Jim O'Leary

Waverly Star

By Jim O'Leary

An e-mail newsletter for and about Waverly people, used with permission in the HLW Herald and on this web site.

  May 31, 2004

A glimpse into the world of America's literacy

Not long ago, when I was in a small group discussion on the War in Iraq, a young man said, "I hope you don't get upset with me, Mr. O'Leary, but, well, I consider myself a good Catholic and everything. I go to Mass every Sunday, but I don't really care what the Pope said about the war. I mean, he's not even an American!"

This outrageous statement is fairly typical of our young these days, and it did upset me. For one thing, it comes from too much "We're number one!"

We used to be number one in generosity. Now, we are number one in entertainment, wealth and military power.

We used to be number one in literacy, but now what are we reading? Yes, the literacy rates of the U.S. are impressive when compared to other countries, but other countries read more and better newspapers than we do.

Ask the average high school student what he reads in the daily paper, if he looks at it at all. Most often, it's the horoscope or the comics page. Ask the same lad who his favorite author is (if he reads books) and he will tell you Stephen King. (His father most likely reads Tom Clancy.)

In the ranking of U.S. cities according to measurements of literacy, Minneapolis ranks number one. My own city, Corpus Christi, Texas, ranks number 62.

This University of Wisconsin study ranked 65 cities with a population of 250,000 or more. The literacy profile included citizens' educational level, newspaper circulation rates, library resources, the number of periodicals published in the city and the number of booksellers.

Not so fast here, though.

Another study, by Dan Poynter, gathered some statistics which give a fascinating glimpse into the world of America's literacy. Look at this:

One-third of high school graduates never read a book for the rest of their lives.

Fifty-eight percent of the U.S. adult population never reads a book after high school.

Forty-two percent of college graduates never read another book.

Eighty percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.

Seventy percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.

Fifty-seven percent of new books are not read to completion. Most readers do not get past page 18 in a book they have purchased.

Of the people who do read books, 53 percent read fiction, 43 percent nonfiction. The favorite fiction category is mystery and suspense, 19 percent. Nobody ever learns anything reading fiction and suspense - or romance.

Of the top 50 books, fiction outsells nonfiction about 60 percent to 40 percent.

Each day, people in the U.S. spend four hours watching TV, three hours listening to the radio, and 14 minutes reading magazines.

You don't have to look at the popular tabloids at the check out counter in the grocery stores to mourn America's reading habits. All you have to do is look at the New York Times' Best Seller lists.

No, I'm not talking about the Pulitzer Prize lists or the Nobel Prizes or the Booker Prizes; I'm talking about what Americans are actually reading. The fiction is shallow. The non-fiction is instant history, which is no more satisfying than instant coffee.

It isn't only the reading; it's the listening. Apart from national public radio, the talk shows and the news programs are shallow and lead one to despair. The producers of these shows are wise enough to know what people want to hear and what their paying sponsors want to hear. They want to hear outrageous attacks on liberals. And television? Forgeddabout it.

I blame all this for the reason there has been a conservative hijacking of America as I knew it and loved it for all the good things about America.

Back in 1964, Lyndon Johnson had overwhelmed the conservative candidate, Barry Goldwater. Fast forward to today. A Republican Party that is more conservative than Mr. Goldwater could have imagined controls the White House, Congress, many governors' mansions, and a majority of seats in state legislatures.

Back then, the nation was liberal, and so was Minnesota, of course. Today, a Gallup Poll tells us twice as many Americans (41 percent) describe themselves as "conservative" than as "liberal" (19 percent).

The younger generation is more conservative than its parents, even though the conventional wisdom is that the younger generation is always more liberal.

Bush had a 9 percent higher approval rating among people under 30 than he did among older respondents. College students (who, of course, are not fighting in Iraq) overwhelmingly supported the invasion of Iraq, and politicians took notice.

"There is no such thing as spontaneous public opinion," Beatrice Webb, the great British intellectual once said. "It all has to be manufactured."

American public opinion has been manufactured, with millions of dollars spent to do the job. And my beloved country has been dumbed down like never before.

One time, I asked my editor, Lynda Jensen, about a column I wrote which might be controversial. I asked her if she would publish it. She said, "Sure. It might generate some letters to the editor."

I hope this one does just that.

For previous issues of the Waverly Star, see the web site at www.herald-journal.com/waverlystar.

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