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Duane Hoffmann / MSNBC
By Michael Rogers Columnist
Special to MSNBC
updated 9/21/2006 9:52:21 PM ET 2006-09-22T01:52:21

“Literacy experts and educators say they are stunned by the results of a recent adult literacy assessment, which shows that the reading proficiency of college graduates has declined in the past decade, with no obvious explanation.

“’It's appalling -- it's really astounding,’ said Michael Gorman, president of the American Library Association and a librarian at California State University at Fresno. ‘Only 31 percent of college graduates can read a complex book and extrapolate from it. That's not saying much for the remainder.’”

--The Washington Post, December 25, 2005

If the ominous trend noted in the above quote continues, what might be the state of reading in another twenty years?  Worse yet, what if it becomes an accepted fact of life that comprehensive reading skills are on the way out?  Perhaps, in that not-too-distant future, we might wake up one morning to read an editorial like this:

December 25, 2025 — Educational doomsayers are again up in arms at a new adult literacy study showing that less than 5 percent of college graduates can read a complex book and extrapolate from it. 

The obsessive measurement of long-form literacy is once more being used to flail an education trend that is in fact going in just the right direction. Today’s young people are not able to read and understand long stretches of text simply because in most cases they won’t ever need to do so. 

It’s time to acknowledge that in a truly multimedia environment of 2025, most Americans don’t need to understand more than a hundred or so words at a time, and certainly will never read anything approaching the length of an old-fashioned book. We need a frank reassessment of where long-form literacy itself lies in the spectrum of skills that a modern nation requires of its workers.  

We’re not talking about complete illiteracy, which is most certainly not a good thing. Young people today, however, have plenty of literacy for everyday activities such as reading signs and package labels, and writing brief e-mails and text messages that don’t require accurate spelling or grammar.

Text labels also remain a useful way to navigate Web sites, although increasingly site design has evolved toward icons and audio prompts.  Managers, in turn, have learned to use audio or video messaging as much as possible with workers, and to make sure that no text message ever contains more than one idea.

In 2025, when a worker actually needs to work with text, easy-to-use dictation, autoparsing and text-to-speech software allows him or her to create, edit and listen to documents without relying on extensive written skills. And any media analyst on Wall Street will confirm that the vast majority of Americans now consume virtually all of their entertainment and information through multimedia channels in which text is either optional or unnecessary. 

In both the 19th and 20th centuries, the ability to read long texts was seen as an unquestioned social good. And back then, the prescription made sense: media technology was limited and in order to take part in both society and workplace, the ability to read books and long articles seemed essential. In 2025, higher-level literacy is probably necessary for only 10 percent of the American population.

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It’s worth keeping in mind that reading itself is an inherently artificial human activity, an invention that in evolutionary terms has existed only for a blink of an eye. School districts have wasted billions of dollars in recent decades to correct “reading disabilities” when in fact there is no such thing as “reading ability” to start with. Reading is an artificial construct that is of high value for a very limited set human activities — but by no means all activities.

There is no question that reading is a desirable and often enjoyable skill to possess. In 2025, tens of millions of Americans continue to enjoy books and magazines as recreational pursuits, and this happy habit will undoubtedly remain part of the landscape for generations to come. But just as every citizen is not forcibly trained to enjoy classical music, neither should they be coerced into believing that reading is necessarily pleasurable. For the majority of students, reading and writing are difficult enterprises with limited payoffs in the modern world.

Some positions in society do require significant literacy skills: senior managers, screenwriters, scientists and others need a highly efficient way to absorb and communicate abstract thought. A broad written vocabulary and strong compositional skills are also powerful ways to organize and plan large enterprises, whether that means launching a new product, making a movie or creating legislation. But for the vast number of the workers who actually carry out those plans, the same skills are far less crucial. The nation’s leaders must be able to read; for those who follow, the ability should be strictly optional.

We have made at least two generations of American children miserable trying to teach them a skill that only a small percentage of them really need. And we have wasted billions of dollars that might well have gone for more practical education and training. 

In 2025 it’s time to put reading into perspective for the remainder of the 21st century: it is a luxury, not a necessity!

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive.  Reprints

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