Dumbing down

Woe is Detroit. Another study, another dis.

The latest academic smack to our struggling city comes from “America’s Most Literate Cities,” conducted by Prof. John W. Miller, chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, and was released earlier this year. It ranks the country’s most reader-friendly cities with populations of 200,000 or more citizens.

Can you see where this is headed?

Out of the 79 metropolises surveyed, Detroit ranked 69th. Minneapolis and Seattle ranked first and second, respectively.

But given Miller’s methodology, we wondered whether his findings should be taken as gospel, or with a grain of salt. He doesn’t touch on ability as much as environment, and the only reliable report that suggests just who can and can’t read around these parts is 12 years old. In 1992, the National Institute of Literacy Studies said that 47 percent of D-dwellers above the age of 16 read at the lowest level of literacy, if at all.

Brian Miller, spokesman for professor Miller, suggests that the UWW study was never intended to determine people’s ability to read. Instead, it uses different formulas to gauge the extent to which cities promote a culture of literacy. Using statistics such as newspaper circulation figures, library branches per capita and school media personnel per student, among other criteria, Miller measured the accessibility of reading resources in each town. Categories included educational outlets, periodicals and newspapers, libraries and booksellers.

Miller’s findings suggest Detroiters can read, but are hardly making the effort.

Daphne Ntiri, a literacy expert and professor of interdisciplinary studies at Wayne State, says that an updated report, preferably compiled by local experts, might do a better job of balancing the cultural bent of Miller’s piece.

“I’m not one to guess whether the findings have changed. Detroit needs to do something to find out where the culture is,” Ntiri says. “People might suspect we are dropping behind because of unemployment and family disintegration.”

Wayne County Commissioner Keith Williams, who represents Detroit’s 6th District on the city’s northwest side, is using the study as grounds to push for a new one. Last month, the commission passed a broad-stroke resolution written by Williams that calls for community leaders to “share the mutual responsibility to begin a deep and lasting process of forging a common vision and solution” to the literacy issue.

OK, so it needs teeth.

Williams says the point of the resolution is that literacy starts in the home. If parents can’t read, he argues, what should be expected of their children?

All we know is both studies, old and new, suggest that much of Detroit no longer thinks reading is fundamental. What will it take to wake folks up?

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