“Despite the enormous quantity of books, how few people read! And if one reads profitably, one would realize how much stupid stuff the vulgar herd is content to swallow every day.” – Voltaire
“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free”, this was the epiphany that Fredrick Douglass was faced with once he had been introduced to reading by his master’s wife, Mrs. Auld.
He had realized that literacy would forge the path to his freedom and as such he made it his life’s pursuit at all costs.
However, Literacy is not as clear cut as people make it out to be. At its core, it defines the task by which one expands their knowledge of reading and writing in order to develop key skills that are used not only for the purpose of garnering an understanding of one’s self; but also, of that of the world around them.
The idea of literacy is not a new concept by any standards. In fact, written communication can be traced back as far as 3,500 B.C, with the very first books appearing in Asia, Rome and the Middle East in 23 B.C (“A brief history of literacy” 2015).
Books were always considered to be a coveted possession as their creation was arduous and few knew how to read them. This short coming was later remedied by the invention of the printing press in the 15th century.
The mass production and distribution of books allowed literacy rates to sky rocket, which ushered in a new era of development and whimsy. Education and curiosity were two distinct qualities that could have set one apart from the general population, and so literacy became a noble pursuit.
Books became our best friends. For centuries, literature has been teaching humanity about one thing or another through example. We are able to revisit the past because ancient scholars have left us their work to study and peruse to our satisfaction.
Through books we can live a thousand lives, visit hundreds of places with nothing more than our imagination. We can explore, learn and grow with every turn of the page. As such, developing one’s literacy skills can provide numerous benefits.
For one, reading can greatly improve a person’s vocabulary as reading widely exposes us to new words and ideas that may have previously been unknown to us (Duff 2015).
The same principles can also be applied to the expansion of one’s base knowledge. Not only that, but reading books can also help to boost a person’s creativity; allowing them develop a vivid imagination.
Additionally, reading refine and sharpen a person’s focus and memory, as it forces you to pay attention to the task at hand lest you miss an important point; which in turn can act as a wonderful stress reliever as well since it gets you to stop thinking about everything at once whilst still being a productive pass time.
Also, it has been scientifically proven that reading can improve brain health as well. Think of the brain as a muscle, and just like any other muscle it needs to work out in order to remain fit, and reading is the best way to exercise your mind.
It does this by refining your fluid intelligence, which improves your problem solving and critical thinking skills (Twardowski 2018). Furthermore, reading enhances your emotional intelligence, which is responsible for developing a person’s empathy (Twardowski 2018).
Let me pose a question to you; would you be shocked if I told you that a majority of people in the world can go an entire year without reading a single book?
Reading has so many benefits and it can only really help a person, so why aren’t more people engaging in the activity? For starters, there is a lack of parental encouragement for young children to read.
Children require direction and instruction from people they consider to be authoritative in order to develop healthy and lasting habits. And yet many parents do not encourage such behaviour, which results in children never developing an appreciation for books.
Additionally, school and educational environments, which are arguably where children spend a majority of their time, do not encourage reading as a hobby. They instead turn it into a chore that is required of the course which leads to children developing a negative association with the activity.
Aside from the lack of encouragement and guidance early on, a book published by Maryanne Wolf last year, called “Reader, Come Home”, touches on a very important topic when it comes to literacy (Wolf & Stoodley 2018). She touches on the way our brains are reacting to the implementation of technology (Wolf & Stoodley 2018).
Wolf is a neuroscientist who has thoroughly researched the impact reading has on the brain (Wolf & Stoodley 2018). Her queries account for the effects of digital stimulation and prolonged exposure to technology on the brain (Wolf & Stoodley 2018).
She poses the hypothesis that prolonged exposure to digital stimulation, especially in the case of children has long term consequences which lie in a person’s ability to read comprehensively and attentively (Wolf & Stoodley 2018).
In short, she fears that technological stimulation will destroy the brain’s ability to focus and develop the cognitive skills required for critical thinking and reading (Wolf & Stoodley 2018).
Yet, I believe that there is a far more sinister reason behind the lack of literacy. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge has become an ideal of the past, long forgotten in favour of simplicity, ease and ignorance.
The paradigms of the renaissance and the enigmatic thinkers of the modern age are ridiculed and ignored by the populace as many have come to believe the pursuit of knowledge to be insignificant and petty.
Such is the ideologies of the Anti-intellectual movement; anti-intellectualism is most commonly described as an irrational distrust or dismissal of intellect, intellectuals and intellectualism as a whole.
Common sentiments often expressed by followers of this movement include an abhorrent distaste for education, a depreciative mindset towards critical thinking and a general distrust towards factual evidence.
Anti-intellectuals condemn philosophy, and have a blatant disregard for the arts, literature, sciences and humanities and believe these areas of study to be impractical and odious pursuits that serve no higher purpose.
While in theory, this can reasonably be interpreted as a ludicrous idea, it is quite shocking to realize that such beliefs have already invaded the practical world.
Anti-intellectualism is by far most noticeable in the United States of America, and is often employed by politicians to manipulate their audience. It inhibits critical thinking and analysis, encourages narrow mindedness, blatantly ignores facts and theories that have evidentiary support and tricks the public into thinking they know more than they actually do.
Anti-intellectualism is dangerous as it causes people to believe in false facts, essentially condemning a culture of academia and literacy to becoming obsolete.
In the last decade alone the American literacy rates have dropped by 10% and shockingly, a minimum of 30 million people in the united states are unable to read, write and perform basic mathematical skills past the third-grade level (The Room 241 Team 2018).
Additionally, children of parents with lower literacy levels are 72% more likely to demonstrate troubling behaviour, attain poor grades and drop out of school (The Room 241 Team 2018).
Not to mention that 75% of the inmate population continues to exhibit significantly lower literacy rates (The Room 241 Team 2018). During a study conducted in 2012 all the way until 2014, known as the PIAAC Literacy Scale, a program used to measure and compare population competency around the globe, America ranked as one of the lowest countries in terms of literacy, numerical and problem-solving skills (National Center for Educational Statistics 2014).
However, while the future of western society may seem grim, there are always strategies that can be implemented to remedy the situation. For starters, children require direction and instruction from people they consider to be authoritative in order to develop healthy and lasting habits.
If a parent were to establish that reading is important and necessary early on, the child will be twice as likely to pursue the hobby on their own. Additionally, children learn by example, if they see their parents reading and enjoying books, they are further encouraged to pick up on the habit.
Influence and positive reinforcement in the home is vital. The same applies to educational environments, in elementary schools, children should be allowed to pick what they read and reading itself shouldn’t be treated as a chore, but rather an activity that the children are rewarded for.
In the case of secondary schools, students should be allowed the freedom to choose what they read, so long as it is at the required reading level and appropriate. The classics are an important part of the curriculum, but they are to be a secondary part of the course rather than required reading.
More reading programs for all ages need to be established to give people a sense of community and advertising books just like you would advertise a trailer for a movie is great way to spread awareness for a new release.
Lastly, no one should be shamed for preferring a certain genre of literature but one should always be encouraged to read widely and with variety.
To conclude, the importance of literacy is embedded in our history and our culture, as the written word has existed in some pretext for centuries.
Books have always been one of our primary sources of knowledge and understanding but they also provide numerous other benefits such as memory retention, promotion of brain health, stress relief and development of critical skills that many people are not aware of.
As such, they often get written off as objects of boredom and insignificance which has led to a substantial decrease in literacy rates, particularly in America.
The main cause for this epidemic is the lack of encouragement to read in young children and adolescents, as well as the consequences of early and prolonged exposure to digital stimulation which Wolf writes about in her book, “Reader, Come Home”.
Yet, perhaps one of the most jarring causes is the rise of a movement known as Anti-intellectualism, which aims to make the pursuit of academia and literacy practically inconsequential.
However, with a number of solutions and strategies being proposed to counteract this effect, there is yet hope that society will return to its roots of whimsy and intellect once more, by rediscovering the trait that has brought us as far we have come; our ineffable curiosity.
“A Brief History of Literacy.” UTA Online, 9 Sept. 2015, https://academicpartnerships.uta.edu/articles/education/brief-history-of-literacy.aspx.
Bavishi, Avni et al. “A chapter a day: Association of book reading with longevity.” Social science & medicine (1982) vol. 164 (2016): 44-48. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2016.07.014
Burton, James. “List of Countries By Literacy Rate.” WorldAtlas, 22 Dec. 2015, https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/the-highest-literacy-rates-in-the-world.html.
Duff, Dawna et al. “The Influence of Reading on Vocabulary Growth: A Case for a Matthew Effect.” Journal of speech, language, and hearing research : JSLHR vol. 58,3 (2015): 853-64. doi:10.1044/2015_JSLHR-L-13-0310
Seidenberg, Mark S. “The Science of Reading and Its Educational Implications.” Language learning and development : the official journal of the Society for Language Development vol. 9,4 (2013): 331-360. doi:10.1080/15475441.2013.812017
Houston, Suzanne M et al. “Reading skill and structural brain development.” Neuroreport vol. 25,5 (2014): 347-52. doi:10.1097/WNR.0000000000000121
“Literacy Education .” Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History . . Encyclopedia.com. 7 Oct. 2019 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.
National Center for Educational Statistics. “Program for the International Assessment for Adult Competencies (PIAAC) – What Does the Cognitive Assessment of PIAAC Measure?” Https://Nces.ed.gov/Surveys/Piaac/Results/Summary.aspx, National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Home Page, a Part of the U.S. Department of Education, 2014, https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/piaac/results/summary.aspx.
Niose, David. “Anti-Intellectualism Is Killing America.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 23 June 2015, https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/our-humanity-naturally/201506/anti-intellectualism-is-killing-america.
Popova, Maria. “A History of Reading.” Brain Pickings, Brain Pickings, 18 Sept. 2015, https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/10/26/a-history-of-reading/.
Roser, Max, and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina. “Literacy.” Our World in Data, 13 Aug. 2016, https://ourworldindata.org/literacy.
Twardowski, Kristen. “Does Reading Make You Smarter?” Bookriot.com, BOOK RIOT, 5 Apr. 2018, https://bookriot.com/2018/02/27/does-reading-make-you-smarter/.
Tamir, Diana I et al. “Reading fiction and reading minds: the role of simulation in the default network.” Social cognitive and affective neuroscience vol. 11,2 (2016): 215-24. doi:10.1093/scan/nsv114
The Room 241 Team . “Illiteracy in America: Troubling Statistics and How Schools Can Help.” Https://Nces.ed.gov/Surveys/Piaac/Results/Summary.aspx, Concordia University of Portland, 5 Mar. 2018, https://education.cu-portland.edu/blog/education-news-roundup/illiteracy-in-america/.
Thakur, Kripa et al. “Improving early childhood literacy and school readiness through Reach Out and Read (ROR) program.” BMJ quality improvement reports vol. 5,1 u209772.w4137. 5 May. 2016, doi:10.1136/bmjquality.u209772.w4137
Wolf, Maryanne, and C. J. Stoodley. Reader, Come Home: the Reading Brain in a Digital World. Harper, 2018.
I originally wrote this essay for my 12 U English class. However, after reading through and refining it a bit, I decided that its contents were rather fitting with the theme of this website; with the encouragement of some of my peers, I decided to publish it on this blog.
Now to clarify, this essay is not intended to call people stupid or unsophisticated. The purpose of this paper is to highlight the necessity of literacy in modern society.
The sentiments of the Anti-intellectual movement captured my interest, and once I had become aware of it, it was easier to understand why bigotry still persisted in our world today; despite many people claiming that we have become a progressive society.
This essay only scratches the surface of the issue and is mostly limited to detailing the importance of knowledge and education in all its forms.
Anti-intellectualism exists in all spheres of life, even in academic communities and circles. I am positive that once you read into the topic in a bit more depth, you will be able to recall instances in your life where the aspects of anti-intellectualism were clearly evident.
That is to say, this essay is not meant to shame anyone for their lack of literacy; its intention is point out the importance of education to those who may take it for granted, and to encourage people to pursue it if they have the means.
I am no scholar in this subject area however, and I myself have much reading to do into this matter. These are my views on the topic as of now; I thought it would be appropriate to share them.
Creative criticisms are welcome; please feel free to comment and discuss any points that you found interesting or to shed light on any errors that may have my escaped attention.
The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby
Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter
The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff
The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr
The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters by Tom Nichols
Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf
Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World by Maryanne Wolf
1984 by George Orwell
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Despite the fact that these novels were written seventy years ago; they do a wonderful job of illustrating the extremes of anti-intellectualism because both of them were written to warn the public of the dangers of such ideals.
While I had been reading them, I couldn’t help but draw similarities between the societies described in the books and those of our world today.
I think both of these novels serve as excellent exemplars of the sentiments of anti-intellectuals in practice and as such, they are worth giving a read through.
Yet, both of them are wonderful books to read as is, so they are worth it either way.
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