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The Country That Stopped Reading

6 March 2013

From The New York Times:

Earlier this week, I spotted, among the job listings in the newspaper Reforma, an ad from a restaurant in Mexico City looking to hire dishwashers. The requirement: a secondary school diploma.

Years ago, school was not for everyone. Classrooms were places for discipline, study. Teachers were respected figures. Parents actually gave them permission to punish their children by slapping them or tugging their ears. But at least in those days, schools aimed to offer a more dignified life.

Nowadays more children attend school than ever before, but they learn much less. They learn almost nothing. The proportion of the Mexican population that is literate is going up, but in absolute numbers, there are more illiterate people in Mexico now than there were 12 years ago. Even if baseline literacy, the ability to read a street sign or news bulletin, is rising, the practice of reading an actual book is not. Once a reasonably well-educated country, Mexico took the penultimate spot, out of 108 countries, in a Unesco assessment of reading habits a few years ago.

One cannot help but ask the Mexican educational system, “How is it possible that I hand over a child for six hours every day, five days a week, and you give me back someone who is basically illiterate?”

. . . .

 So I shouldn’t have been surprised by the response when I spoke at a recent event for promoting reading for an audience of 300 or so 14- and 15-year-olds. “Who likes to read?” I asked. Only one hand went up in the auditorium.

. . . .

Frustrated, I told the audience to just leave the auditorium and go look for a book to read. One of their teachers walked up to me, very concerned. “We still have 40 minutes left,” he said. He asked the kids to sit down again, and began to tell them a fable about a plant that couldn’t decide if it wanted to be a flower or a head of cabbage.

“Sir,” I whispered, “that story is for kindergartners.”

. . . .

A few years back, I spoke with the education secretary of my home state, Nuevo León, about reading in schools. He looked at me, not understanding what I wanted. “In school, children are taught to read,” he said. “Yes,” I replied, “but they don’t read.” I explained the difference between knowing how to read and actually reading, between deciphering street signs and accessing the literary canon. He wondered what the point of the students’ reading “Don Quixote” was. He said we needed to teach them to read the newspaper.

When my daughter was 15, her literature teacher banished all fiction from her classroom. “We’re going to read history and biology textbooks,” she said, “because that way you’ll read and learn at the same time.” In our schools, children are being taught what is easy to teach rather than what they need to learn. It is for this reason that in Mexico — and many other countries — the humanities have been pushed aside.

Link to the rest at The New York Times and thanks to Brendan for the tip.

Books in General

31 Comments to “The Country That Stopped Reading”

  1. Isaac Asimov’s fiction was a wonderful science teacher.


  2. As much as I love fiction and think it does help, I’m not sure how much better it makes a society. (the vaunted claim of it increasing empathy does not seem all that strong). Thoughts?
    ps I’m not saying that not being able to tackle a book is fine. That lack of skill may be an issue.

    • Many of the most successful leaders are also avid readers. Here is a good article discussing it: http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/08/for_those_who_want_to_lead_rea.html

      For those who don’t want to read the whole article, here is an excerpt:

      “The leadership benefits of reading are wide-ranging. Evidence suggests reading can improve intelligence and lead to innovation and insight. Some studies have shown, for example, that reading makes you smarter through “a larger vocabulary and more world knowledge in addition to the abstract reasoning skills.” Reading — whether Wikipedia, Michael Lewis, or Aristotle — is one of the quickest ways to acquire and assimilate new information. Many business people claim that reading across fields is good for creativity. And leaders who can sample insights in other fields, such as sociology, the physical sciences, economics, or psychology, and apply them to their organizations are more likely to innovate and prosper.”

      I get frustrated with people who don’t love reading but mostly because I feel sorry for them. I have a good friend who laments her son’s lack of imagination and reading for pleasure–only neither she nor her husband are/were avid readers. In fact, in the 20+ years I’ve known her, I only recall her reading two books and one of those was mine. It took her a few months to read mine. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that her son doesn’t enjoy reading. He’s never seen anyone close to him read for pleasure.

      I almost had my sons hooked on reading when I homeschooled them in middle-school. They read whatever they wanted for at least an hour a day. I kept a good stock of books on hand from libraries and used bookstores so that if one book didn’t hold their interest, there were several dozen more on the shelf that might. Both of them read and seemed to enjoy it more during those two years than they have since. Now they are in their twenties but sadly, don’t read for pleasure. They got out of the habit before it was really ingrained.

    • Besides the fact that fiction is fun (which is valuable enough), to paraphrase Terry Pratchett, we need our stories because they tell us who we are.

      Also, on a more practical note, the best way to get kids to practice reading is to give them fun things to read – even if that’s comic books and fairy tales. Make it fun, they’ll read, it’ll get easier and some will be more likely to tackle harder material.

      • Very true, Laurie! I got a snotty reaction from a book store employee because I bought my son manga books. Two years later, he’s in the living room right now reading The Hobbit.

    • Remember the last movie you watched? I bet you can remember just about all of it. Same for any story you hear or read, after just one exposure. Compare that to how much you remember of the last textbook you browsed. Newspapers? Full of stories. Conversation? Largely stories. Tell me what you’ve studied. It’ll come out as a story. It’s natural. Things go in best as stories, too. So just use the brain’s own natural language to teach it. Want kids to have good values? Pick good stories. Good stories convey how to approach life and why. That’s why stories matter.

  3. That is sad and disturbing. The Mexicans are a very lyrical and creative people. Why have they chosen this path, I wonder?

    As a child, I hated to read. It wasn’t until I started reading science fiction and romance novels that I finally became so addicted to reading that I would read anything I could get my hands on and I have kept that passion.

  4. When reading becomes chore rather than an enjoyable activity, of course children will resent it.

    Nelson, reading, both fiction and non-fiction, exposes people to new ideas and concepts. And many times, fiction allows discussion of life/cultural events in ways may not be acceptable otherwise.

    What scares me is seeing a similar disregard for reading and learning happening here in the US. Even my conservative husband went ballistic when the Texas BOE decided to elimiate any classes/topics related to critical thinking skills because they claimed they didn’t want children questioning their parents. As he said, “How is the US supposed to compete in the world if all we produce is parrots?”

  5. I hated English class. It didn’t stop me from reading fiction, though.

  6. If kids are reading I don’t think it matters in the early stages what it is. Fiction, non-fiction, ‘trash’, classics, the back of cereal boxes, if they have that love of reading everything else will tend to flow from that.

  7. Governments love to promote lowest common denominator educational techniques and requirements. It happens in the US but the literacy rate was already higher here. Schools are punished for not meeting a baseline of standards. The quickest way to improve standards is to ignore smart, capable kids and focus on the underachievers and the ones who started school behind, for whatever reason. In my state they’re doing three hours each day of reading instruction for elementary students. Not reading time. Reading instruction. The kids who are good readers are bored out of their skulls. But the system is designed to improve functional literacy and test scores. Whether anyone ever reads after graduating is beside the point.

    • My point exactly. It’s the same here. Books cannot compete with TV. This is doubly true when the parents have a TV habit. Our children are illiterate when it comes to books. This affects their ability to communicate in life.

      And yes, reading fiction will benefit a child a great deal more than reading non-fiction. It’s a matter of vocabulary, grammar, and the understanding of human beings.

    • Well, to be fair they’ve finally realized that test scores will always suck if the kids can’t finish reading the questions before the time is up. Though why they wouldn’t group reading classes according to level is beyond me.

  8. Parents blame teachers when their kids can’t read, but what happens when the kids go home? Who reads in the house? How many of these students have parents who share books with them? I’ll bet every single house has a TV that’s on all night. A lot of the poorest families have cell phones, computers, and video games. It’s hard for books to compete with that much commercial noise and color. Somebody at home has to care.

    • Although my Dad doesn’t read for pleasure — something that still surprises me — I am quite the voracious & omnivorous reader. Sometimes it is a handicap, too.

      I’m hoping my daughter follows my example. One sign she might is that when she was 3 years old, she decided a brick-red hardback about 5″ x 7 1/2″ in size sitting on one of my bookshelves was “her book”. The title? Gaii Sallusti Crispi, Bellum Iugurthinum, with introduction, footnotes & a vocabulary in the back, a book I haven’t read.

  9. An educated, thinking, creative populace is a politician’s worst enemy. Especially a corrupt and/or despotic politician, or one who has designs as such.

    • Boom, exactly. The NYT here admits that unions have ruined the educational system in Mexico, but glorifies the Chicago Thugs who go on strike. A 7th grade teacher in that cesspool of a city makes $70k, yet 70% of her students fail to read at the appropriate level.

      Solution: hire more bad teachers and pay them even more money, how brilliant! What can go wrong?

      When parents and teachers don’t read themselves, kids aren’t going to either. The government would rather buy your vote (using my tax money) and put you on food stamps, rental assistance, unemployment and subsidized healthcare – than teach you to read and become independent thinkers.

      Wake up, sheep.

  10. This, at the end of the article:

    “But perhaps the Mexican government is not ready for its people to be truly educated. We know that books give people ambitions, expectations, a sense of dignity. If tomorrow we were to wake up as educated as the Finnish people, the streets would be filled with indignant citizens and our frightened government would be asking itself where these people got more than a dishwasher’s training”

    Yes. This is the reason. Depite being a democratic system, Mexico’s government is a oppressive, corrupt regime that does not care for its people. They do everything they can to disempower the populace.

    We forget how essential literacy and education is to an empowered and free people. There is a reason why slaves were not educated and were not allowed to read.

    • Yikes! I didn’t think of it that way, but I wouldn’t doubt there’s something to that theory.

      ETA: Talk about coincidence. My dh has an old episode of Emergency! on, and Johnny Gage is talking to some English fireman who is there as an observer. The observer acts a little snooty because Johnny hasn’t traveled much and Johnny defends that he learned a lot from reading. The observer kind of sniffs at that, and Johnny says, “You can learn a lot from reading, ya know.”

      I was an avid fan of the show when I was a kid. Is it any wonder I work in healthcare and love to read and write? I may owe it all to Johnny Gage advocating reading way back when I was seven and just beginning to be a reader. 🙂

  11. I’d be curious how many literate generations have been in Mexico? By literate I mean more than 50% of men and women able to read for pleasure as well as to sound out signs and instructions. Let’s face it, literacy is not a big advantage in an agricultural peasant society, which describes Mexico prior to 1900 (and later in some areas). Several of my fellow students in high school had to fight their parents to be allowed to stay in school once they turned 16. Their families valued a worker more than a high school graduate.

  12. Suburbanbanshee

    Culture gives your mind depth and breadth, and learning about culture throughout history and across many countries gives you an idea of what is eternal and what is not. Ideally, an educated person has both backbone and flexibility.

    My state had a lending library before it had roads, and a series of graduated reading textbooks before anybody else. Every farm child or street kid could at least come out of childhood with a good basic education. So the idea that kids shouldn’t enjoy reading and have a background in all sorts of great literature (including both fiction and nonfiction) and great ideas — is bizarre.

  13. just a .02 from a Latino… heritage, mestizo. The NYT article writer, gives no facts, but guesses about numbers, times and places. It is not so that ‘years ago schools were thus and so.” Years ago and still today more than half the population is racist against many of their own countrymen and countrywomen, especially against native people, mestizos and the poor, which are often one and the same. The writer personally finds guilty a woman who has yet to face trial. The writer speaks of the protests in Oaxaca as though they were Woodstock. They were not. They were uprisings that mainly women undertook…. uprisings that were bold and brave and came about as the ricos wanted to silence the indigenous teachers and those sympathetic to the teachers. To expect to find one of the marchers sitting around reading a book, is absurd. The writer arrogantly, forgive my own judgementalness, decided that since only one child raised their hand in answer to his too precious question, that he should abandon them, instead of kindly speaking to them with inspiriting fire. The writer interrupted a teacher telling a story that was an offering that if, in the traditions in Mexico, seemed foolish to the writer, it was likely a healing and teaching story with its roots from long ago. But the writer would never know, because instead of listening and interweaving, he interrupted another person’s heartfelt offering to the children.

    I’m amazed the nyt would run such tripe. I can take you to thousands of places in Mexico where children do not go to school, where no one cares, except for their own children going to private schools, where the water is unfit to drink, where real and wanna be cartel runners terrorize the neighborhoods running about in the back of pickups with loaded assault rifles, where there is no work for men and women who dearly want to work, there is not enough food, no medicine, no doctors, not enough of enough. And books will not cure these.

    The writer of the article is out of touch with reality. Elbert Hubbard one of the great capitalists of the world, said if there’s a choice between buying bread and books, buy books. But Hubbard was a wealthy wealthy man who never had rickets or scurvy or gave birth to malnutritioned babies.

    By all means, read books. But first, decency. Parity, justice, FOOD, clean water, jobs, not separate and unequal, and not read books because that will somehow fix everything. It wont. Anymore than MLK sitting about reading books with all the freedom riders at Selma. MLK WROTE books, and only read ONE book relentlessly: the holy bible.

    The aftermath of the huge slaughters of the Conquest still live on in Mexico which is ruled by the few families and they dominate the many. The old ‘five families’ cant even get their murderous drug cartels under control who deal in trafficking children sexually, and murdering writers, and fouling the world with drugs that rot people’s brains. The writer touts books. I say ¡Basta! which in Spanish, means enough already. Let us tend to the bones before we dress the flesh up fancy.

    Just my .02, and as you see, how I do run on. Sorry, but not sorry.

    • USAF – powerful post. This is cleary a heartfelt issue for you, and I felt it, reading your words. My heart, too, has always gone out to the people of Mexico. Living in California – I see it.

      I agree with you, of course. Buy food first. Buy clean water first. Don’t push education as a way to pretend that you are acting when you are not.

      But I will disagree alittle. What if the goverment will not buy food or clean water? What if they are withholding basic things from the populace in order to control them, and reap the rewards themselves?

      Books will not provide food. But books – or education – may help empower a populace to demand it, when a government is withholding it out of greed and lust for power.

      Throughout history, it has often been the students who start the revolutions. The written word is powerful. It tells you:

      What is does not have to be.

    • By all means, read books. But first, decency. Parity, justice, FOOD, clean water, jobs, not separate and unequal, and not read books because that will somehow fix everything. It wont.

      Where are you going to find out what decency IS, if not from books? If you live in a society like that, you’re not going to find out from your neighbours: they don’t know either. You won’t find out from the authorities: they don’t want you to know. And you certainly won’t find out from

      Anymore than MLK sitting about reading books with all the freedom riders at Selma.

      The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., got the whole framework of his ideas from a book. That book is called, in the vernacular, the Holy Bible. Without it, he would have been just another black man without any way of fighting back against repression — without even a reason to identify it as repression. With it, he was a man on a crusade, fighting for the image of God in every human being, and against those who denied that the image could be black as well as white.

      The best weapon of oppressors is the doctrine that oppression is an inherent part of the natural order. Before the oppressed can rise up, they have to know there is an alternative.

    • “The writer interrupted a teacher telling a story that was an offering that if, in the traditions in Mexico, seemed foolish to the writer, it was likely a healing and teaching story with its roots from long ago.”

      Since reading the article, I’ve been trying to find that fable. Any help would be appreciated.

  14. I’d just gently mention too, that we dont call ourselves peasants. That’s what warlords, overlords, overseers and exploiters have called the people for generations. The people have names, family names that often carry both motherand fathers surnames, and also names attached to where they live. They are Michoacanans and Guadalajarans, etc. They also are known by their artistry, thereby, people are known as farmer, potter, weaver, market owner, tradesman, mecanico, and onward. The word peasant means of low status, ignorant, rude, and so on. It’s no one’s fault that the word is loose in popular culture, for perhaps some do not know its true meaning and especially its history of use and abuse. It is true there are ‘peasants’ in the world, by definition, as above. But, rarely do poor people who are wise in many ways, fall into the dictionary meaning of ‘peasant.’

    Just my .02. Thanks for listening.

  15. Michael Matewauk

    I was in Mexico City last fall and the bookstore I went to had every title shrink-wrapped so you couldn’t browse through them! Figured that’s how they do things there but talk about not buying any books.

    But they revere authors same as us — I made a pilgrimmage to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s house on the outskirts of the city and got lost until a cabdriver picked me & found the address. He knew who he was, he nodded heartily when I shoved my tattered copy of “A Hundred Years…” up to him from the back seat. We traded broken Spanish and broken English on the way there and then he wouldn’t take any money from me after he pulled up to the house and I got out. I’ll never forget the way he shook his head at me.

  16. “I explained the difference between knowing how to read and actually reading, between deciphering street signs and accessing the literary canon. He wondered what the point of the students’ reading DON QUIXOTE was. He said we needed to teach them to read the newspaper.”

    And yet, Mr. Toscana doesn’t pause to explain *why* it’s valuable to read DON QUIXOTE (or Shakespeare, or Montaigne, or Tolstoy, or any of the other great canonical European figures). He just assumes all NYT readers know. Fact is, it’s pretty hard to explain in a concrete, believable way why students must read these works. You try to do it, and pretty soon you’re off in tutti-frutti land. Either that or you fall back on “skills” — critical thinking, analysis, communication, etc. But you can practice those on any text. The long and short of it is that it’s hard to defend the humanities in a way that will convince anyone who doesn’t already agree with you. This from a professional humanist, alas.

    • The trouble, of course, is that the people who make their living by pushing the officially approved texts have no justification for their choice of those texts, but can’t bring themselves to defend any old texts.

      The only really robust philosophical defence of fiction I have ever read was given by G. K. Chesterton, who said in the course of it, ‘Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity.’ The crusaders for Art and Literature and Really Fine Things are defending the wrong position. They want to keep their bit of the citadel, but won’t go down to the walls where the fighting is going on, because the walls are manned by commercial writers (and their readers), who, from a snob’s point of view, are no better than the invaders.

  17. That is so sad and I sometimes fear that that might happen in the US too. People just don’t take the humanities seriously anymore. That’s just one of the reasons why I have no interest in raising kids in the US, if I ever do (or apparently Mexico either).

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