Reading as a Central Issue

August 14, 2018

Reading is a moral necessity and an overall decline in reading in American society shows a moral failing in our education structures.

New Yorker culture writer Caleb Crain has just published a new report (June 14, 2018) that shows an overall decline in the time spent reading by the whole American adult population. The report draws on a U.S. Department of Labor study of how Americans use their time. Not only are students spending less time in traditional reading, but they are also not adept as critical readers. The Stanford History Education Group report on middle, high school, and college students’ inability to judge credible sources is particularly “appalling.” Given the work we’ve done in What Is College Reading?, it is not for want of effort at the college level to help improve students’ reading efficacy. But we have a serious national problem with reading that is not getting the attention it deserves.

The reading problem is a moral issue, a moral failing of the education system that we do not work, in every possible way, to teach students to read critically in every class, every day, and in every venue, screen, print, or otherwise, and to read alphabetic texts, visual displays, Tweets, and every other sort of form or format. In presentations I have done around the country, I usually make the point that reading can best be thought of as a team sport; my intention with this claim is to suggest that everyone leading a classroom, regardless of discipline, is responsible for helping students move toward reading expertise.

The problem and need for a team effort extends beyond K–12 schools and post-secondary institutions, though, as Carr’s latest report points out. It’s not just schools; it’s the whole society. Because of this larger problem, it is instructive to look back to a period of high intellectual activity and achievement, like the Modern period (1880–1930). Important advances in nearly every field in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences occurred in this period; these advances occurred in the backdrop of a reading society, where people were committed to an array of efforts toward self-improvement above and beyond education per se. There were many, many self-motivated, focused reading programs in public libraries and Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circles; specific changes to the high school curricula to improve students’ reading and extend the array of materials they read; adult education for immigrants, as well as native-born literacy novices, and so on.

While one could argue that everyone is reading more now because of our collective addiction to our screens, I believe that the reading ability that is really needed now, and that was cultivated to a high degree in the Modern period, is the critical reading of extended nonfiction prose. Faculty in all educational institutions could and should be working on this ability in every class, every term, in every discipline. In two studies that will appear in the next year or so, a team I am on will show that the major professional organizations are not really paying as much attention to the reading issue as they could and should, and my own review of the key journals in English studies, along with major convention programs and related materials, will show that little attention is being paid to reading even among the organizations that are conventionally thought of as being most responsible for developing students’ reading ability.

What to do? There are some useful recent publications, including Ellen Carillo’s Securing a Place for Reading in College Composition (USUP, 2015), the aforementioned What Is College Reading? (WAC Clearinghouse, University Press of Colorado, 2018), and Patrick Sullivan, Howard Tinberg, and Sheridan Blau’s collection, Deep Reading (NCTE, 2017), all of which offer good starting points for college faculty. But what is really warranted is a shift in our overall mindset so that growing expertise in critical reading of extended texts (alphabetic, visual, traditional, and digital) is seen as urgently needed and as a broad, deep, widespread, and essential goal for everyone.

Alice S. Horning is Professor of Writing and Rhetoric at Oakland University, where she holds a joint appointment in Linguistics. Her research over her entire career has focused on the intersection of reading and writing. Her work has appeared in the major professional journals and in books published by the WAC Clearinghouse, Parlor Press, and Hampton Press. Her most recent books include Reading, Writing, and Digitizing: Understanding Literacy in the Electronic Age, published in 2012 by Cambridge Scholars Publishing; Reconnecting Reading and Writing, coedited with Beth Kraemer, published in 2013 by the WAC Clearinghouse and Parlor Press; and What Is College Reading?, coedited with Deborah-Lee Gollnitz and Cynthia R. Haller (now available in a digital edition with a print edition forthcoming from WAC Clearinghouse and University Press of Colorado, Fall 2018). Also forthcoming is a detailed discussion of literacy in the Modern period, Literacy Then and Now (Peter Lang, 2019).

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