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According to a 2021 Pew Research survey, roughly a quarter of American adults—including 38 percent of Hispanic adults, 25 percent of Black adults and 20 percent of white adults—say they haven’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year, whether in print or in electronic or audio form. This is even true of 11 percent of adults with a bachelor’s or other advanced degree.

These figures are nearly triple those reported in 1978.

There’s also been a sharp decline in bookworms. Two in five adults told a 1978 Gallup survey that they had read 11 or more books in the past year. The 2021 Pew figure was just 28 percent.

Of special concern to academics are reports that college students, according to the Faculty Survey of Student Engagement, are increasingly unwilling to complete assigned reading.

The result: a spate of articles that claim that literacy is in steep decline. Recent headlines blare, “America is facing a literacy crisis.” “Literacy rates have declined during the pandemic.” “Nearly half of adult Canadians struggle with literacy.”

Of course, the claim that literacy is falling precipitously does not mean that people can’t read or aren’t reading. After all, reading—of email, text messages, webpages and short-form articles on smartphones, tablets and computers—is almost certainly greater than ever.

When Cassandras decry a crisis of literacy, their argument is that:

  • The desire and ability to read sophisticated texts and understand their authors’ ideas has diminished.
  • Familiarity with cultural references, including religious, literary and historical allusions, has fallen.
  • As the proportion of the population entering college has grown, the share of students with advanced reading skills has declined, which has encouraged faculty to reduce reading requirements.

Anxieties about the decline of literacy are, of course, nothing new. Fears of declension and backsliding are part and parcel of the “literacy myth” that the great historian of literacy Harvey J. Graff has described. That myth insists that literacy’s value can’t be underestimated:

  • That literacy (like the advent of agriculture and cities) transformed human life in fundamental and far-reaching ways.
  • That literacy’s spread not only was the key to “economic development, democratic practice and upward social mobility,” but promoted the growth of logical reasoning and rational argument and the development of higher aesthetic and moral sensibilities.

To speak of the literacy myth is not, of course, to say that there’s no connection between literacy, economic success, labor force attainment or skill. Rather, it’s to say that the belief in literacy has become an article of faith, and, therefore, any perceived decline in literacy is regarded as a threat to individual well-being and the nation’s economic and moral future.

Has literacy actually declined? Likely not, though the kinds of reading seem to have shifted. It appears:

  • That the kind of sustained engagement with lengthy and demanding texts that was identified with reading from the late 18th century onward has declined.
  • That much current reading takes the form of briefer bursts of scanning and panning.
  • That a growing share of written communication takes the form of very brief texts.

The likely result: an increase in distractibility. It seems plausible that attention spans have diminished and that most people’s ability to concentrate for prolonged periods of time has declined. Inattention may well have increased, as we are more easily diverted.

Yet ironically, even as anxiety over the decline of reading has intensified, calls ring out in support of new “21st-century” literacies as the keys to personal success and societal advancement. These include civic literacy, coding and computational literacy, data literacy, financial literacy, geo-literacy, historical literacy, information literacy, media literacy, multicultural literacy, scientific literacy, and technology literacy, among others.

“Literacy” no longer refers exclusively to the ability to read and write. It has become a synonym for almost any skill or competence.

But as Graff argues in an essay entitled “The New Literacy Studies and the Resurgent Literacy Myth” and will subsequently develop in his forthcoming Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies, proponents of 21st-century literacies have their own distinct agendas. By invoking the word “literacy,” advocates imply that the skill they are promoting is essential in the same way that reading is indispensable. This claim can therefore provide the justification for the workshops, lectures, books or whatever else they’re hawking, even in the absence of evidence that the literacy is well-defined or pays off.

I, perhaps like you, worry anxiously that my students lack essential literacies—above all, cultural literacy: fluency with the allusions and references that every educated person is assumed to know and that largely the grow out of wide and intensive reading. I don’t want them to ever, ever be regarded as culturally illiterate.

But then I remind myself about how few books Abraham Lincoln apparently read. His early reading consisted largely of Aesop’s Fables, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Robinson Crusoe, Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, Mason Locke Weems’s and David Ramsay’s biographies of George Washington, Thomas Dilworth’s New Guide to the English Tongue (1740), William Scott’s Lessons in Elocution (1779), Lindley Murray’s English Reader (1795), and Samuel Kirkham’s English Grammar (1823).

Lincoln’s literacy was intensive rather than extensive.

Cultural literacy, as Graff has observed, can be transmitted in multiple ways, orally and visually, as well as in printed words. I view it as my job—and I hope you consider it yours—to ensure that our students become broadly literate in terms of cultural knowledge, even if that requires exceeding your courses’ assigned boundaries.

Why? Because this kind of literacy liberates us from our cultural insularity and frees us from provinciality and narrow-mindedness. Above all, it makes each of us part of the “great conversation” that cuts across time and space, allowing us to be in dialogue and to debate and interact with those who came before.

It calls to mind W. E. B. Du Bois’s words in The Souls of Black Folk:

“I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed Earth and the tracery of stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.”

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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