And what a message! [Referring to Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.] Can you imagine a book with such a complex style today selling 60 million copies in one year? To ask the question is to answer it. To make the comparison concrete, here are data from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), which measures the English literacy of adults across the United States. Prose literacy, defined in the study as the ability to “search, comprehend, and use information from continuous texts,” is categorized into four levels: below basic, basic, intermediate, and proficient. Proficient, the highest level, is defined as “reading lengthy, complex, abstract prose texts as well as synthesizing information and making complex inferences.” As an example of this level of performance, they cite comparing the viewpoints in two texts. This level seems to be roughly the level required to read Common Sense.
In the extensive NAAL survey, only 13% of adults attained this level. Thus, the proportion of Americans today who are able to understand Common Sense (13%) is smaller than the proportion that bought Common Sense in 1776 (20%). Are we a nation in decline?
While I’m inclined to argue that we are, in fact, a nation in decline, I don’t think the argument that few adults can comprehend a 235-year-old book is a sign of said decline. After all, how many of the Founding Fathers would be able to decipher IM and text message shorthand? Trying to compare the English of today to the English of yesterday is an exercise in futility.
For example, the King James Version of 1611 is nigh unreadable today. Not because the Bible is, in itself, difficult to understand, but because this specific version of the Bible was written in 1611, and the English of that day is remarkably different from the English of today.
Words change meaning over time. Concepts that once required entire books for explanation now exist as self-representing shorthand. That’s simply nature of language. Thus, arguing that we are less literate today because we are less capable of comprehending something that was written over two hundred years ago in what is arguably a different language (yes, it’s English, but it did have different rules and structure back then, as well as different words and words with different meanings).
A better case for social decline can be made by noting the prevalence of aliteracy (wherein one is capable of reading but chooses not to), which can be demonstrated by declining book sales, the amount of television watched by the average American, etc. Of course, this assumes that non-text mediums are provably inferior to textual mediums. And one must also account for the sheer presence of text in the average person’s daily life. And one must demonstrate a causal link between illiteracy and social decline.
At any rate, the attempt to demonstrate societal decline by seeing how many adults are capable of comprehending the writings of Thomas Paine strikes me as rather futile.