December 20th, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

St. Louis and Literacy

I didn't even know that there was an annual academic study that ranked American cities on overall literacy until I saw a news article the other day about the just-released 2005 edition of John W. Miller's "America's Most Literate Cities." As someone who cares a lot about his home town, the very first thing I went looking for were the St. Louis rankings. Overall, we came up pretty well, rated 15th in the nation out of 69 large cities, well into the top 25%. We tied for 7th in number, quality, and health of our bookstores. We rated #1 best in the nation for the number and quality of our public libraries, which doesn't surprise me at all. We ranked 8th in the nation for newspaper circulation, which kind of surprised me, because the current St. Louis Post-Dispatch is a pale shadow of its former self. On the other hand, newspapers are in decline almost everywhere; America is in serious danger of becoming a country with only three "real" newspapers and a whole bunch of fishwrap consisting of advertisements bordered by reprints of the stories from the three real newspapers and a few unedited local press releases. We tied for a respectable 8th in the number of magazines and professional journals that are published from here, which surprised me; I had no idea this was such a good town to be starting from as a writer.

So much for the good news. You look at those numbers, all of which are much lower than 15, and you just know that for us to rank 1st, 7th, and 8th in three such important categories and still end up dragged down to 15th overall, there has to be bad news.

In what he calls Internet literacy, we tied for 37th. (By which, by the way, he doesn't mean "knows how to use the Internet" but "uses the Internet for literary purposes," just to clear that up.) I think that one may be slightly unfair; I think he over-weights wireless access points and under-weights the number of households with broadband access. On the other hand, one of his major variables is what percentage of the population reads at least one newspaper online, and that number is almost certainly being dragged down by the fact that the Post-Dispatch's web site sucks, is quite possibly the worst newspaper web site in the country. So it wouldn't surprise me if a follow-up study found that a lot of St. Louisans got curious about this idea of free newspapers online, went to STLtoday.com, saw that it was almost totally useless and almost completely unreadable, and went back to the (8th in the nation, remember) dead-tree edition. But like I said, I think that one isn't entirely fair, so it doesn't worry me nearly as much as the next one, which merits serious attention:

St. Louis rated 58th out of 69, or 12th worst in the country, on educational achievement level, which is a weighted average of percentage of the adult population that hasn't even finished 8th grade, that have graduated from high school, and that have a bachelor's degree or above. Fifty-eighth. The same city that rates #1 for libraries, #7 for bookstores, and #8 for newspapers came in #58 for education. Here's how I read that. St. Louisans are, by national standards, mad for learning and reading and literacy and education. It's just that an awful lot of us, a huge number of us, just don't go anywhere near a school to get it. I hadn't spotted it as a trend, but I feel foolish for not having done so. Everywhere I go in St. Louis I run into very smart people who barely (if at all) finished high school, the most ambitious of whom dropped out of college after maybe two whole semesters. They are smart people. They read, and read for pleasure; they follow current events; they have well-thought out religious, philosophical, and political positions; and an awful lot of them are even successful writers. They just don't all finish school. I'm not saying that high school or college drop-outs are the majority, but in hindsight I can come up with no reason to dispute his finding that St. Louisans finish school at rates much, much lower than the national average.

I have a lot more to say about this, but I'm running out of both room and (honestly, I'm in a mediocre mood, and therefore) inclination to write more today. Probably tomorrow I'll speculate on what I think might be the reason we ended up down here in the educational cellar with hell-holes like Detroit, and then point out a major economic implication of this.