It Wasn't Our Best Summer
It was surely the summer of our discontent. The 24/7 cable news coverage of the debate over the United States' debt ceiling and deficit was more than a political annoyance. It was discouraging - downright depressing - and it's left many Americans wondering whether we are capable of governing ourselves under the circumstances that have evolved in Washington.
Politicians took our economic future hostage, leaving us fraught with anxiety. And we have every right to be frightened. Who knows what the Gang of Six (a disturbing piece of nomenclature if ever I heard one) will foist upon us? It seemed that our elected officials - especially those voted in by the tea party - had decided to burn down the village in order to save it.
As one 100-degree day followed another, the economy continued its downward slide. Unemployment shot up, the stock market began to nosedive, and jobs became increasingly scarce. It now seems likely that we'll sink into another recession - or worse.
On Tuesday, Sept. 13, the Census Bureau announced that the nation's poverty rate rose to 15.1 percent in 2010, up from 14.3 percent in 2009 and to its highest level since 1993. And there's serious debate over whether the "poverty threshold" is set too low.
As Michele Bachmann so eloquently pointed out, we suffered through a hurricane and an earthquake brought on by God's displeasure. (We're lucky to have her; she has a direct line to the Lord.) What she didn't mention were the tornadoes, droughts, floods - and the two wars we can't win or afford.
Worst of all, the 2012 campaigns for president began. GOP candidates threw themselves into the briar patch, sniping and backbiting on the televised debates. Perry and Romney argued over who said what about Social Security, Medicare, immigration and health care. And we've got a lot more of this baloney to swallow.
All in all, not an auspicious summer for Americans.
Unfortunately, the bad news - news with ominous, long-term implications for the culture - got lost in the hubbub. What should concern us more than the political nastiness is that reading scores on the SATs have taken a dive. This year's average score of 497 is a 40-year low, down 33 points from 1972.
The College Board notes that test-taking has broadened and that the number of students who did well has increased. But there is still a huge gap in achievement between African-Americans, Hispanics and whites, a gap we've been unable to close despite billions poured into No Child Left Behind (an ironic appellation for another failed government program).
What can explain these low reading scores? Maybe teachers are "teaching to the test," which ignores the analytical skills necessary to do well on the SATs reading component. It might have been a bad year, a fluke. But in fact, the scores have been trending downward for the last four years.
Whatever the problem, the truth is simple enough: If our children can't read, they can't learn, and if they don't learn, they'll likely become a statistic, another name and number on the poverty roles, another burden on society. Illiteracy is silent and insidious - and it endangers the republic.
I have a simple suggestion for solving many of the problems that plague us. Turn off the TV - or cut back to basic cable - and read more. Quit watching Fox News and MSNBC. Who are these "political commentators" who have the effrontery to set themselves up as purveyors of public opinion?
Do we really need to be told what to think? If we read both sides of an argument, we can arrive at a measured conclusion - and we'll be capable of backing up our point of view. It isn't enough to say that we dislike a particular politician or political party; we should know why we disagree with them. I'm not interested in hearing any more mindless 24/7 media jabber.
If we want to raise our children's reading scores, pull the plug on the flat screen and put good books in their hands.
Stephen Smith lives in Southern Pines. Contact him at email@example.com.
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