Rd U Ltr NOT :(

by Patrick J. Deneen on September 21, 2011 · 15 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Short

More reportage, now by Niall Ferguson, of the obviously depressing news – we are raising a nation of idiots.

Half of today’s teenagers don’t read books—except when they’re made to. According to the most recent survey by the National Endowment for the Arts, the proportion of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 who read a book not required at school or at work is now 50.7 percent, the lowest for any adult age group younger than 75, and down from 59 percent 20 years ago.

I guess the good news is that we should expect the Chinese to overtake us in the near future. We can pin our hopes on creating a planet of idiots.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Rob O. September 21, 2011 at 10:40 am

A big part of the problem is that we’ve allowed (often, outright encouraged) our children to plummet head first into the digital world with nary a thought about first making sure that they have skills and habits that will allow them to thrive in the real, analog world.

And sure, after countless hours of videogames and hyperactive Blu-ray movies, a modest book is going to be rather, well, boring. Gonna be really hard to put the cork back in the genie’s bottle now. But if you help your kids build a solid base of social skills, creative thinking ability, and problem-solving aptitude, technological savvy will come with ease.

With that in mind, I’m practically “Amish” in my insistence that my 5 year old son read, write, and play with tactile toys. We’re also working hard to foster patience, problem-solving, and delayed gratification – some of the very things that digital immersion undercuts the most.

avatar Joe September 21, 2011 at 10:48 am

The beginning of this movie is prophetic:


The rest of the film, not so much.

avatar Jim Nelson September 21, 2011 at 11:06 am

I disagree with Rob O’s previous comment. Blaming the problem on the digital world lets the parents too much off the hook. Broadly speaking we are an increasingly degenerate society that eschews hard work, avoids taking the long view on life, and no longer sees the enduring value of character and wisdom over wealth and the opportunity to score tickets to the New England / Buffalo football game.

Our willing embrace of the digital world over musty old books (which merely injure our children’s backs when they carry them around in their backpacks, according to our all-knowing medical profession!) is a symptom of a far more menacing disease. The fundamental issue we should be seeking to challenge is not Playstation and Google, but beer and circus.

The digital world is a powerful tool in the hands of a person with character. Like fire, Google has the power to build up or destroy.

avatar Bill Burns September 21, 2011 at 11:18 am

Just so you know, and a fair bunch of Porchers probably already do, Mars Hill Audio Journal has just issued a new Anthology on reading, compiled from a number of discussions and interviews on the journal over the past few years. You can read about “Anthology 7: On Books and Reading,” even purchase it here:


avatar nydwracu September 21, 2011 at 12:05 pm

Children who don’t read are cut off from the civilization of their ancestors, but so are many children who do. What do they read more: the Aeneid or Twilight? The answer should be obvious.

The root problems, of course, are the broken school system (who has time to read these days with all the homework they get, especially high school students?) and the growing underclass. I wonder how Shanghai would compare with… actually, I can’t think of an American city that doesn’t have both of those problems, or even a major European city without the second one.

avatar Barry A. McCain September 21, 2011 at 2:10 pm

What’s the time frame on the statistics? Does the author mean in the last year, say, or ever?

(It doesn’t look like the author lays it out in the article.)

avatar Carl Eric Scott September 21, 2011 at 5:06 pm

Mars Hill is about the best commuting food possible.

avatar Katherine September 21, 2011 at 10:33 pm

Just a brief comment about China — their educational system actually emphasizes rote memorization rather than critical thought and analysis. I just don’t see them outpacing America educationally anytime soon.

But that certainly doesn’t diminish the profound nature of the problem here in America. Homeschooling is a great option, as is lots of time outdoors. Not all children will be avid readers, but all of them can and should – from a young age – have opportunities to think, create, and enjoy the satisfaction of taking responsibility for projects & tasks.


(Article on China’s education system: http://www.usatoday.com/money/world/2011-02-01-asia_education01_ST_N.htm)

avatar Brandon September 22, 2011 at 8:47 am

I never considered myself unique when about nine years ago when I was a freshman in high school I made a valiant attempt to read and understand books like Herodotus’ The Histories and Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul on my own. I did this because I had a natural curiosity that I assumed was fairly common. As I have gotten older, I now understand why, when I told my freshman english teacher about my reading, she was so shocked she about fainted.

avatar Andrew September 22, 2011 at 2:25 pm

To add to a few of the comments already stated, subscribing to Mars Hill Audio Journal is life changing.

avatar Andrew W. Soukup September 22, 2011 at 3:16 pm

Rote memorization (why do we always say “rote,” it has an undeniably “bad” sound to it) is one of the most unappreciated things in the modern world.

Yes, critical thinking is important, but its not fundamental. One must have strong foundations of actual material (held, in all things, in the memory) to feed our intellects. We need something about which to think critically.

This is a large problem in the modern educational system. Students might be incredibly adept at manipulating information, but they have no way of linking their intellectual prowess to the rest of the world.

avatar D.W. Sabin September 23, 2011 at 10:52 am

Wait a minute here buster, I see young people reading all the time. They read while left hand turning or changing lanes or swerving lane to lane at 70 mph. They’re readin and pecking away. Snappy literati of the American highways.

They is road texting, oh, I meant rote texting. :) ‘( $:) #x*

avatar Kevin September 28, 2011 at 12:03 pm

…and why did the well read prior generation foster the change in media consumed? The same generation that were advising the young to learn Japanese, now its Mandarin?

Few computer scientists or engineers would worry that we are not as capable as previous generations, the arts establishment have got to get going instead of whining from the sides

– that Battle Star Galactica is the preferred odyssey must be tough if you’re a classicist, but give me Starbuck over Ulysses any day ( lights touch paper and retires)

avatar Jack Stewart October 2, 2011 at 12:07 pm

Few couples can have tried harder than my wife and I to produce literate sons. They are now in public high school. The older son (a junior) is, according to his teachers, off the charts in his ability to read, comprehend and write. He reads a little on his own, mostly nonfiction adventure–sailing, mountaineering, etc. The freshman reads nothing unless it is required.

In my view, and according to my observations, the fault lies as much with the teachers and the nature of school assignments and homework. Many times in his public and private education, my younger son has been instructed to “go to the library, pick a book, read it, and make a poster/report on it.” Given the plethora of junk on the library shelves, he invariably chooses junk, gets no pleasure or satisfaction out of reading it–of course!–and consequently his reluctance to read and his negative associations with reading are reinforced.

From their infancy until they began to read on their own, I read to these boys every night for an hour to an hour and a half. Always the very best stuff. On car trips, we took recordings of Lord of the Rings, the Iliad, as well as outstanding contemporary writing (eg., Tiger Rising).

Teachers need to give students a choice of reading–but from a list of the best things. And they need to stop pestering students with daily busy-work, and give them the leisure to enjoy immersion in really good writing.

avatar william brown June 6, 2013 at 6:55 am

I think Rob O. comes the closest to the reason for the massive dumbing down of our kids. The digital culture actively promotes near brain-death. Sadly, the nature of the technology actively wires the brain and destroys the imagination. More and more studies are showing this (which should have been obvious to any mildly perceptive parent).
This may sound extreme – but I think it’s child abuse to let young kids play video games, own cell phones, and have unlimited internet access. You are actively eroding your child’s God-given intellect.

I’m reading Eric Metaxas’ “Bonhoeffer”. In the 1920′s European kids learned Latin, Greek, Hebrew in grade school and were reading the Great Books before they were teenagers.

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