Should academic librarians be alarmed that the 2003 (latest year for which data is available) National Assessment of Adult Literacy, the nation’s most important test of how well adult Americans can read, indicated that only 31 percent of the nation’s college graduates scored at the proficient level, meaning that they were able to read lengthy, complex English texts and draw complicated inferences. That was a nine percent drop from the prior year.
In a New York Times article about the declining literacy of college graduates, Grover J. Whitehurst, director of an institute within the Department of Education that helped to oversee the test, said he believes “the literacy of college graduates had dropped because a rising number of young Americans in recent years had spent their free time watching television and surfing the Internet.” He went on to say “We’re seeing substantial declines in reading for pleasure, and it’s showing up in our literacy levels.”
We can certainly look at these findings and conclude that we’re not responsible for encouraging reading or enabling students to think deeply about what they read. That’s what the faculty are for. But students who are less literate are also less likely to develop good research skills, and that is our bailiwick. Perhaps the most obvious solution is to encourage students to do more reading and less surfing, or to support that initiative on our campuses. A good example of one such program is found at Widener University’s Wolfgram Memorial Library where they sponsor a brownbag book club. I’m sure there are similar library-supported reading programs at other institutions and these are good ideas, though I somehow doubt they’ll reach students in the numbers needed to reverse the decline in literacy.
I hope that the latest literacy data will reach the highest levels of academic administration within our institutions, and will be found at least troubling if not a cause for panic. We know that collaboration with our faculty and other academic support professionals is essential for the success of information literacy. Perhaps we can take what we know about that and apply it to the development of programs that connect reading, research, and writing – all skills that contribute to deeper thinking – in an effort to increase literacy.
Finally, I would ask if at some level the capitulation to the “good enough” proposition, coming from some circles within our profession, contributes to the overall declince in literacy. If we no longer demand rigor or excellence in research because we fear alienating simplicity-centric students, how can we expect students to do more than just “good enough” when it comes to reading and analytical skills. That’s part of the whole problem with the “good enough”mentality. No one really knows what that means, and left to their own devices students who decide what “good enough” is for themselves may fail to realize they could be sacrificing essential literacy skills. Perhaps the latest NAAL data should serve as a serious wake up call to get this profession thinking about the implications of a “good enough research is fine by us” mentality.