by Sunita

Courtesy of the Chronicle, here’s a depressing story about the decline in reading (both the act of reading and reading comprehension):

The scores of fourth- and eighth-graders on reading tests have climbed steadily since the 1990s, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But those of 12th-graders have fallen. Just 37 percent of high-school seniors graduate with “proficiency” in reading, meaning they can read a text for both its literal and its inferential meanings.

The problem seems to extend to life after college. In 1992 and 2003, the National Center for Education Statistics studied American adults’ prose, document, and quantitative literacy (respectively, the ability to do things like read news articles, to read maps and food labels, and to balance a checkbook). The results, experts said, were “appalling.” College graduates’ math skills, statistically, hadn’t budged. But their prose and document literacy had declined. While those with bachelor’s and graduate degrees maintained the highest levels of literacy overall, those groups also experienced the steepest declines. Just 31 percent of college graduates were considered proficient readers in 2003, by that test’s definition, down from 40 percent in 1992. (International studies show similar trends. More data allowing comparison of adult literacy over time is expected this year.)

I teach a writing-intensive course for upper-level undergraduates every year, and I force them to write short response papers on the readings (you can’t write about a subject if you don’t understand what you’ve read on it). I teach at a highly selective institution, my students work very hard, they are able to devote most of their time to their studies, and yet they mostly don’t complete the assigned reading unless they are penalized for not doing so. It’s frustrating but it’s something we need to confront. Reading is just not that popular an activity anymore, even among the most highly educated. And even prestigious, selective colleges emphasize social and other non-academic aspects of student life as much as they do in-class learning, so there are more officially certified, built-in distractions that we didn’t have when we were in school. I don’t want to make college only about class experiences, but if people who clearly do enjoy learning aren’t treating scholarly and leisure book and article reading as integral to their daily lives, how can we expect it of everyone else?

However, if you do want to read something boring and opaque but extremely important, Melville House did an amazing job of converting the unscannable and difficult-to-read official pdf of the Mueller Report into something useful. Here’s their account of the process. Spoiler: It was complicated!

Live publishing: An hour after release, we’re wrestling with how to typeset the “light redactions” of the Mueller Report. There’s no typesetter’s mark for a black square. Overall problem: It’s a jpg of a pdf. It’s like a xerox of a xerox. We’re not working with type, but images.— Dennis Johnson (@MobyLives) April 18, 2019

It almost reads like a thriller, doesn’t it? I’ve read the first couple of dozen pages of the report in pdf form and it was a pain. This is much better, and it’s available for Kindle, Kobo, and all other fine ereading platforms for the low low price of $1.99.

This shouldn’t surprise me: distractions aren’t an internet-age, 21stC problem, at least not according to this article in Aeon. I never thought about medieval monks as easily distracted, but they were human, and all humans have to work at concentrating:

A more advanced method for concentrating was to build elaborate mental structures in the course of reading and thinking. Nuns, monks, preachers and the people they educated were always encouraged to visualise the material they were processing. A branchy tree or a finely feathered angel – or in the case of Hugh of St Victor (who wrote a vivid little guide to this strategy in the 12th century), a multilevel ark in the heart of the cosmos – could become the template for dividing complex material into an ordered system. The images might closely correspond to the substance of an idea. Hugh, for example, imagined a column rising out of his ark that stood for the tree of life in paradise, which as it ascended linked the earth on the ark to the generations past, and on to the vault of the heavens. Or instead, the images might only be organisational placeholders, where a tree representing a text or topic (say, ‘Natural Law’) could have eight branches and eight fruits on each branch, representing 64 different ideas clustered into eight larger concepts.

These methods sound like versions of mental models and mnemonics, which essentially make the brain focus rather than drift. Sometimes you want drift, sometimes you want focus. I like this idea.