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Why Most Americans don’t Read (Part 3) March 16, 2002

By Dr Bruce W Stewart, Charlotte-based educator and international information-management consultant. (Use a stopwatch or your wrist-watch to note how much time it takes you to read this article.)

“Counting sheep is a great way to go to sleep.  Reading slowly comes a close second,” says Dr Stewart.  “But try counting sheep alternately by two’s and three’s and see how long sleep eludes you.  Or try the Fibonacci Sequence mentally and see how it focuses your attention.”  The point here is that slow and careful can often be boring, and if your mind gets bored, it will start thinking about something else.  And this is exactly what happens with reading, especially reading that is too slow, too careful and without purpose.  Concentration is the ability to focus on one thought or idea, to the exclusion of all other thoughts and ideas, and concentration spans and strengths vary from individual to individual.  One fact is however quite certain – if you don’t stimulate your mind, if you don’t give it reason to concentrate on one thought, it will move on to more interesting opportunities.

Asking a NASCAR driver in a 400hp race-car to drive slowly and carefully is a recipe for disaster.  If the driver doesn’t fall asleep first, the car will most certainly choke itself to death.  It’s the same with the human mind – it needs to be active.  100 years ago, life was slower and more sedate than life today.  Now we have a deluge of stimuli – radio, television, the internet, computer games – that are so much faster than the printed word. A 300-page book that takes us days and weeks to read is condensed into a 90-minute movie.  Reading one word at a time, 240 words a minute, simply cannot compete with the electronic barrage of information.  And if concentration is sporadic while reading leisure material at 240 words a minute, it becomes disastrous when we slow down even further to read study material (generally at one third of our leisure reading rate …. because Teacher said it’s important so read it slowly and carefully.) The solution is to read faster. Speed breeds concentration, which is the key to comprehension.  And the more we know, the more we realize how little we know and the more we want to know.  And Want creates Purpose.

The economist John Stuart Mill commented that he could read as fast as he could turn the pages, while writer H. L. Mencken quipped that page-turning was the slowest and most boring part of the entire reading process.  History is sprinkled with similar accomplishments, more recently with stories of Presidents Roosevelt and Kennedy who are reputed to have devoured a book a day while occupying the White House.

Some people will have accidents the first time they drive faster than usual, others will make a career of high-speed driving.  The harsh reality is that we read slowly and inefficiently because we are taught to read this way. We are taught that the slower we read, the more we will comprehend.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  In reality, the slower we read, the faster our minds go to sleep.  And the faster we read, the more we will concentrate and the more we will comprehend.

Similarly, we are taught that comprehension is king.  This is an over-simplification and teachers conveniently exclude the most critical element of comprehension – that while comprehension is important, comprehension is adequate when the reader finds an answer to his purpose in reading.  Thus, if my purpose is to decide whether some material is to be read or discarded, my comprehension is good if I get enough to make that decision – keep it or can it.  Similarly, if I don’t know whether some material is relevant to my needs, I should cover the material quickly and superficially in order to establish relevance and purpose.  Yet how many teachers actually teach our wards to skim and scan, to preview the material first?

This then leads us to three major stumbling blocks to reading development – attitude, purpose and approach.

When talking to a friend’s son, a teenager who appeared to have little direction in life and even less desire to read anything, the question as to whether he was concerned or not about having knowledge pass him by, received a rather interesting and somewhat enlightening (albeit challenging) response – “if I don’t know something, I don’t have to worry about it; if I know what I know, that’s all I have to deal with; why should I care to know about something which does not concern or affect me;  my only responsibility is to attend school, although I don’t know why I need a high school diploma”.

Thinking about his views, my first reaction was irritation – a somewhat typical adult reaction.  But then, thinking about his attitude, is this not exactly what our educational system is all about? Churning out high school graduates who are neither qualified for a career nor for life. Giving people the tools but not the objective. Stressing the importance of good grades but without making sure they want to ‘buy’ into the dream that these tools will unlock. We’re trying to ‘sell’ the product instead of making sure that people really want to ‘buy’ the benefits, and often remaining vague about exactly what benefits are important to our children.

And this should be the primary responsibility that we, as parents and educators, have for the children of today.  The realities of living are inescapable – effort brings reward and the more effort you invest, the greater will be the rewards you can enjoy.  Our responsibility is to help our children to define their life-goals, to visualize these goals, to develop a taste for the fruits of achievement, to develop a passion and hunger for success and achievement, AND THEN TO SHOW THEM HOW THE TOOLS OF EDUCATION, KNOWLEDGE AND WISDOM ARE APPLIED TO THE SATISFYING OF THAT HUNGER, THE GRATIFICATION OF THAT PASSION AND THE ACQUISITION OF THE REWARDS.

The purpose of education is not to issue diploma’s and degrees.  But rather to prepare our children firstly for life and then for a career. To teach them to think.  To look at life and the opportunities that life has to offer.  To consider, evaluate, make choices – the power of observation and reasoning. And then to provide them basic and essential life-skills.

Whether we like it or not, the time of coercion is passed. Coercion only works if you are willing to take coercion to the ultimate degree.  A conscripted military is no match for a volunteer army.  And using the Big Tests as a weapon of threat simply does not work. Children today are a lot smarter than those of yesteryear and they live far more complicated lives.  They witness daily the results of our mistakes and many of them develop a fear of not being able to cope – an emotional shut-down – ‘I can’t handle this, so I won’t think about it,’ and before we know it, our children stop looking outward and start becoming overly introspective, concerned only with definable realities – the next test, the next EOG, the next hurdle.

Children today are incredibly gregarious and inquisitive, if it suits them.  They love vacation-time (when they can do their own thing), they love travel (seeing something new) and they love interaction with their own kind.  Are books anything less than an opportunity to take your mind to places you can’t afford to visit, to meet people you’ll never physically meet, to learn about things that are not part of the school curriculum, to hear views and opinions other than those of your own neighborhood, to experience the unusual, to experience life, vicariously, through the eyes of another?  Does every invention not begin with a dream and are today’s dreams not tomorrow’s reality?

Have we not lost the passion for mental exploration?  Have we forgotten that the human mind is the great explorer, the great traveler and the greatest movie-maker of all time?   Have we consigned books to the role of poor cousin against radio, television and the internet, a chore that has to be done when we have no other choice, an unpleasant duty which mom and dad bring home at night because there was insufficient time at the office?

If we do little else for our children, let us help them to dream of greatness and to pursue  books and learning and education with the same passion and enthusiasm as they do the first day of a vacation.    [1400 words]

(To calculate your reading speed in words per minute, divide 1400 by the number of minutes it took you to read this article.  An average reader will take 4 to 8 minutes for the article.  To keep abreast of new information, you should be able to read this article in 2 minutes or less.