Commentary: American illiteracy, not books, is what’s to fear | Columnists

Shaun Kenney

From a distance, I can not help but notice the back and forth regarding certain books found in Spotsylvania County Public Schools. The disease can be diagnosed any number of ways: McCarthyism, cancel culture, book banning, peer pressure, and shaming. Yet at core is a problem involving a social cancer in both literature and literacy many of us have ignored for far too long.

An English teacher by profession, my grandfather was surrounded by books. Hallways, bedrooms, his office, and even his back porch all brought the musty smell of knowledge. Some books were well beyond my ability, others speculated on the existence of UFOs and Bigfoot. All of them captured my imagination. That is when my fire for learning began.

Just 20 years ago, one could have drifted into the local coffee shop and found people scribbling furiously in composition books, eating cigarettes, and trying to become the next David Foster Wallace or Christopher Hitchens. Once upon a time, you might wander into a doctor’s office and find people reading paperbacks of Ernest Hemmingway or John Steinbeck.

People are also reading…

Today, it might be safer to argue we no longer live in a literate culture. Most of us can read; few of us read anything of merit. A literate person ought to read at least one book a week; that is, 52 books a year. Most American households have on average no more than 30 books. In poor urban communities, there might be one book for every 300 children. Instead, we stare into smartphones nibbling at dopamine like lab rats while mindlessly entertaining ourselves to death.

Such facts ought to strike us as a deeply concerning cultural anemia with effects plain to see. Pick any comments section on any controversial topic and see what we have done to ourselves. Americans rarely trust one another, cannot disagree without being disagreeable, and refuse to see another person’s argument in its best possible light. We skim articles and fire off witticisms as if they were arguments. Do we really expect our children to behave any better?

For myself, the Jeffersonian spirit of optimism remains. The minor chord may sound that error has no rights in the public square; the major chord lifts as if to say that error must be tolerated so long as reason is left free to combat it.

This is no argument for the smut that passes itself off as literature. Just because it is printed on wood pulp and placed next to Shakespeare does not make it even remotely the same. Yet for those who are not literate, the threat of bad books must be terrifying and omnipresent.

If “33 Snowfish” were the only book a teenager was exposed to, one might be worried. Yet if the literary background of that same person consisted of a solid 200 deeply read and diverse books, that high school senior would be exponentially better insulated and prepared to tackle the contents of that book. The same holds true for other challenges, whether it is bad fanfiction, or the cesspool children are exposed to on TikTok. The best censor, so it seems, is not an opinionated, but an educated version of myself.

One might object that bad books should be extirpated from our society precisely because they are objectively bad. Yet this admits a certain defeat, as if the good cannot defeat the bad through argument and reason. Sometimes the critiques are better than the book itself.

Another objection may be that bad ideas cheat by appealing to our appetites, and human nature being what it is, the good, beautiful, and true needs a bit of a boost. Perhaps, yet both require different boosts. Good ideas thrive on diversity, curation, and cultivation; bad ideas beg for and almost require the weapons of coercion, conformity, and exclusion. The former encourages free minds, the latter is little more than a bullwhip.

As the Irish poet William Butler Yeats reminds us, education is the kindling of fire, not the filling of a bucket. Giving children a love of learning and fostering their intellectual curiosity is the best inoculation against stupid in the public square. Flood the zone with great and even controversial literature and watch as students surprise you with the results. Inspiring confidence in the good, beautiful and true is the surest guarantee that bad ideas gather dust rather than a cult following.

The fault, dear Brutus, may indeed be in our stars. The solution, dear Cassius, is in our local bookstore. Not exactly perfect Shakespeare, but it is awfully close.

Shaun Kenney is former executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia and a graduate of Courtland High School.

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