Jan 14, 2009, 09:45AM

The Digital Divide

The Internet may be on the verge of bridging the techonology gap between low- and middle-income families, but it isn't enough to bridge the education gap.

A must read:

Just as our styles of reading have changed, so too have our reasons for reading and the amount of time we devote to it. “Read in order to live,” Flaubert wrote. Critic Harold Bloom views reading from the other end of the human lifespan. “One of the uses of reading is to prepare ourselves for change,” he argues in How to Read and Why, “and the final change alas is universal.” But however much we read and for whatever reasons, literacy has long been prized as a marker of civilization and a measure of a society’s success. Literacy is now nearly universal in the United States and the rest of the developed world—a remarkable historical achievement, and yet one that has sparked more complacency than comment.

That may be changing. In 2007, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) published a report, To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence, which provided ample evidence of the decline of reading for pleasure, particularly among the young. To wit: Nearly half of Americans ages 18 to 24 read no books for pleasure; Americans ages 15 to 24 spend only between 7 and 10 minutes per day reading voluntarily; and two thirds of college freshmen read for pleasure for less than an hour per week or not at all. As Sunil Iyengar, director of the NEA’s Office of Research and Analysis and the lead author of the report, told me, “We can no longer take the presence of books in the home for granted. Reading on one’s own—not in a required sense, but doing it because you want to read—that skill has to be cultivated at an early age.” The NEA report also found that regular reading is strongly correlated with civic engagement, patronage of the arts, and charity work. People who read regularly for pleasure are more likely to be employed, and more likely to vote, exercise, visit museums, and volunteer in their communities; in short, they are more engaged citizens.

Not everyone endorses this claim for reading’s value. Bloom, for instance, is not persuaded by claims that reading encourages civic engagement. “You cannot directly improve anyone else’s life by reading better or more deeply,” he argues. “I remain skeptical of the traditional social hope that care for others may be stimulated by the growth of individual imagination, and I am wary of any arguments whatsoever that connect the pleasures of solitary reading to the public good.”


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