“Reading is for Losers!”: The American Trend of Intentional Illiteracy
“I can’t be expected to read!”
“It’s not my job to read!”
Ah, the screeches of angry/humiliated customers who ignored the giant signs warning them that there is no cashback/the ice cream machine is down/the floor is wet. In my (relatively short) time in retail, I heard this attitude expressed a lot. In a bizarre phenomenon that is known as Customer’s Retail Adjusted Perception, or CRAP, customers appear to lose their normal ability to read and otherwise process information in their surroundings, then respond with aggression or hysterics when their expectations are not met. Yet this phenomenon’s key symptom, the inability/refusal to read signage communicating important information, speaks to a larger problem in American society: the active refusal to read.
The United States has a literacy problem. Literally millions of citizens cannot read, or their reading level doesn’t meet the level expected for their age. Ten years ago, it was 32 million, and that number had only worsened from where it was ten years before that. This is a failure of the U.S. education system that also imports clear racial and socioeconomic bias. A 2003 study from the National Center for Education Statistics reported that of those who scored “Below Basic Literacy” in assessments, 20 percent were black and 39 percent were Hispanic. A combination of minorities tending to have less access to quality schools and having English as a second language contributes to this disparity.
However, the literacy problem is more complicated than simple lack of access to education or sufficient ESOL teaching. Many Americans ostensibly know how to read, even at a higher level. They choose not to.
According to a 2018 Pew study, 24 percent of American adults say that they haven’t picked up a book in the past year. These non-readers are more likely to be Hispanic (38 percent), making under $30,000 per year (36 percent), or have a high school diploma or less (37 percent). In clear defiance of older generations’ insistence that Gens Y and Z are uncultured buffoons, the percentage of adults who have read a book in the past year steadily rises as the age drops.
These studies don’t really delve into why Americans are reading less, nor do they draw lines between reading for pleasure and literacy level, but we’d be foolish to not speculate that literacy + one’s reading comfort level = one’s likelihood to pick up a book. That said, from where does comfort stem? Plenty of Americans could read books, but they choose not to. We know that more affluent Americans are slightly more likely to read for pleasure, likely due to having more free time, and we know that younger Americans are as well, likely for the same reason. Clearly, illiteracy and lack of interest in reading don’t neatly align: something is missing from the picture.
That missing piece is the insidious side of illiteracy: the refusal to read, whether for pleasure or as part of navigating the service industry realm, because it is “not cool.” Intentional illiteracy is part of the overall American trend of anti-intellectualism, and make no mistake, it’s reflected in the Republican Party and the current President, who famously doesn’t read (at least, books or reports). (Now, there is no evidence that Trump has reduced the reading rate, but it seems he affirms the existing tendency of many Americans to refuse to read.) Republicans (in the study linked above, conflated with conservatives), are more likely to prefer the “opinions of ordinary people” rather than “experts and intellectuals.”
This attitude, increasingly divided down party lines, reflects a distrust of academic institutions as well as society’s overall democratization of knowledge. With social media and crowdsourced content at our fingertips, being producers of knowledge is something that’s increasingly accessible by everyone. In a society that celebrates knowledge, this democratization should increase literacy and an appetite for learning, but the opposite seems true. Opinions are considered to all be of equal value by virtue of being opinions, while facts are subjugated by propaganda and fake news. Americans have lost the ability to distinguish between legitimate and fake sources, and moreover, they believe that there is no legitimate source except one’s own mind. When one reads, they’re willingly exposing themself to information that might contradict their views.
Both conservatives and far-leftists argue that academic institutions should not be the sole source of expertise, because they are biased/paid off/white-privileged. That’s a fair complaint, but they also construe intellectualism as something undesirable. Consider popular shows such as The Big Bang Theory or Bones, which portray intellectuals as out-of-touch and socially awkward. Consider how the bookworms and “geeks” are mocked for reading for pleasure by bullies who seem to represent America’s redbloodedness.
Reading’s companion is writing, and that too is something that many Americans willfully neglect. Have you ever seen someone intentionally use the wrong they’re/there/their or your/you’re, then dismiss any corrector as a “grammar Nazi”? Some attempts to correct grammar are culturally biased, for sure, but there is a clear difference between refusing someone’s attempt to “correct” grammar in a dialect variation and refusing to use standard sentence constructions because “I do what I want and grammar is for neeeeerrrrrds.” The latter is an attitude shared among an odd alliance of groups: conservatives who decry higher education, alt-right trolls who declare that “grammar is for cucks,” leftists who distrust any old, predominantly white institutions, and people very concerned about seeming cool.
In true contrarian fashion, people with these attitudes not only refuse to use grammar or spelling that are proper in any dialect, and they also refuse to read unless absolutely necessary. Reading texts from your BFF? Necessary. Reading signs or news that might inconvenience you? Unnecessary. In most scenarios, for those with anti-intellectual persuasions, reading just isn’t necessary as long as you can talk to Siri. Reading is for geeks.
Somehow, reading turned from something desirable into something that reminds people of how little they know. In an age where everything is geared toward our individualism and encourages us to make ourselves our own authority, that actually makes perfect, unfortunate sense.
Rachel Wayne is a writer and artist based in Orlando, FL. She earned her master’s in visual anthropology from the University of Florida and runs the production company DreamQuilt. She is an avid aerial dancer and performance artist, and also dabbles in mixed-media. She writes nonfiction stories about herself and other awesome people, as well as essays on feminism, societal violence, mental health, politics, entrepreneurship, and whatever cultural topic strikes her fancy.