IS reading becoming a ``lost art'' among the young, as the president of the College Board asked recently? On the 300th anniversary of newspaper publishing in America, this is a sobering question. New statistics on the verbal portion of national Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) exams show yet another downturn - 4 percent - in students' ability to read and comprehend. Part of the reason for the SAT decline is that more students from disadvantaged backgrounds are taking the test. That certainly is to the good. But there's little doubt that recent decades have seen a steady erosion in reading and literacy. In a recent national assessment of students, more than half said they read less than 10 pages a day. More than half also said they spent over three hours a day watching TV and music videos. As one high-school classics teacher lamented to us last week, ``The kids who come to me these days just don't read many books.''
These perceptions are also backed up by a Times Mirror study (``An Indifferent Age'') in July showing that, for the first time ever, young Americans read less and were less knowledgeable about people and events than their elders. This finding should force us to pause. Reading and thinking are closely related activities. The practice and discipline of reading and study helps develop deeper, more nuanced thinking. In a country that depends on an informed citizenry to remain free and prosperous, any steady loss of literacy is a serious matter.
In 1690, when the first colonial newspaper, Publick Occurrences, was published in Boston, the colonies were the most literate place on earth. To the American Puritans, reading was a nearly sacred form of mental liberation. As historian David Hall points out, ``Learning how to read and becoming `religious' were perceived as one and the same thing .... The godly in England and New England valued direct access to the Word of God as the most precious of their privileges. Thus did literacy figure at the heart of cultural politics; thus did it represent the freedom these people proclaimed for themselves.''
It is worth remembering even in the late 20th century that a central tenet of Martin Luther's continent-shaking reformation in the 1500s was the right and responsibility of individuals to read and experience the Bible for themselves. Thus reading and education led to the formation of an enlightened middle-class in northern Europe, England, and America. Broadly, the political ramifications of this mental liberation led to the American Revolution and the fine-grained quality of thinking in the US Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Today, also, one finds important social and economic arguments for a greater emphasis on reading and literacy. One rationale for reading, and one might add reading newspapers, is made by educator E.D. Hirsch in his 1987 best-seller ``Cultural Literacy.'' The argument is one of economic empowerment. All students, and especially minority students, must become literate in the ideas, symbols, and language of a common US culture, he argues, because this is the key to functioning in the economic mainstream.
Good newspapers are a forum of common culture, as well as news events. In fact, as Bill Kovach, director of the Nieman Fellows at Harvard, points out in our opinion pages today, newspapers may increasingly be called upon to act as an interpretive device in an age of electronic impressions - a ``vehicle for understanding.'' That's a tall order.
Yet no matter how fine newspapers become, they still need readers. Here, parents and other adults are the essential educators. Children should become engaged in reading during their earliest years - and enter the worlds of imagination, reason, and history. Reading is an art. It is a foundation for other learning.
Newspapers have survived in the US for 300 years. They should survive another 300, at least. The free press is the common vehicle conveying one of humankind's most valuable gifts - language, the printed word.
Reading those words is part of the gift.