column and the Arts section of the New York Times. The Guardian's Steven Johnson wrote: "NEA chair Dana Gioia states boldly in his introduction: 'The story the data tell is simple, consistent and alarming.' But then the data turns out to be complex, inconsistent and not really that alarming at all." — Dawn of the digital natives Steven Johnson in The Guardian, February 7, 2008. In the Times, Motoko Rich spent more than a dozen grafs paraphrasing a release but then did close with this: "Timothy Shanahan, past president of the International Reading Association and a professor of urban education and reading at the University of Illinois at Chicago, suggested that the endowment’s report was not nuanced enough. 'I don’t disagree with the N.E.A.’s notion that reading is important, but I’m not as quick to discount the reading that I think young people are really doing,' he said, referring to reading on the Internet. He added, 'I don’t think the solutions are as simple as a report like this might be encouraging folks to think they might be.'" — National Endowment for the Arts - Reading - by Motoko Rich, November 19, 2007.

Predictably, I suppose, it's much easier to find careful criticisms in blog posts than in news articles. Here are a few extracts from an exceptionally good one: "Despite the numerous charts, graphs and tables in To Read or Not to Read, a careful and responsible reading of the complete data provided by the NAEP and the NAAL undermine the conclusions the NEA draws... Data may be one kind of thing but polemic is another. The heart of the NEA's case appears not in the report proper but in preface provided by the Endowment's Chairman, Dana Gioia. There he explicitly asserts that reading books, preferably every day, produces more prosperous and more virtuous citizens... Yet there is little evidence of an actual decline in literacy rates or proficiency. As a result, the NEA's core argument breaks down... Reading well, doing well, and doing good may exhibit strong correlations but the underlying dynamics producing each of the three effects may have little to do with what Americans choose to do in their leisure time. Read responsibly, the data underlying the NEA's latest report simply do not support Mr. Gioia's assertions." — nancy kaplan on the NEA's data distortion by Ben Vershbow on If:book, a project of the Institute for the Future of the Book, November 30, 2007.

Here are some other blog-based critiques:

"The report didn’t highlight one intriguing fact: that writing for pleasure was on the increase. It also reported sales of books were down, but didn’t account for the enormous growth in used book sales or in library circulations. It also bemoaned the lowering of standardized reading scores among high-schoolers without celebrating the fact that scores were up in earlier grades. It only looked at reading of fiction and equated that with “literary reading” – and only counted reading that had nothing to do with school or work. It didn’t look at data from years before 1982, which yields a very different picture. Nor did it consider the fact that what “counts” as valuable reading has changed vastly over time. In short, the analysis seemed determined to find bad news." — Is Reading at Risk?

"The predictable villains of the visual media, the electronic media and the Internet all came in for blame... I go online. Here I find a complicated world filled with the good, the bad, and the ugly. Alive and constantly changing, engaged and engaging, requiring my constant decisions about what is worth reading or seeing and what is not. From the lowest pornography to tours of the treasures of the Library of Congress, from the stupidest blogs of the radical fringes, to the most sophisticated discussions of the decline of America's reading habits, everything is there." — Students Read Less. Should We Care? By John V. Lombardi in Inside Higher Ed, August 23, 2005.

"It is not at all clear that reading has declined in the US. The "decline" in reading literature was reported by Reading at Risk, published by the National Endowment for the Arts (Bradshaw and Nichols, 2002a). Reading at Risk only counted novels (in book form), poetry, and plays as literature, excluding magazines, on-line reading, and graphic novels. Also, data from earlier surveys suggests that the "decline" may not be stable: In 1945, 41% said they read literature, substantially less than the 1982 and 1992 results, and nearly identical to the Reading at Risk results (Link and Hopf, 1946). In addition, NEA reported, in another publication, that intellectual life in the US remains vigorous. There has been no change since 1982 in the percentage of people who do creative writing, attend plays, art, museums, and operas, and who use public libraries (Bradshaw and Nichols, 2002b)." — The "Decline" of Reading in America, Poverty and Access to Books, and the use of Comics in Encouraging Reading Stephen Krashen, Teachers College Record, February, 2005.

"the screen as well as the page is a natural venue for literature and imaginative writing." — READING AT RISK: A RESPONSE by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, July 21, 2004.

"There is indeed a crisis in reading. Few people, it seems, have read the NEA report, and the authors of the report did not do their reading homework. A close examination of the report reveals very little cause for concern. In fact, some of the data suggests that things are just fine.
          Since 1984 there has, of course, been increased use of the internet, as well as other forms of reading (e.g. Graphic Novels), and other forms of input of literate texts (audiobooks). We need to know if these kinds of reading were considered worth mentioning by respondents in 1992 and 2004 before we conclude that young people are reading less today.
          Libraries: The research is overwhelming. It tells us that those with more access to books read more, and that children of poverty have very little access to books, at home, in their communities, or in school (reviewed in Krashen, 2004, Power of Reading). And of course, as noted earlier, the NEA report confirms that more reading leads to better literacy development and more knowledge.
          Research done by Keith Curry Lance, Jeff McQuillan and others also shows that students in schools in higher quality school libraries staffed with credentialed librarians do better on tests of reading, and some of this research specifically shows that library quality (public and school) has a strong relationship with scores on the fourth grade NAEP reading examination: McQuillan (The Literacy Crisis: False Claims and Real Solutions, 1998) reported that children in states with better school and public libraries do better on the NAEP, even when the effect of poverty is controlled.
          No single factor? How about improving school and public libraries, especially in high poverty areas? The real problem is not a decline but the fact that children of poverty have less access to books and read more poorly than others. This is something we can do something about." — The 'Decline' in reading in America: Another case of the "Shock Doctrine"? Stephen Krashen in his own blog, January, 2008.

"The conclusions [of the 2007 report] reflected more bias than they should. The report assumes the primacy of text as a medium of communication." — Critique of NEA Reading at Risk follow-up report by jwa in TheoLib, December 3, 2007.


Some NEA releases:——————-

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