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An article a while back in The Washington Post confirmed what many of us who teach for a living increasingly suspected: that young people no longer read books.

The article by Hannah Natanson cites data on youth reading habits from a study conducted by three San Diego State University psychologists. Among the more distressing: that the percentage of teenagers who read a book, newspaper or magazine on a daily basis dropped from 60 percent in the late-1970s to just 16 percent today. One in three high school seniors did not read a book for pleasure all year, while 82 percent reported visiting Facebook, Twitter or Instagram on a daily basis.

According to the researchers, the decline in reading actually began in the early 1980s, presumably due to the attraction of television and video games, but accelerated sharply in the middle of the last decade as Internet access expanded and the iPhone was introduced. Reading as a whole hasn't so much declined as shifted from the more complex and substantive to the superficial and trivial, almost certainly damaging critical reasoning skills and attention spans in the process.

There exists, of course, a growing (if sometimes disputed) body of evidence suggesting that all the social media and texting and video game use has contributed to social isolation and mental health problems, but within such trends might also be found a partial explanation for our increasingly polarized and ugly politics as well.

On the most basic level, the political virtue that the founders claimed was necessary for sustaining self-government would seem to require a citizenry capable of reading and comprehending the works of political theory that informed their efforts, from Plato and Aristotle to John Locke's "Second Treatise of Civil Government" and the essays contained in "The Federalist" (which were actually published in New York newspapers and therefore intended for a mass audience during the ratification debate). At the least, our project to improve much-neglected civic education, to enhance young people's understanding of their political system and the principles upon which it is based, is unlikely to succeed if they don't read books.

Life without books is left superficial, purely surface floss. A public that can't think beneath that surface and can't comprehend complex arguments is unable to engage in reasoned discourse in pursuit of truth, and more likely to seek comfort in conformity and tribal belonging. Those who don't read books are less capable of thinking independently and thus easier to tell what to think and to command.

Without reading books we are likely to acquire a debilitating, close-minded certitude, a misplaced confidence that we are right and the other side wrong, even though, no longer having the capacity to think it through, we aren't entirely sure why. Lacking the ability to understand or construct arguments, we are unable to explain why we believe what we claim to believe and lack understanding and sympathy for people who might believe otherwise. We are left to fall back on talking points and name-calling to signal our membership in our tribe.

When reading tweets replaces reading books, the idea that we should acquire knowledge before forming opinions, and that even then our opinions are merely tentative pending further exploration and acquisition of more knowledge, tends to be lost. The tribe dictates what our positions should be, with heresy deterred by the threat of expulsion.

Closed-minded people become dumb people because their minds have stopped working as a result of their certainty. They are no longer receptive to other arguments or willing to consider new facts or data that conflict with what they've already concluded. They don't know what they don't know, which tends to be a lot, but are somehow sure that they know all they need to.

A distressing inverse relationship consequently develops between the fierceness with which opinions are now expressed in our politics and the actual knowledge base that should buttress opinions.

No opinion tends to be preferable to an ignorant one, but ignorant opinions tend to spread when people are told what opinions they should have but are left bereft of the reasoning to arrive at them.

A world without book readers becomes a world in which logic is displaced by emotions and feelings and truth becomes purely a subjective concept, included or not depending on the considerations of partisanship and the needs of the narrative.

The invention of the printing press helped make the Enlightenment possible, with its elevation of reason and logic in pursuit of truth. From that Enlightenment came the rule of law, self-government, and individual freedom, all based on a belief that human beings could make rational decisions for themselves, rather than have their "betters" dictate to them due to their incompetence in that regard.

How ironic that we now seem to be slipping back into a medieval, pre-Enlightenment form of politics featuring conspiracy theories, witch hunts, growing ignorance, and superstition. Our tribalism based on ascription (skin color and ethnicity) takes us back in time and threatens to undermine the Enlightenment achievement of individual rights and human freedom.

We are what we read. And teenagers who don't read books grow up to be adults who don't read books. Adults who also vote (or don't).

Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.

Editorial on 11/04/2019

Print Headline: Democracy without books

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