Monday, January 21, 2013

An American View on ‘Reading as Socio-Economic Skill’:Decoding Mr. Barack Obama’s Views as He Embarks on a Second Term

President Obama reading The Polar Express to children from the Washington D.C. Boys and Girls Club community center on December 21, 2009. (photo: Roger L. Wollenberg/Getty) Courtesy:
While doing research for the first National Youth Readership Survey nearly five years back, among many new things that I stumbled upon, was one speech that Mr. Barack Obama, today embarking upon his second term as the President of USA, and then US Senator from Illinois, gave as a key-note address to the general session of the American Library Association’s annual conference held in Chicago in June 2005. Relevant parts of the speech were quoted by the study team in the ‘Looking Ahead’ chapter of the report precisely because of the overpowering perspective it seemed to bring on the relationship between reading and socio-economic empowerment that it invariably gives to an individual. However, what struck me more was the sense of concern that an American politician could express at the lack of reading preparedness among its young people in the new millennium.

Mr. Obama’s speech from his pre-Presidential days on reading as an individual’s basic element to develop a wholesome understanding about oneself and one’s surroundings is something that we can take as an important evidence, if at all any evidence was needed, of this time tested wisdom. The context of his speech is no doubt American, given nearly eight years ago, but considering that it takes generations for social behaviour indicators to show any perceptible change, we can take a few things out of the speech for its interpretation in the contemporary Indian context. Since the speech is made before the conference of librarians, hence the role of libraries is something that he keeps coming back to in the speech, but I am sure that the discerning will be able to make out that he is basically talking about reading as a basic tool for an individual to grow.

Hence when he utters the following lines, we know for sure that the critical reasoning and scientific temper that reading gives rise to among children is what he intends to drive home at while talking about the role of libraries in human societies:

…libraries remind us that truth isn't about who yells the loudest, but who has the right information. Because even as we're the most religious of people, America's innovative genius has always been preserved because we also have a deep faith in facts. And so the moment we persuade a child, any child, to cross that threshold into a library, we've changed their lives forever, and for the better. This is an enormous force for good.

But what I like most is the historical and anthropological context in which he discusses the importance of reading, essentially for the American society, but which can be valid for any other society. Moreover, the speech goes beyond mere statements like ‘books are our best friends’ or ‘books are mine of knowledge’ etc that many in our country make at such specialized gathering of professionals involved in book promotion without touching upon and underlining the tangible socio-economic advantages that it entails. To quote a bit in detail:

  literacy is the most basic currency of the knowledge economy we're living in today. Only a few generations ago, it was okay to enter the workforce as a high school dropout who could only read at a third-grade level. Whether it was on a farm or in a factory, you could still hope to find a job that would allow you to pay the bills and raise your family.

But that economy is long gone. As revolutions in technology and communication began breaking down barriers between countries and connecting people all over the world, new jobs and industries that require more skill and knowledge have come to dominate the economy. Whether it's software design or computer engineering or financial analysis, corporations can locate these jobs anywhere there's an internet connection. And so as countries like China and India continue to modernize their economies and educate their children longer and better, the competition American workers face will grow more intense; the necessary skills more demanding.

These new jobs are about what you know and how fast you can learn what you don't know. They require innovative thinking, detailed comprehension, and superior communication…Reading is the gateway skill that makes all other learning possible, from complex word problems and the meaning of our history to scientific discovery and technological proficiency. And by the way, it’s what’s required to make us true citizens. In a knowledge economy where this kind of learning is necessary for survival, how can we send our kids out into the world if they're only reading at a fourth grade level? (my emphasis)
There is direct relationship between reading and development of to become a more valuable contributor to national economic development. Photo Courtesy: The Hindu

The interesting thing is the relationship that it draws between the reading needs of the young generation with their overall economic contribution. This is quite instructive for the socio-economic reality of a developing country like India too, where inculcation of reading habit is yet to seize the imagination of the society, mainly because book-hunger is something that can not become more overpowering than food-hunger in the Indian context. Secondly, in this light, it is further interesting to know how an American statesman looks at the societies like ours or China, believing them to be doing enough to ‘modernize their economies and educate their children longer and better’.

It is no doubt, the part of India that seems to compete with the Americans is not the part that permeate the whole of India, but for an American politician that would not be of much relevance. Even during his Presidential years in the first term, Mr. Obama has been talking highly about the arithmetic and language skills of children of Mumbai or those in Chinese metropolitan cities as compared to the children of USA. From the American perspective and from the issues related to the outsourcing of jobs, this makes sense for Mr. Obama to highlight.  However, the basic statistics related to the reading-divide that exists between rich and poor, between black and white and so on and so forth that Mr. Obama quotes  further down the speech should be able to connect with all those who are fighting for an inclusive learning society in India. It is indeed the data pertaining to the American society, if anybody who ahs ever been familiar with the realities of such divide in India can find a homely echoe. To quote:

Right now, one out of every five adults in the United States can't read a simple story to their child. During the last twenty years or so, over ten million Americans reached the 12th grade without having learned to read at a basic level. But these literacy problems start far before high school. In 2000, only 32% of all fourth graders tested as reading proficient. And the story gets worse when you take race and income into consideration. Children from low-income families score 27 points below the average reading level, while students from wealthy families score fifteen points above the average. And while only one in twelve white seventeen-year-olds has the ability to pick up the newspaper and understand the science section, for Hispanics the number jumps to one in fifty; for African Americans it's one in one hundred.

Moreover, when he highlights,

It's not enough just to recognize the words on the page anymore - the kind of literacy necessary for 21st century employment requires detailed understanding and complex comprehension.

all those seeking to usher India into the 21st century as a superpower need to read this with lots of salt coming as it does from the leading political leader of the ‘only’ superpower, dream model of many uninformed. At this stage, I need not quote numerous studies taking place in the education sector in India which underline the apparently insurmountable gaps that exists in terms of literacy, school-drop rates, non-availability of text books, etc to various sections of the society, because I am more interested in giving a critical view coming from the Mecca of the capitalist society just to understand if the road taken by them needs to be repeated whole hog as seem to be the whole time approach of some of the influential quarters.  

Further, the one issue that seems to be impacting the whole culture of reading is the invasion of TV and internet in the society. To look at the view of Mr. Obama, brought up in a society that has been exposed to these technological invasions for generations, is to locate the need for course correction in our country which is just getting fully exposed to these technologies. To quote:

When you're home, you might try to get your kids to read, but you're competing with the other byproducts of the technological revolution: video games and DVDs that they just have to have; TVs in every room of the household. Children eight to eighteen now spend three hours a day watching TV, while they only spend 43 minutes reading. Our kids aren't just seeing these temptations at home - they're everywhere. Whether it's their friends or the people they see on TV or a general culture that glorifies anti-intellectualism, it's too easy for kids today to put down a book and turn their attention elsewhere. And it's too easy for the rest of us to make excuses for it - pretending that putting a baby in front of a DVD is educational, letting a twelve-year-old skip reading as long as he's playing good video games, or substituting dinner in front of the TV for family conversation. We know that's not what our kids need.  We know that's not what's best for them. And so as parents, we need to find the time and the energy to step in and find ways to help our kids love reading. We can read to them, talk to them about what they're reading and make time for this by turning off the TV ourselves. (my emphasis)
Parents 'pretending that putting a baby in front of a DVD is educational'photo courtesy:

This does not require my analysis, because I am reproducing them only to give the readers a food for thought and will like to leave them with this. Today, I picked up this speech to present so that the occasion of the second term of Mr. Obama, which fortunately, or unfortunately, concerns the people around the world, can be utilized to project the needs for promoting reading as a essential tool for socio-economic transformation of contemporary societies, to project the agenda of reading right into the forefront of social concerns. I am sure, many readers would be more well-informed about what Mr. Obama did or did not do to promote reading preparedness of his people during his Presidency, but that is not the point of debate for me right now because I do hold any brief for him nor intend to!

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