No. 644



The English essayist and poet, Joseph Addison (1672-1719) once said of education, “It is a companion which no misfortune can depress, no crime can destroy, no enemy can alienate, no despot can enslave. Without it, what is man? A splendid slave, a reasoning savage.”
Maybe this explains why we see so much violence and bloodshed in our world and in our culture today. As an educated person, at least one who is literate, I am sure you will join me in wanting to stamp out ignorance. This is a challenge that we face in America today as literacy rates have fallen for the past several decades.
There are a myriad of reasons for the dilemma we face. A recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts found that Americans are reading a lot less while watching television a lot more, especially those in the younger generations. Since reading is the foundation for education, this is something that should concern us all. This study examined data on everything from how many 9-year-olds read every day for “fun” (54 percent), to the percentages of high school graduates deemed by employers as “deficient” in writing in the English language, a whopping 72 percent.
This study further revealed that on average, Americans ages 15 to 24 spend almost two hours a day watching TV, and only seven minutes of their leisure time on reading. NEA Chairman Diana Gioia has said, “I think there has been an enormous investment in teaching kids to read in elementary school. Kids are doing better at 9 and at 11. At 13, they are doing no worse, but then you see this catastrophic falloff -- if kids are put into this electronic culture without any counterbalancing efforts, they will stop reading.”
This seems to suggest, at least to me, that if we are to improve literacy in our nation we must help children when they are very young to develop a passion and a love of reading. This is the goal of our “Bookcase for Every Child” project that I have told you about many times before. I’m happy to report that we are making great progress as we are starting our fourth year here in Conway and will soon have 200 quality, personalized oak bookcases in the hands of deserving children. We stress parents taking time to read to their children at home.
We are delighted that the project is also spreading to other communities in Arkansas and in other states. The community that will always have the distinction of being the very first, outside of Conway, to build and give bookcases to their 3-, 4- and 5-year-old children is Russellville, our neighbor to the north. This is a great community of good people and a wonderful place to live and raise a family. They also have the support of hundreds of their citizens. The Russellville Bookcase Project Committee, headed by Scott Perkins, held their first Awards Ceremony on the campus of Arkansas Tech University on October 28, 2007.
I was honored when they invited me to be their inaugural speaker, and what a thrill it was to see 51 of their children receive their very own bookcase and books. Just the looks on their faces made all the hard work worth it.
I shall always remember the comments made by Dr. Robert Brown, president of Arkansas Tech, who gave the welcome. He said, “There is no project or purpose our university would rather be connected with than this one. Literacy is the key that unlocks all the rest of human knowledge. I know this project is cyclical. In the future you can count us in.”
There is yet another element in discussing the bookcase project that I sometimes fail to mention. This is the human element. They say that all politics is local. Well, so is a bookcase project. Sometimes we forget these are human beings who are receiving these bookcases, and what we are doing for them will make a tremendous contribution, not only for the children, but for their parents as well. When we can break the cycle of poverty for one generation, it impacts future generations for years to come. This is one all-volunteer, no-tax-money project that is making a difference.
Something touching came out of the Russellville awards ceremony. A few days after the ceremony, the chairman called to tell me a story about one of the children who had received a bookcase. This child came with his mother from New Orleans soon after Hurricane Katrina. A few days before the ceremony, his mother died from cancer. The community stepped up, but the chairman told me he had a call from the people caring for this child, and they said he could not stop talking about his bookcase. This is something he will carry with him as long as he lives.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Jim Davidson is a public speaker and syndicated columnist. You may contact him at 2 Bentley Drive, Conway, AR 72034. To support literacy, buy his book: “Learning, Earning & Giving Back.”)