Thursday, January 8, 2009

Humanities Indicator

If you have not already seen this, The Humanities Resource Center has released an excellent study, The Humanities Indicator Prototype, which attempts to measure, as the name suggests, the nature of and degree of engagement between the humanities and the general culture. Follow the link to the main page.

Part V, The Humanities in American Life, is the section particularly pertinent to those of us focusing on the role of reading and children's literature. In particular, Section A covers Adult Literacy, Family Literacy, and Book Reading.

This is an excellent collation of information from disparate sources and the general observations and conclusions map well to research we have been doing at Through the Magic Door which is more concentrated on these same trends but with particular focus on young people rather than the population at large.

The one element I do not see addressed is the degree of concentration of reading. Based on only two studies some years apart, it would appear to me that in the US, discretionary reading is highly concentrated. Approximately 50% of the population read nothing for pleasure in a given year, 40% of the population reads about 20% of the books consumed in a year and 10% of the population does approximately 80% of the discretionary reading. The closest the study comes to shedding light on this issue is measurement of levels of prose proficiency. The US comes ninth among twenty-two OECD countries (and ahead of all the big European countries such as UK and Germany) in terms of prose proficiency but it also has one of the most bi-polar distributions. 21% of the population reads at the highest level of proficiency and 21% reads at the lowest level. Three Scandinavian countries (four of the nine countries that are ahead of the US) have similarly high levels of the population reading at the most proficient level but are more effective at minimizing the percentage of the population reading at the lowest levels. For Sweden, Norway and Finland, 24% of the population reads at the highest literacy level (compared to the US's 21%) but only 9% read at the lowest level (compared to the US's 21%).

Other interesting findings in this report:

43% of the population read no books for pleasure in the prior 12 months. That figure is for 2002. More recent studies for the US that I have seen all hover around the 50% mark not having read a book in the prior 12 months. In Europe the corresponding figure tends to average 55% but with marked national and regional variations.

While overall voluntary reading has been declining for a number of years, the most marked declines are among the younger demographics. Between 1992 and 2002, voluntary reading declined from 59.8% to 51% for 18-24 year olds and from 63.8% to 58.4% for 25-34 year olds. Remember, this is a measure of people that read at least a single book.

All demographics showed an increase in the habit of daily reading to children in their household, increasing from 53% to 58% between 1993 and 2001. Households with the mother having a college degree education or higher (about 25% of the population) had the highest rates of daily reading to children at 73%.

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