APRIL 17, 1961
NEW YORK—It was quite shocking to read Superintendent of Schools, John J. Theobald's report last Friday to New York's Board of Estimate, in which he said that 10,000 children in the seventh grade could not read third-grade books. He also reported that the annual test this year showed 67,067 of the city's 172,000 junior high school students more than two years behind in reading. He was appealing for more school funds, including $3 million to hire 560 additional remedial reading teachers.
I think the inescapable conclusion from the testimony is that the teachers in our New York City public schools are actually not very good. It may be that the system used to teach reading and writing is a poor one; but, with alert and interested teachers, it seems to me that this would have been discovered and reported long ago. It is just possible, too, that the homes from which our children come are somewhat responsible. The average home in this country will buy a TV set before it will see to it that the children have the necessary books to read at home which will enrich their school courses.
I remember very well a rather remarkable New York school superintendent, Mr. Angelo Patri, and how hard he tried to inspire the young people in his schools, not only to learn to read but to read as much as they possibly could. Today, with libraries equipped with children's rooms, each individual child if encouraged by the family could certainly do a better job of self-education than Abraham Lincoln did!
This coming week is National Library Week, and I think it should be emphasized. It is true that there are great gaps in our library services, but we are better off than many of the other Western countries. The purpose of having a National Library Week, which is a citizens movement, is "to encourage lifetime reading habits and the use of public libraries at all times by everyone." The goal is a better-read, better-informed America. There never was a time when books could be of more value than at present, when we are trying to familiarize ourselves with the rest of the world about which we have in the past learned so little.
Our young people need to be taught how to read with ease and rapidity. No amount of TV watching will give you the satisfaction that comes from being able to read and re-read a book you have enjoyed. And if you wish to be really informed today you have to learn how to read as quickly as possible, because there is so much that you need to find out. Watching TV is fun if you remember to use the library to fill in what you miss on the screen, and if you use your TV as an inspiration to read further about subjects that after all can only be treated cursorily in a 15-minute or half-hour program.
Every one of us can do something to help stimulate the school libraries in our own neighborhood. A statistical study of school libraries for 1958-59 found that 66 percent of elementary schools with 150 or more pupils have no school libraries at all. These schools enrolled more than 10 million children. The assumption, I suppose, is that little children do not need books. Yet this is precisely the time when their reading habits are formed, when they learn how to treat a book and how to enjoy pictures and simple texts.