Back to the Books

Americans are behind the rest of the world in math and science, but that’s not really the problem.

The problem is that children don’t read enough books.  And they don’t read books because increasingly, they can’t read.

In 2009, studies showed that nearly 70 percent of fourth graders in American schools did not read at a level of proficiency for their age.

While our students continuously fall behind in math and science compared to the rest of the developed world, leaders in education focus attention on math and science curriculums with the hope of increasing scores.

But that response does nothing more than prune the branches of a shrub whose roots are rotting.

Two weeks ago, Malala Yousafzai stood in front of Europe’s biggest library and announced to the world that she had challenged herself to read thousands of books.  By age 15, Malala said she had read nine books and thought this quite an accomplishment.  Then she was almost assassinated.

Malala Yousafzai survived being shot in the head by Islamic extremists in Pakistan for defending her right to go to school.  She was taken to England for medical treatment, where she said she was shocked to learn that many of her peers had read hundreds of books.

Since her recovery, she’s spoken around the world about the importance of education, especially for girls.

I’ve always taken my education for granted.  Most of us do in the West.

Listening to Malala’s tale, I realized how thankful I am for every Greek tragedy my teachers dragged me through, sometimes kicking and screaming.  Every Shakespearean play and American novel and British tome whose meanings I didn’t really understand until years later.  Every long, languishing opus I fell asleep drooling on in secluded corners of dusty university libraries in the wee hours of the morning. The books I reviled just as relevant as the ones that inspired me.

At sixteen, Malala understands what America’s leaders often don’t.

“Books are very precious – some books can travel you back centuries and some take you into the future.”

Math and science are certainly important for the future.  These disciplines are cultivate technological innovation. But if we continue to neglect the seed of literacy, in a few generations there will be nothing left to harvest.