Can reading make you more stupid?

There, thought that would grab your attention. And of course the answer is no. But I’m using that title to point up the somewhat asinine headline of a recent article by Dan Hurley in the UK Guardian: “Can reading make you smarter?” To which many might immediately answer: What else is reading for? And others might ask: Well, if reading can’t, what the hell else can?

Dan Hurley: The smart money’s on him – maybe…

But then, Hurley has quite a lot invested in the business of smartening up your smarts. He’s the author of Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power, and according to his website, his 2012 New York Times Magazine feature “Can You Make Yourself Smarter?” was “of the magazine’s most-read articles of the year.” So he’s surely the smartest guy in the room when it comes to getting smart about smartness.

Hurley does do a bit of genre-busting by claiming that an early discovery of Spider-Man took him up the learning curve from a slow starter to a straight-A student. “Was I actually ‘slow’ when I was eight?” he asks, “and did I somehow become smarter because I immersed myself in reading and writing comic books?”

Revealingly, Hurley needs to spend “three years interviewing psychologists and neuroscientists around the world, reviewing their studies and testing new methods they claim can increase intelligence” to confirm his intuition. After all, millennia of human experience and validation from the humanities isn’t enough: Hurley has to drag it all to the altar of scientism for sacramental benediction. Because unless it’s all down in hard numbers and solid research, it can’t be true, right?

Still, if the words of Albert Einstein and Descartes aren’t good enough for you, there is plenty of scientific evidence for the direct cognitive and intellectual effect of reading. Just one representative quote – which carries a little more authority and conviction than Hurley’s effusions – from Anne E. Cunningham and Keith E. Stanovich’s “What Reading Does for the Mind“: Reading has cognitive consequences that extend beyond its immediate task of lifting meaning from a particular passage. Furthermore, these consequences are reciprocal and exponential in nature. Accumulated over time—spiraling either upward or downward—they carry profound implications for the development of a wide range of cognitive capabilities.”

Problem is, you need to have read enough already to be comfortable with words like “cognitive” or “reciprocal” and “exponential,” let alone to be able to guess what they might imply in this context. Hurley does use the word “cognitive” once in his article – but I’m just not quite so convinced that he’s at home with it than these authors. Maybe it’s something about the tone of his prose – which you can only pick up on by having read enough to compare, eh?

I’d be more worried than inspired by what this article suggests about the state of our attitudes towards reading, education, self-cultivation, and culture in general. Do Guardian readers need to be told that reading is good for them? Has the general educated public lost so much understanding and self-respect to some half-digested pseudoscientific prejudices that they need to relearn the value of books?

Which leads to one final conclusion: If you’re the kind of person who needs to be told that reading can make you smarter, then you ought to be reading more. Know what I mean?

2 Comments on Can reading make you more stupid?

  1. Is the answer “of course… no”? It depends on what you read.

    Take racism for interest, particularly the nasty U.S. variety. My almost finished Lily’s Ride: Saving her Father from the Ku Klux Klan is a excerpt and repacking of Albion Tourgée’s 1879 bestselling novel, A Fool’s Errand. Tourgée record of opposing racism is impeccable. He spent his life fighting it, and it was he who argued against segregation in the 1896 Supreme Court case, Plessy v. Feguson.

    A Fool’s Errand contains echoes of Tourgée’s own life as a Union officer and a Republican lawyer who moved to North Carolina after the Civil War and, as a judge, fought for civil rights for black people. Lily’s Ride covers the part where the main character’s daughter must ride at night over Klan-infested roads to warn her father that he’s about to be intercepted and killed by the Klan.

    One of Tourgée’s points in the novel is that the Northern press echoed stories in the Southern press that the Klan and the Democrats were the good guys, while radical Republicans, allied to scalawags and carpetbaggers, were the bad guys. Blacks, the story went both North and South, weren’t to be trusted with political power.

    Well-read Northerners bought that tall tale, hook, line and sinker. In the late 1890s, it became THE way of interpreting Reconstruction era history. Called the Dunning School, its primary champion was William A. Dunning, a distinguished professor of history at Columbia University. His view, which made the Klan and the Democratic party the heroes of the post-Civil War South and black people and ‘radical’ Republicans the villains totally dominated history for half a century. If you were well-read and particular if you were educated at an elite university, you believed Dunning. In fact, you were probably a inordinately proud of doing so, comparable to people today who sneer at the ‘religious right’ or the ‘tea party’

    Dunning’s ideas the became the theme for a novel called The Clansman (1905) which then inspired the first blockbuster film, The Birth of a Nation (1915). In it, Klansmen are the heroes. The film remained the best-earning film of all time until another racist film, Gone with the Wind came out in the late 1930s. The two had a consistent message, a point of view held by almost all knowledgable, well-educated, well-read people of that day–that black people were better off under slavery (Gone) and that they could not be trusted with power (Birth).

    Those who doubt that anything that atrocious could ever be held by well-read people should read JFK’s Profiles in Courage (1955). The sixth chapter is pure Dunning School in its contempt for a time when ‘radical’ Republicans gave political power to black people. The references for that chapter even include one of Dunning’s books on Reconstruction.

    As I note my Lily’s Ride comments, the important point is not that JFK was a racist. The important point is that a book with deeply racist comments could become a bestseller, win the Pulitzer prize and be widely praised without well-educated, well-read white people in the latter half of the 1950s even noticing that racism–a racism I point out, justified depriving black people of a right to vote.

    So no, it isn’t true that reading makes you smart. In most cases, reading–particularly reading serious literature–simply means that you’re stupid or vile in ways that all your well-read, and equally well-educated contemporaries are stupid or vile. And in pure Orwellian fashion, with the consensus changes, you’ll change without even being aware that you’ve done so. Ideas pass from your reading to your speaking with no real internal thought involved. That’s often what being well-educated and well-read means.

    G. K. Chesterton summed up the folly of minds those people acquire their view of the world from books (or newspapers) when he criticized those “who could read before they could see.” My own experience illustrates that. I grew up in the segregated Deep South at the time that JFK was publishing his racist book, the product of his Harvard education, And yet that grade school in the Deep South me rejected the very point of view that JFK was describing.

    How did I do that? It was not by reading either the black writers who’d always criticized the Dunning School nor was it by reading the criticism of the Dunning School that begun to arise against it among historians in the 1950s. No, I was just a little kid who mostly read boy’s adventure books and ran around in the woods.

    I simply used my eyes. I saw that the people around me that echoed that ‘black voters mean corrupt government’ POV didn’t seem concerned with the dreadful levels of corruption in Alabama’s virtually all-white-elected, utterly Democratic-party-dominated politics. That, I decided, meant their motives were racist rather than being in favor of clean government. And in addition, I used my eyes in another way. I looked at the black people I know and saw nothing about them that made me believe they’d elect crooks and fools. And of course there was the the obvious, overwhelming fact that whites were electing crooks and incompetents. I remember observing, as a kid, that it was difficult to imagine black people making worse choices than whites were making.

    In short, I rejected the Dunning School around the fourth grade without ever knowing its name and I did so not by reading but by seeing.

    So, no, no, no, no. Reading won’t make you smarter, much less better. It all depends on what you read and, far more important than that, whether you exercise you powers of seeing and thinking. You can be illiterate and still be wise and good. You can read every book the NY Times gushes about and still be a vile fool. In fact, it’s quite likely that you will be one with that sort of reading list.

    I’d actually give modern illustrations of just how stupid well-read people are but it’s 2:30 in the afternoon and busy me has yet to eat lunch. Gotta go….

    –Michael W. Perry, author and editor of Lily’s Ride (out real soon now)

  2. borax99 (Alain C.) // January 27, 2014 at 12:24 pm //

    Beautifully put, Michael – thank you !

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