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Encouraging Heroes. You can be one too.

He was tall, lanky, in his early 20s, and might’ve had a plug of tobacco behind his lower lip; I couldn’t tell for sure. His wife had come to the book store in order to get one of my books signed, and it was quite clear that he was merely tagging along. While I shook her hand and thanked her for coming, he used the opportunity to cross his arms and declare – with an obvious air of pride – “Ain’t never been in no book store before.”

That’s a direct quote.

For years I’ve been leading a quiet battle against what I perceive as our nation’s number one issue in education: The attitude of young people toward learning. The comment uttered in the book store by the young man could be Exhibit A, for he wasn’t simply stating a fact; he was boasting.

I call it The Pride of Ignorance, a debilitating scourge on our country’s academic efforts that sets young people upon a path of illiteracy by choice. Those last two words are key: By choice.

It’s bad enough when we’re unable to educate one hundred percent of the nation’s children because of circumstances (financial hardships, for example). But now we have too many young adults who view reading and writing as uncool, and who take pride in their refusal to participate.

This past weekend I was signing books at a warehouse store and was approached by an enthusiastic woman and her clearly-unmotivated daughter. While mom gushed about getting an autograph, her teenager stated that she didn’t want her name included in the inscription. With a defiant tone she said, “I don’t read.”

I don’t expect everyone to share my love of books. But what concerns me is the almost militant attitude against literacy that seems to be growing at an alarming rate.

It’s a parent’s responsibility to address this mindset immediately, rather than allowing it to fester and expand. When the mother in the warehouse store only shrugged with a smile, I took the opportunity to answer the daughter’s declaration. “I wouldn’t be proud of that,” I said. “I know it seems cool today, but one day you’re going to look back and regret it.” Then I signed the book for the mom and watched them walk away, the daughter silently chewing on what an author had told her.

We’re facing a tough challenge in the world of education, and my heart goes out to teachers who not only are asked to do more with less, but are also asked to educate an often-uncooperative group of students. I firmly believe that the parent’s primary role in education is monitoring their darlings’ attitude toward literacy – and learning in general – and becoming teachers themselves by showing a young person the value of their education.

I wonder about the young man who “ain’t never been in no book store before,” and can’t fathom how a parent could ever let that statement become true. I study the face of the teenage daughter who openly expresses her strong distaste of reading, then wait in vain for her mom to use it as a teaching moment.

The last thing we need is a generation of students who look disdainfully upon book stores and libraries, boasting of their illiteracy. By allowing a teenager to naively adopt a sense of pride in their ignorance we make the job of teachers that much more difficult. Young people are extremely susceptible to influence by peers and by cultural tides, but they’re often unable to see where those tides eventually will take them.

That’s our responsibility.

Dom Testa is an author, speaker, morning radio show host, and has kept a ficus tree alive for twenty two years. He’s also the founder and president of The Big Brain Club, a non-profit foundation that helps young people recognize that Smart Is Cool. More info at www.DomTesta.com.

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