Report - Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences

Report - Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences

Strengthen Literacy

Developing broadly capable citizens requires a thoughtful, coordinated approach,

beginning with the earliest days of school. The first goal should be to establish a

foundation of literacy. Reading and writing are the building blocks of learning, making

possible all the rest of our education and development. From being able to sound out

words on a page, we advance to be able to analyze, interpret, ask questions, make connections,

and express our thoughts in words. In its most capacious definition, literacy

means being able to read the world, as we learn how to understand, compare, draw

inferences, and communicate. These foundational skills come into play whenever we

engage with the world, whether in admiring a painting or poring over a news website.

Even in a digital age, the spoken and written word remains the most basic unit of our

interactions, the very basis of our humanity.

Hence, a report with goals like ours must register, at the very outset, a call for a commitment

to literacy. Overall literacy rates in the United States have remained steady for

decades, although the unacceptably large number of functionally illiterate Americans

is cause for grave concern. 1 In modern-day America, people who cannot read or write

are effectively disenfranchised; it is impossible for them to live up to their potential or

to give society the full measure of what they might have contributed.

As our political, social, and economic strength depends on a fully literate populace,

it therefore depends on robust teaching in the humanities and social sciences, since

these are among the principal skills that these subjects teach. While there should be

support for literacy programs for people of all ages, the most strategic investment will

be at the k-12 level.

In its Common Core State Standards Initiative, the National Governors Association

has outlined “the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college

and careers.” We applaud the thinking behind this plan, which defines foundational

skills in communications and in mathematics. Although it is too soon to predict

all the outcomes that will result from nationwide implementation, the proposed Core

makes communication—reading, writing, and speaking—a fundamental element of

education, opening doors for more advanced learning. 2 It emphasizes literacy as a way

of learning about the world: in other words, literacy is not the “end” but the beginning

to a voyage of understanding.

The Heart of the Matter 23

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