How literate are we?

An argument that is often raised among the head shaking admonishment brigade, is that there is a woeful level of literacy in society. The argument usually points to comments on social media as examples of falling literacy, or to emoji laden messages, or is writ large in speciously reasoned blog posts like this one.

The reality is held within these charts:

Literate

Literacy scoreLiteracy rates by school year

Yes, as you can see, for over 200 years the world’s literacy rate has been improving. If you go to the source article at Our World In Data you will be able to highlight the 1870-2010 trends. This shows that even quite well-educated nations have improved their literacy rates.

So what exactly are people complaining about? Well, let’s take some of the examples that are often proffered.

I recently reread a number of pulp novels from the sixties and seventies (with an occasional eighties and nineties thrown in for fun) – not literary fiction by any means, just thrillers the likes of which I grew up reading. What immediately struck me is how erudite the books were compared to modern fare. They were written at a much higher grade level than current popular fiction, because, bluntly, the average person was more literate, and the assumption was that folks wanted a little intellectual stimulation with their car chases and explosions – that words with more than a couple of syllables could be salted through a tome without fearing a slew of one star reviews written in Pidgin English bemoaning that the author was trying too hard or must have once seen a thesaurus. Source.

This is, of course, a personal opinion expressed by the blogger rather than hard data. You only have to look at the above charts to see that the average person they are referring to is actually more likely to be literate now than in the 1960’s. I think the blogger has leapt to the assertion that people are less literate now as an explanation for a style change that has occurred. Or just wants to whine about kids these days. Because what blogger doesn’t want to do that?

Now, why would a style change occur in the last 30 (or more*) years? Interestingly, some research suggested that the way we write changes the style of our writing. With the rise of word processors and computers, writers measurably changed their styles.

But has anything else has changed in that time period that could have impacted writing styles? I’m not sure if these are familiar to people or not, but television, gaming, internet, media, are all more popular now than they were 30 years ago. I.e. books now have to compete with more entertainment than ever. So stylistic changes will occur to capture and keep an audience’s attention, lest it strays from the latest literary masterpiece about a dog caring for its cat with terminal cancer to a YouTube video about how white nationalism is okay now for some reason (because of post-modern cultural marxism apparently).

Has reading and writing (literacy) actually changed much, though? It is one thing to say that people have passed the minimum standard level, but it is quite another thing to suggest high levels of literacy are being achieved by more/less people.

Studies on this were actually hard to come by. Yet there is certainly concern about reading and writing proficiency for high-school and university level students:

Three-quarters of both 12th and 8th graders lack proficiency in writing, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress. And 40 percent of those who took the ACT writing exam in the high school class of 2016 lacked the reading and writing skills necessary to complete successfully a college-level English composition class, according to the company’s data.

Poor writing is nothing new, nor is concern about it. More than half of first-year students at Harvard failed an entrance exam in writing — in 1874. Source.

Given the last sentence in that quote, it is probably more accurate to say that the standards are changing. We now expect more of our literacy because more people are schooled and meeting basic literacy standards. For example, in the USA Master’s degrees are now as common as Bachelor’s degrees were in the 1960’s. People are expecting more of education and setting different standards than were held previously.

As an article on The Conversation concluded on this topic:

In 1997 academic Paul Brock gave an enlightening address to educators in which he carefully recounted the ways each generation has bemoaned the falling literacy standards of the younger generation whilst laying the blame at the feet of modern educational methods.

Apparently, we’ve been doing this since literacy first became a thing back with the Sumerians some 5,000 years ago.

The problem is not that literacy standards are falling, it is that literacy demands are changing – and we are not keeping up.

Schools have their role to play, and they can up their game in order to keep up with the times. But employers must also realise that workplace literacy is their core work, not a supplementary remedial program, and plan their businesses accordingly. Source.

In other words, declining literacy standards are a perennial myth that people love to complain about. Styles have changed. Literacy demands have changed. But that doesn’t mean things are going backwards. Much like kids these days arguments, we can expect to see these same points raised again and again with no evidence to support their claims. Because if there is one thing that never gets old, it is complaining about how things are different now than the good old days.

*The blogger’s larger post talks about a change occurring in the more recent 20-30 year period, despite referencing books from the 1960-70’s. You’ll also notice more links to evidence in my post… just saying.

 

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Banned books

Recently in Australia, there was a lot of moralising outrage about books being banned in school libraries. Was this Political Correctness Gone Mad?

No. No, it wasn’t.

Yes, that’s right, the moral outrage brigade hadn’t even bothered to check any details. That shouldn’t be particularly surprising to anyone who, you know, thinks, but what I did find interesting is the sort of hyperbole used on this issue that never seems to make it to the actual censorship that exits.

I’ve previously discussed the Banned Books Week, an awareness-raising campaign in the USA. Since the USA is a big and influential book market, there are flow-on effects of books being challenged and banned there – although the Streisand Effect can apply here and be a net positive, just ask Dan Brown. Australia also has a censorship board and historical lists of previously banned books have been made public.

When you read through the lists of books that were previously banned in Australia but are now available, you can see how we aren’t/weren’t allowed to talk about sex. We also don’t talk about Aboriginal history. Not talking about sex is still a common theme in today’s Australian censorship standards:

Publications will be refused classification (RC) that:

  1. describe, depict, express or otherwise deal with matters of sex, drug misuse or addiction, crime, cruelty, violence or revolting or abhorrent phenomena in such a way that they offend against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults to the extent that they should not be classified; or
  2. describe or depict in a way that is likely to cause offence to a reasonable adult, a person who is, or appears to be, a child under 18 (whether the person is engaged in sexual activity or not); or
  3. promote, incite or instruct in matters of crime or violence

Publications (except RC publications) will be classified as Category 2 Restricted that:

  1. explicitly depict sexual or sexually related activity between consenting adults in a way that is likely to cause offence to a reasonable adult; or
  2. depict, describe or express revolting or abhorrent phenomena in a way that is likely to cause offence to a reasonable adult and are unsuitable for a minor to see or read

Publications (except RC publications and Category 2 restricted publications) will be classified as Category 1 Restricted that:

  1. explicitly depict nudity, or describe or impliedly depict sexual or sexually related activity between consenting adults, in a way that is likely to cause offence to a reasonable adult; or
  2. describe or express in detail violence or sexual activity between consenting adults in a way that is likely to cause offence to a reasonable adult; or
  3. are unsuitable for a minor to see or read. Source.

Now obviously the classifications could be very broadly interpreted and implemented. Plenty of books have themes around drug use and abuse, crime is an entire genre, cruelty is in any political memoir, and violence could be retitled thriller. We don’t tend to see those titles banned or restricted. So what does get restricted? As an example, American Psycho has a Category 1 restriction on it and is sold in shrink-wrapping… you know, just in case the words leak out and accidentally encourage someone to take up cannibalism or investment banking.

The number of books impacted by an RC classification is minimal. The 2016-17 figures show none were banned, as compared to video games which had 2 titles banned.

2017-figure01
Publications Classified in 2016-17. Source.

But it does show that a large number of titles were restricted in some way. This is without even touching on the censorship that occurs in access to titles, such as which titles are stocked in stores, which sites can be accessed to buy books, and what ends up in libraries. The restricted categorisation is clearly going to have impacts on where those titles will be available. So I wonder where the moral outrage is over this. Isn’t this Political Correctness Gone Mad? Or is it okay because the people who got outraged in the above video would be the “reasonable adults” who would be offended by these restricted titles?

Or maybe this would all require too much reading on behalf of those wanting to complain about books being banned.

 

Book Review: The Republic by Plato

The RepublicThe Republic by Plato

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Old white guys sit around discussing how to set up a totalitarian military state with them as the rulers.

Plato’s famous text covers a lot of ground as it tries to establish what justice is. It covers politics, personal and political ethics, idealised states (democracy ranks third out of four), education, and virtue. The Republic is a heady read, whilst being fascinating.

The strawman style to the interlocuter dialogue did annoy me as a reader. Whilst it was in service of making a larger point, it did make the discourse feel more shallow than it is. Plato’s thinking was also amazingly progressive for an age that predates the enlightenment by the best part of a millennium. But this thinking was also confined by the times.

Plato, along with Socrates and Aristotle, were the drivers behind western society. Books like The Republic put forward a lot of ideas for discussion and dissection, opening the dialogue that would lead to progress. That alone makes The Republic worth reading, but I also found it was worth reading if only to see much of it in context rather than discussed second-hand. E.g. The famous allegory of the cave takes on a slightly different light when not viewed in isolation.

For a more detailed understanding:
https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato-ethics-politics/

View all my reviews

Book vs Movie: When the Book Is Better

'We are making a film of the book.'

PBS Digital Studios have a new video series It’s Lit! which is part of The Great American Read, an eight-part series that explores and celebrates the power of reading. Featuring one of the premiere video essayists in Lindsay Ellis, this series should be brilliant.

The first video briefly discusses a topic I’ve frequently discussed here, what makes a good adaptation and why the book is so often regarded as better.

Lindsay has very concisely summarised why movies so often don’t make for good or faithful adaptations of the source material. But she also touches on why they can sometimes improve the book, or make an adaptation that uses the source material in an interesting way to tell a different story.

If you aren’t already subscribed to Lindsay or PBS Digital Studios, you may want to do so now.

Reading is awesome even when you don’t do it…

Scrolling through my feed I came across this little gem:

Screen Shot 2018-05-07 at 8.29.58 am

How could I not click on this article? I have several year’s supplies of paper books on my shelf to read, and even more on my e-reader. Justifying this state of affairs is clearly something I need.

Pity the article is rubbish.

The first hint that this story was nonsense is how they start by commending readers as smart. They list a few famous people who read and say you too can be just like them if you read. Somehow reading = lifelong learning, so you’ll be happier, earn more, stay healthier, and become president – I’m tempted to dive into those claims for a fact check, but one piece at a time. I’m willing to accept the claim that reading = lifelong learning… for now.

Lifelong learning will help you be happier, earn more, and even stay healthier, experts say. Plus, plenty of the smartest names in business, from Bill Gates to Elon Musk, insist that the best way to get smarter is to read. So what do you do? You go out and buy books, lots of them.

Then it suddenly announces you don’t have to read.

But if it’s simply that your book reading in no way keeps pace with your book buying, I have good news for you (and for me; I definitely fall into this category): Your overstuffed library isn’t a sign of failure or ignorance, it’s a badge of honor.

Oookaaaayyy. Please explain to me how not reading is just like reading.

That’s the argument author and statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes in his bestseller The Black Swan. Perpetually fascinating blog Brain Pickings dug up and highlighted the section in a particularly lovely post. Taleb kicks off his musings with an anecdote about the legendary library of Italian writer Umberto Eco, which contained a jaw-dropping 30,000 volumes.

Did Eco actually read all those books? Of course not, but that wasn’t the point of surrounding himself with so much potential but as-yet-unrealized knowledge. By providing a constant reminder of all the things he didn’t know, Eco’s library kept him intellectually hungry and perpetually curious. An ever-growing collection of books you haven’t yet read can do the same for you, Taleb writes.

An antilibrary is a powerful reminder of your limitations — the vast quantity of things you don’t know, half-know, or will one day realize you’re wrong about. By living with that reminder daily you can nudge yourself toward the kind of intellectual humility that improves decision-making and drives learning.

This is what is commonly referred to as a non-sequitur, or a bullshit argument. Nassim Taleb is notorious for these sorts of nonsense arguments. That and blocking people on Twitter* for not agreeing with him and praising the ground he deadlifts upon.

It is hard to decide where to start with this. The irony of suggesting you need to surround yourself with knowledge in an article on the internet is amazing. Even if we take it, as Taleb implies, as requiring a physical reminder, we already have libraries, bookshops, universities, experts, friends, enemies, who all exist with knowledge we don’t have. It isn’t about the reminder, it is about awareness.

I’m not sure you can take people seriously when they talk about knowledge in terms of what you don’t know. One list is considerably larger than the other. If I was to provide a resume of what I didn’t know it would run to libraries worth in length. Who would suggest we think in those terms?

“People don’t walk around with anti-résumés telling you what they have not studied or experienced (it’s the job of their competitors to do that), but it would be nice if they did,” Taleb claims.

Of course he would suggest that. I guess I’ll mail Taleb a résumé of the Dewey codes** for the stuff I don’t know to become his deadlift partner.

How do they rationalise this anti-library?

Why? Perhaps because it is a well-known psychological fact that it’s the most incompetent who are the most confident of their abilities and the most intelligent who are full of doubt. (Really. It’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect.) It’s equally well established that the more readily you admit you don’t know things, the faster you learn.

So stop beating yourself up for buying too many books or for having a to-read list that you could never get through in three lifetimes. All those books you haven’t read are indeed a sign of your ignorance. But if you know how ignorant you are, you’re way ahead of the vast majority of other people.

Actually, the Dunning-Kruger Effect is about how people with low cognitive ability are exactly those who lack the ability to realise they are of low cognitive ability so they will rank themselves more highly. High cognitive ability people incorrectly assume others are at their level, so will rank themselves lower (see also Imposter Syndrome). You can see from this explanation of the effect why surrounding yourself with knowledge doesn’t really achieve anything.

It’s about awareness.

You would have to be aware that your knowledge is lacking, not just have a reminder of it. If you are ignorant or arrogant then you won’t benefit from the stacks of books around you. We are already surrounded by knowledge in our society – I mean, we’re on the internet here, you can look up literally anything and potentially get the correct answer… potentially. But this article – and Taleb himself – are proposing a form of arrogance. Surround yourself with books and you’ll be better than the vast majority of people.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t buy heaps of books, I myself already own more than I’ll probably be able to read in a lifetime. But don’t be fooled by these sorts of feel-good pieces that give you a pseudo-justification for doing so. It doesn’t say good things about your mind, nor make you better, it just says you like books and would like the authors to be able to afford to eat this week.

* Seriously, check out his profile or this search to see how often he justifies blocking people. As someone whom he has blocked, I can say that he really hates engaging in discourse. Oh, and the reason I was blocked was that he Tweeted about disease resistance in plants and how it works, except he got it massively wrong. When I pointed this out I was immediately blocked.
**Get it? The joke is that there are more library classification systems than just Dewey Decimal. I’m hilarious!

Can you name a book?

creative-bookshelf-18__700

Sounds like a simple challenge, right? Name a book, any book at all.

In the long tradition of asking Americans general knowledge questions on the street and filming their glorious ignorance, I present this video from Jimmy Kimmel.

Before we all laugh and point at the Americans and insult their intelligence, let’s remember that you could do this just about anywhere. Although, Americans do make this stuff easy at times. I’ve previously discussed the reading figures for the US, UK, and Australia. I’m sure those numbers are at least in the same ballpark as other countries, if not outright representative.

Wait, why guess when I can actually use the wonders of the greatest information resource in human history to look that up? Why have an unfounded opinion that I then rant about in indignant outrage, arrogantly assuming I’m right and belittling anyone who does bother to look up the data? To the research!

Let’s start with the data that the above video was citing from Pew Research.

ft_18-03-22_nonbookreaders_whohasnt
Source

As we can see, the 24% figure is showing that older, poorer, less educated, men (just), and Hispanics read less in the USA. This isn’t a new conclusion, as data from Pew in 2016 shows. The conclusion around the number who don’t read is also similar to the 2016 results of 26% not having read a book in the last 12 months. I’m not sure you can interpret much change over time in the number of people reading, but numbers might be slowly decreasing (although, look at the uptick in audiobooks as that format has come down in price).

ft_18-03-07_bookreading_printbooks
Source

Now we can look at how the USA sits in terms of reading. I’ve previously discussed how Aussies spend roughly 23 minutes per day reading (ABS figures), or an hour a day if you believe the Australian Arts Council report (I suggested there was possible survey bias in that figure). Below you can see that the NOP World Culture Score puts Australia at 6 hours 18 minutes – which I think makes this an “ALL-YOU bench-press” set of numbers.

chartoftheday_6125_which_countries_read_the_most_n
Source: Statista

This chart suggests that the USA is probably typical for English speaking countries, but that many other countries read far more on a weekly basis in terms of hours. Unless reading is code for something else in non-English speaking countries. Maybe they thought they were being asked about how many hours they spent having sex per week.

If we then look at the countries and how frequently they read books you can see in the chart below that they were afraid to include the bars for “didn’t read a book”. The high end has only 14% of Chinese people not reading a book, whilst the low end has the Dutch at 43% not reading (USA comes in at 29%, UK 28%, Australia 38% – I demand a recount!!).*

Screen Shot 2018-05-25 at 7.50.23 pm
Source: Statista

How about the number of books people read, or at least what they claim once they round up?

number_of_books_read_in_the_last_12_months2c_2011
Source: Eurostat
table-2
Source
Screen Shot 2017-10-08 at 6.24.23 PM
Source

What this all shows is that there are plenty of countries where you could ask ten people on the street to name a book and have one or two of them fail. You could ask those ten people what book were they reading today and only three of them could. Isn’t that sad? I reckon people would really enjoy reading if they made time for it. I’ve commented before on why I think people don’t read, suggesting that they don’t because they get told to read literature when they actually enjoy thrillers, sci-fi, and romance.

Maybe it is time to change that before someone sticks a camera and microphone in our faces.

*Be careful with my assumption here. Depending on how the question was asked and any other unreported categories, I may be very wrong in assuming the unreported numbers are non-readers.