Reading Comprehension

A recent study in Scientific American addressed literacy rates in the United States.

We are fortunate enough to have few people in this country who are profoundly illiterate–unable to read, for example, stop signs and other basic information. But a growing number of Americans are what Chris Clarke calls socially illiterate, able, for practical purposes, to read, but incapable of reading and analyzing complex material. Someone who can, in other words, read the shop manual for a ’68 Chevy, but is not capable of digesting the information in 1968: The Year that Rocked the World. Currently, it is estimated at 1/3 of Americans are probably socially illiterate.

This is distressing to me. It concerns me that only 66% of Americans are capable of a task which I think everyone should be able to do. Reading comprehension and critical analysis are a vital part of being alive. This is what distinguishes us, as a species, from others–our ability to distribute and propogate information, to share across many boundaries, and to emerge elightened and enriched.

What’s causing illiteracy rates is a post for another day.

Of greater concern to me is that even people in higher office apparently have difficulty with their reading comprehension, as displayed in the recent debacle around the release of the National Intelligence Estimate on terrorism.

Bits and pieces of the report were leaked, and Bush hotly argued that it was for political reasons, that the content of the report had been twisted by the opposition, and that actually the report supported his position that we are winning the war on terror, and that being in Iraq is the right thing to do.

Well enough. But he was so confident in his point, even after apparently reading the report, that he decided it should be declassified and opened to all, so that we the people could see the truth of his words.

Well, as it turns out, Mr. Bush is wrong. The report does not support his assertions–indeed, it refutes them in a pretty major way. The terrorists are winning, becoming more scattered and isolated over the globe, which makes them more difficult to round up. The war in Iraq is serving as a rallying point for militant causes, and indeed the whole world is becoming rapidly destablized. Terrorist attacks, the report threatens, are going to grow in physical and geographical scope from here on out.

Being in Iraq, it turns out, is the wrong thing to do, because of the fear of Western domination. While “democratization” might at first affect the public’s view on the whole affair, in the long term it’s leading to instability, and opportunities for radical fronts to move in. And bomb things.

Far from being optimistic about our future, like Mr. Bush is, the report is actually rather gloomy. The jihadist movement, as the Times article above points out, is actually outstripping Mr. Bush thanks to the internet, global instability, and its resourcefulness. America may be directly responsible, in many ways, for the rapid global spread of terror. (The study doesn’t say that–I’m just hypothesizing, since the report faults growing instability for the spread of terrorist movements, and the United States is very, very good at destabilizing things.)

The way I see this, there are a number of options:

1. Mr. Bush read a different report and got confused
2. Mr. Bush read the same report, and the evil left wing baby killers did a bait and switch
3. Mr. Bush read the report…and didn’t understand it

Already, Mr. Bush appears to be backpedaling, and saying that our presence in Iraq is not responsible for the growing terrorist threat: we weren’t in Iraq in 1993, during the World Trade Centre bombing, or in 2000, when the USS Cole was attacked…or even on 11 September, 2001, he whines. What he doesn’t seem to understand is the clear conclusions that have been drawn in the report: that globally, the threat of terrorism is worse than before, and that globally, we may be facing an epic crisis.

I recommend that we institute a new examination for all nominees to public office which tests their reading comprehension and critical thinking skills, because we cannot have someone who is socially illiterate dictating public policy. I don’t know about you, but it scares the willies out of me.