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.

June 7, 2004

Second thoughts concerning America's literacy

Some intelligent and thoughtful readers took exception to my assertion in last week's column that we had become a nation of sheep. They didn't buy my argument that lots of reading was a waste of time. I failed to convince them that the depressing turn to the right in this nation can be traced to the dumbing down of America.

Surprising to me, no conservatives scolded me for the column, at least this week. Conservatives seem awfully thin skinned. They don't like to be called stupid.

Jean W. Williams of Washington, D.C. is a published freelance journalist and former college professor. She said:

"Discovering what you believe, whether it comes to you through Harry Potter or Sartre, ought to be the goal of education. I think it's better for children, today, to read Harry Potter than to play video games. Reading more widely is likely to encourage the process of self discovery so that we can discover what we believe.

"When I taught ‘Intro to Business,' I had my students read Machiavelli's ‘The Prince.' I simply instructed them that every time they read the word ‘prince' they should substitute ‘manager' or ‘executive.' I think veering off the business path straight over to the humanities is a broadening experience.

"Many couldn't write a simple declarative sentence but, by golly, they understood what Machiavelli was getting at. I say that, intellectually speaking, one should be more eclectic, more of a gourmand than a gourmet. Consume everything and anything - including fiction, suspense and romance. It's all part of the art of discovering what you believe."

Her comments really make sense, don't they? I think, for many people my age, Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" was our first awakening to the evil injustice of racism, and we discovered we didn't want to believe in such a thing. We found out, as Jean Williams says, not only what we believed, but what we didn't believe.

Who can forget Huck's raft trip down the Mississippi with the only noble character in the whole story, an escaping slave named "Nigger Jim?"

Dr. David Goff, of San Antonio, was kind enough to do some research on my statistics and tell me about it. I'm going to have coffee with him this week and get the kind of education I needed before I said, "58 percent of high school graduates never read a book after graduation."

He went to the trouble of looking up Poynter, the person from whom I got that statistic, and found there was no identifiable research behind it. He said, "Come on now, 58 percent never read a book after high school? I'd like to see the math behind that one. That's not a statistic; that's an assertion."

Another person wanted to know if I thought we were better off 100 years ago when only 6 percent of Americans ever finished high school.

Dr. Goff also defended fiction against my saying most of it was a waste of time:

"You unjustly maligned an important part of our culture. You wrote ‘nobody ever learns anything reading fiction or suspense stories.' I beg to differ. I contend that the novels "1984" and "Animal Farm" were fair warnings about a society gone totalitarian. Isaac Asimov's "I Robot" series is certainly an interesting look at what it means to be human.

"Science fiction often pushes us to think beyond ourselves or to look at society from a different viewpoint. Mystery and suspense both have much to recommend them. Who can forget the introduction to deductive logic that is Sherlock Holmes? And popular authors such as Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton use real history and science to set up their stories."

Dr. Goff is a man with scientific training and he blew away all of my statistics. He recommended I read a book called "Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics," by Michael Wheeler.

I would say I got my eye wiped rather badly.

Alan Gallagher, a personal attorney friend, wrote from Oregon ,where he now lives:

"I tend to think people read more today, rather than less, although perhaps not as wisely as they might. I don't think George Bush has destroyed western culture and caused people not to read. It may be that he has given rise to a cottage industry of anti-Bush books. Invading a country does wonders for causing people to learn more about those countries.

"When I teach, lecture or just pontificate, I always argue for basic books, the Bible, of course, Shakespeare, The Oxford Book of English Verse, books which everyone should have and read.

"Of course, if you cannot read, you cannot think. Non-literate people can think, but with difficulty. And literate people are often idiots.

"I visit many homes and I am always appalled by the lack of books, even among people ‘of the Book.'

"Clear thought requires a slant, your own slant, so that you have a platform from which to judge, and the only way to acquire that is through wide reading - and thought. So read Julius Caesar, but don't forget that he assassinated innocent men, women and children by the tens of thousands."

Thought for the week:

"For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And, of course, that's Moses, not Jesus. I haven't heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere."

- Kurt Vonnegut

Now there's a concept: "Blessed are the Peacemakers" on the Pentagon Wall. Or "I was hungry and you fed me" at the White House.

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