In today’s information age, we are constantly bombarded with media, on an unprecedented scale. Despite innovations to the machinery which supplies us with this onslaught of information – first television, then computers, now smartphones – the skills we use to process this information remain largely the same; reading and listening. Yet even with these capabilities being apparently fundamental to functioning in our current social, political, digital and work environments, one of these skills appears to be falling behind. Reading comprehension is faltering, and with this could come serious consequences.
In my home country of Canada, a study conducted by Statistics Canada in 2013 showed that one in six Canadians could not pass the most basic set of literacy tests, deeming them functionally illiterate. To illustrate the severity of this issue, this means that one in six people are “unable to complete ordinary tasks, such as filling out a job application, reading a news article or sending an email.” Furthermore, about half the adult population could no longer complete high school level assessments successfully. These are shocking statistics. So, what are the underlying causes of the widespread withering of such an important skill? How is this impacting people both directly and indirectly, and what can be done about it?
Natural resource extraction has been the backbone of the Canadian economy since before it was even constitutionalized. Industries such as gas and oil production, mining and lumber harvesting have provided countless workers with well-paying jobs and have (literally and figuratively) fueled Canada’s growth for decades. It would be disrespectful to dismiss these jobs as not necessitating a certain level of skill, but unfortunately reading comprehension is not one which is frequently put to use within these industries. Consequently, many Canadians are not sufficiently exercising the crucial level of reading to maintain proficiency.
Reading and writing are very different from learning to ride a bicycle. Instead, they are more akin to being a professional bicyclist. Not only do you need to put in the effort to learn initially, but to perform well requires continual practice to maintain the appropriate condition. If you stop practicing, not only will you fall out of shape and be unable to perform to the required standards, but eventually you will forget how to ride completely. This is the unfortunate fate of many, even if they possessed these skills in the past, which many do following graduation from high school. Left untouched, these skills steadily yet unknowingly weaken, until the moment comes when they are needed again, yet they are no longer strong enough to help you.
Simultaneously, fewer people are spending their free time reading for pleasure. The National Endowment for the Arts found that “less than half of the adult American population now reads literature,” and the percentage of people who read literature has been trending downwards since the 80’s. It is not hard to see why, with digital entertainment and media consumption being so accessible and frankly addictive. There has been a lot of recent discussion on the impact this is having on attention spans and I certainly see a connection with the decrease in literature consumption. Reading is a far more thought-intensive and slow-paced activity than, say, watching television or scrolling social media. There’s no dopamine hit with every sentence as we get with every eye-catching and audibly stimulating TikTok we watch. The gratification for reading is delayed, requiring us to engage with the content for possibly hours, if not days, before reaching a full payoff – both a blessing and a curse. This is part of what makes reading such a healthy activity for brain development and critical thinking and comprehension skills, yet in our ultra-fast-paced world with instant gratification literally at our fingertips, it takes a conscious effort for us to choose to spend our limited free time reading rather than the myriad of other seemingly more pleasurable activities.
Now that we have an understanding of why fewer people are exercising their reading comprehension skills in their work and personal lives, we can begin to examine what some of the consequences of this phenomenon may turn out to be. Canada, among other countries, is slowly shifting away from its reliance on the natural resource extraction industries due to their inherent negative environmental impact. This means that many of the people who have worked in these industries for years, the same ones that have limited reading and writing skills because of them, are losing their jobs. Similarly, other professions which require limited reading and writing skills, such as factory assembly line workers and transportation are being threatened with machine automation. This could severely impact the economy as these workers now find they lack the necessary reading and writing levels to function in the remaining sectors, forcing them into early retirement, unemployment or competing over the remaining handful of mostly low-paying jobs which do not require reading and writing proficiency. As the digital world continues to infiltrate our workplaces and practices, people who struggle with reading and writing will be further relegated to even fewer job opportunities. Add to that the social stigma that comes with illiteracy, potentially making employers hesitant to hire, and you have a possible recipe for a large part of the workforce being deemed unfit for more productive and advanced jobs. This will inevitably contribute to further class division and wealth inequality, hurting both the individuals and the larger economic system.
Beyond the economic difficulties this phenomenon brings with it, I believe we are already witnessing its effects socially and politically. False information presented as fact, absurd conspiracy theories and anti-academic, anti-science rhetoric are already frighteningly prevalent
and likely perpetuated by an overall deficit in reading comprehension. Our current discourse surrounds how a lack of digital media literacy has led people to be more easily persuaded of radical and baseless claims, leading them down a rabbithole or confining them in echo chambers. Yet how can we expect the population to be media literate if we are struggling to be just literate in the first place? How can individuals form their own adequately researched and critically thought through opinions on social and political issues, if they generally lack the skills to digest the research and information surrounding these issues? Can we really be surprised when people cite Facebook videos, television shows, podcasts and, dare I say it, the teachings of the church as their sources of facts and evidence that they have built their beliefs upon? These are the more accessible mediums to a population struggling with reading comprehension, much easier to follow and understand than lengthy journalistic articles, let alone any jargon dense academic papers.
The irony of writing an article on illiteracy is not lost on me. I am not claiming that all the issues of our current tumultuous political climate would be solved if people would simply pick up a book more often, nor do I believe that reading is the ultimate form of communication that must be held above all others. Yet thousands of years of knowledge have been captured in words on paper, reading and writing continue to be a crucial part of many facets of our lives. Political and economic division between those who can read and those who cannot at best creates inequality and the inability for compromise and constructive communication, and at worst leads to social turmoil and the degradation of democracy.
I believe we need to address the ensuing issue of illiteracy on both a micro and macro scale. Programs such as PALS, which helps adults who struggle with writing and reading comprehension resharpen their skills, should be further funded and made accessible so that those who aspire for jobs which require those skills have the resources to achieve them. A cultural shift away from viewing those who are illiterate as less intelligent, to viewing them empathetically as people who simply possess a different skill set will also be important. Finally, I see a cultural reinvigoration of love for reading and writing as only resulting in the betterment of all. To quote the great Dr. Seuss, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”
– Dylan Jozkow