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Literacy in the United States: Readers and Reading since 1880.


reviewed by E. Jennifer Monaghan - 1994

coverTitle: Literacy in the United States: Readers and Reading since 1880.
Author(s): Carl F. Kaestle, Helen Damon-Moore, Lawrence C. Stedman, Katherine Tinsley
Publisher: Yale University Press, New Haven
ISBN: 0300054300, Pages: , Year: 1991
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Carl Kaestle and his colleagues (formerly his graduate students) have written an important book, a worthy winner of the History of Education Society's biennial Outstanding Book Award. In cleancut prose, free of either pedantry or hysteria, and in a voice that is admirably consistent across its multi-authored chapters, Kaestle analyzes what Americans read, how well they read, and what reading has meant to Americans across the span of the past century. He and his coauthors cover virtually all the existing usable research on adult and young adult readers, and introduce new explorations to boot. Throughout the book, their mastery of a daunting array of secondary sources is exemplary.

After Kaestle's obligatory romp through literacy studies of earlier centuries and a discussion of relevant theoretical issues, he and Lawrence Stedman tackle the common perception that there is "an epidemic of functional illiteracy" (p. 75). Displaying an easy familiarity with social science methodology, they reexamine reading trends over the century. After analyzing measures such as then-and-now studies, achievement-test score trends, and direct tests of functional literacy, they conclude that despite the rise in schooling over time (which they call "the big story in twentieth-century literacy"), some 20 to 30 percent of adult Americans have difficulty coping with the literacy demands of the workplace (p. 127). Moreover, literacy attainment remains inextricably related to the structure of society. On the other hand, the "Great Test-Score Decline" of the 1970s was not as drastic as we have been led to believe.

From ranges of reading abilities, the book then turns to reading activities. Using Commerce Department data on reading expenditures, Stedman, Tinsley, and Kaestle generate a series of imaginative comparisons on the American consumption of print between 1929 and 1986. Reading expenditures have declined since the 1960s from over half to about a quarter of our national outlay on "mass-media" objects (which include movie tickets and electronic items as well as print). In constant dollars and in relation to our gross, recreational, and mass- media expenditures, we Americans spent proportionately less on print in 1986 than we did in 1929. This portrait of a waning national enthusiasm for reading is supported by Damon-Moore and Kaestle's analysis of reading surveys. Over the past fifty years, newspaper reading has declined from the 80-90 to the 50-60 percent range of the populations surveyed. In contrast, "regular" book reading has remained fairly constant, at some 20 to 25 percent. Newspaper readers, however, are literally aging out of the reading public.

In a chapter of more interest to reading professionals than to historians, Trollinger and Kaestle address the topic of readability, using various formulae to check on the readability of stories in two 1920s magazines--the middlebrow Saturday Evening Post and the highbrow Atlantic Monthly. The net result is to highlight the dangers of using traditional approaches, like the Flesch Reading Ease formula, to assess readability.

More approachable to educational historians is Tinsley and Kaestle's discussion of the role played by reading in individual lives, based on the autobiographies of thirty white women who grew up between the 1870s and the 1920s. Full of fascinating tidbits, this chapter also unwittingly reveals how easily, in a book with "literacy" in its title, Kaestle and his colleagues have subscribed to a long-standing bias: an exaggerated attention paid by researchers to people's reading, to the neglect of their writing. Reading was crucial to the emotional and intellectual development of the autobiographers, and none, at least in the excerpts provided here, discusses the value of writing. Yet is is in the writing of their own lives that these obscure authors codified their experiences.

Damon-Moore and Kaestle then turn to a chapter on gender distinctions, focusing intently on two mass-circulation magazines, the Ladies' Home Journal and the Saturday Evening Post. They elaborate on the discovery of advertisers that women had become the culture's primary consumers by the early twentieth century. The authors believe that gender-targeted advertising will continue, despite its critics. The relationship between advertising and magazines is symbiotic, self-reinforcing, and virtually unregulated.

Kaestle closes the volume by reviewing American print culture as a tension between growing standardization and, since the end of the 1950s, increasing diversity. Calling for a "diverse but inclusive literacy," he argues that continuing differences in literacy abilities across social, racial, and ethnic groups will ultimately pose a threat to American democracy (p. 293). It is hard to quarrel with him.

This book will become a classic for its authors' ability to muster and coordinate a large body of disparate data. Kaestle himself handles the evidence in a dispassionate yet hard-headed manner, alerting his readers to the complexities of the comparisons and to their implications for public policy. This said, there are a few disappointments. Not even Kaestle's skill can disguise the fact that this is a collection of disparate essays whose selection of topics has been largely governed by the eclectic interests of his colleagues. As a result, the gaps are considerable. Neither oral histories of reading nor family literacy, for instance, plays a part in this volume. African-American readers are barely mentioned. Black magazines and newspapers before the 1960s, such as the Pittsburgh Courier, which serialized science fiction, are ignored.

We sense, however, that this volume serves to clear the ground for a larger work by Kaestle on twentieth-century readers that is yet to come. We await it with bated breath.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 95 Number 4, 1994, p. 584-568
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 126, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 6:21:38 PM

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