If ignorance is bliss, the Western world should be ecstatic. Even as colleges churn out degrees and collect fees, and technology makes information instantly accessible, the basic level of literacy, as measured by such things as reading books and acquainting oneself with the past, is in a precipitous decline. Rather than building a vital world with our technological culture, we are repeating the memes of feudal times, driven by illiteracy, bias and a rejection of the West’s past.
Over half of American adults have a reading level below the equivalent of sixth-grade level (11- to 12-year-olds), and book reading outside of school or work among the young in particular has declined markedly. A survey conducted in 2014 found slightly over half of American children saying they liked to read books ‘for fun’, down from 60 per cent in 2010. This is not just an American trend. A landmark study by University College London tracked 11,000 children born in 2000 up to age 14 and found that only one in 10 ever did any reading in their spare time as teenagers. The Covid-related lockdowns, notes one recent UN study, raised the number of children experiencing reading difficulties from 460million to 584million.
Even before the pandemic, people’s cognitive skills were weakening. Many employers in the US report difficulty finding workers capable of having a serious conversation. Over 60 per cent of applicants are found to be lacking in basic social skills. Today’s teens’ experiences are increasingly limited to what they access on their phones and social media. Rather than opening minds, social media seem to be creating a generation with little ability to communicate in person.
Sites like Facebook and Instagram have been linked to reduced attention spans: research indicates that the average attention span has fallen 50 per cent since 2000, mainly due to social-media use. This loss of literacy comes at a time when much of our education and literary establishment has embraced censorship, while on the right there’s an increasingly Pavlovian embrace of book-banning. Even in defending the common culture, the right forgets the necessity of diverse opinions in a democracy.
Right now, the most influential advocates for banning classical literature from curricula, or removing books non-compliant on issues like gender, are not disgruntled conservatives. No, the assault on studying ‘great books’ and Western culture largely comes from progressive professors with PhDs, and the ever-expanding university bureaucracies and their recent graduates. The embrace of these cultural trends, as former Mother Jones writer Kevin Drum suggests, has emerged as Democrats have moved far more to the left than Republicans have gone further to the right. This is sometimes enforced with mandatory indoctrination sessions and even requirements to sign the woke version of McCarthy-era ‘loyalty oaths’.
In the new schema, the past is seen as racist, ugly and simply too complex for young minds. At many US colleges, books written before 1990 are considered ‘inaccessible’ to students. University policies increasingly marginalise Homer, Confucius, Shakespeare, Milton, Tocqueville or the Founding Fathers. Some books are scorned for having been written by dead white males, who as a group are linked to such horrors as slavery, the subjugation of women and mass poverty. America’s cultural arbiters, such as the National Archives, now consider it necessary to flag up the nation’s founding documents for ‘harmful language’. Ultimately, many of those things that drove Western ascendancy since 1500 – reason, work ethic, family and even science – are being cashiered to create some kind of woke brave new world. And our society seems all the poorer for the loss.
Read the rest of this piece at Spiked.
Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Roger Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.