Literacy, Reading and the Future of American Democracy
The paper examines issues literacy in America not from the usual perspective of the social functionalities and goods that flow from a literate public, but from within the question of what illiteracy and minimal literacy mean for the condition of a would be democratic culture. The paper asks the question of whether there is within American culture a deepening illiteracy, particularly given certain characteristics of popular mass culture. Theoretically, the paper draws upon the work of a number of authors who have argued that facility with written language nurtures cognitive competence at the individual and societal levels. The paper argues that logically the inverse must be true: that an absent facility with written language will nurture cognitive incompetence. The paper is centrally concerned to look at the meaning of this for the ability of the public-as-citizen to employ the kinds of logical, analytical, abstract, critical and rational thought without which "democracy" is literally inconceivable, more a rhetorical flourish open to manipulation as opposed to a real, lived human experience. Methodologically, the paper draws on a wide range of historical and contemporary data on literacy, and reading, in the United States. It points out, for example, that data from the National Adult Literacy Survey show that 45% of American adults read below Level 2 on literacy and reading measures. Nearly 24% read at Level 1. These data appear to reveal that nearly half the American public are illiterate or minimally literate. Other data from the National Endowment for the Arts suggest a serious decline in all kinds of reading.
Keywords: Literacy, Reading, Media Studies, Democracy
Prof. Michael Tracey
Professor, School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Colorado, Boulder
Professor, Dept. of English, Osaka Jogakuin College