An American Editor

January 12, 2010

Parallel Decline: Publishers & Educators

America is facing a steep decline in literacy, a problem that is reflected in publishing companies and in educators. The decline in literacy is a result of the decline in publishing excellence and the lack of literacy skills in educators whose function it is to teach literacy skills.

Normalizing deviance, a phrase coined by Alejandro Sanchez in a different context, accurately — and unfortunately — connotes what I consider the paramount problem in the world of books, newspapers, and magazines. The paramount problem isn’t too many publishers, too many books, too much greed. The paramount problem is too much illiteracy and the acceptance of declining literacy as being the norm.

Think about the changes we have seen in education in the past 60 to 70 years. When I went to college, it was assumed, even required, that I have reading, writing, and comprehension skills. There was no such thing as a remedial writing or English course. Today nearly all colleges have remedial reading and writing classes for incoming students. This shouldn’t be!

What is the difference between then and now? It is hard to pinpoint with laser precision, but I believe the root cause is a growing illiteracy among all social classes, especially among educators whose responsibility it is to raise students from illiteracy to literacy.

When I was in elementary school, we were required to read our local newspaper every day and in class we would discuss the writing of the article, look for misspellings and misuse of homonyms, identify antonyms, rewrite paragraphs for clarity, and show that we could understand the article. This was built into the curriculum and forced us to become literate, whether we wanted to be literate or not. This didn’t change when I moved up grades. The newspaper changed from our local paper to The New York Times and the approach changed, but the fundamental purpose didn’t change: We were taught to be literate.

Today, education is less focused on literacy as a goal in and of itself than on getting past the next test. This is reflected in the literacy quality of teachers. Yes, there are some outstanding teachers just as there are some exceptionally poor teachers. But most teachers are neither outstanding nor poor — they are mediocre and their grasp of the fundamentals of literacy is also mediocre.

Publishers compound the problem by setting the written standard. Publishers accept less-than-stellar editing because it fits their bottom line. But by accepting something less than quality editorial work, they encourage the lowering of the literacy standard. Publishers want to fight illiteracy but only as a public relations tool, not recognizing that as literacy declines so do their fortunes. Publishers are looking for gimmicks to increase sales instead of working to improve teacher and, ultimately, student literacy, thereby creating an audience for their publications. A person whose literacy is third grade level is not a person who will read The New York Times or The Economist, and is unlikely to be a frequent book or magazine buyer. Publishers and educators need to set an example for higher literacy, not lead the charge to lower literacy.

Publishers aren’t fighting for their future audience; instead, they bemoan the decline in readership. Publishers encourage this decline, for example, when they hire editors by price rather than by skill, when they publish error-ridden books and shrug off any criticism, and when they do not require their books to meet anything more than a very minimal level of quality.

Educators encourage the trend by not requiring every teacher, as part of their certification process or graduation requirements, to demonstrate a high level of literacy. Every teacher should be required to demonstrate a literacy level at least at the 10th grade level, if not higher. Literacy equals understanding; the less literate one is, the less one can understand. We don’t have to look far to prove that proposition.

Perhaps the time has come to rethink where society is heading and reemphasize literacy as the ultimate goal of an education. Publishers need to set an example by requiring their end product to have high literacy quality; educators need to rethink their teaching to emphasize literacy skills in students and to redesign teacher-education programs to make teacher literacy the core of the teacher’s education. In the end, society as a whole will benefit. We should no longer accept mediocrity as the acceptable standard for future generations.

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