The Power Politics of Not Reading

As part of the Common Core initiative, K-12 students across the country are being asked more than ever to do close reading and to support their conclusions with textual evidence.  Students (and by extension, their teachers and schools) are evaluated by their ability to build substantive, fact-based arguments rather than their ability to articulate personalized or subjective responses.  For this reason, I have to wonder what these students would make of Rep. Nunes’ recent reading performance with regards to the FISA court ruling he was so upset about.

Although his memo was a critique of the nature of the application the FBI submitted to the FISA court, when pressed Nunes had to admit that he had not actually read the application himself.  He claimed that it was not important that he had not read it, since he relied upon other people to do the reading for him.  Moreover, when it became clear that the FBI application did indeed include information about the potential political motivation behind the Steele Dossier (immediately dismantling Nunes’ whole argument about FBI not being transparent), he pointed out that that information was in the footnotes of the documents. To summarize, Rep. Nunes didn’t read the FBI text himself, but had he, he believes he couldn’t be blamed for not noticing the information he claimed was missing was actually there because it was in a different part of report.  Were he a high school student, Rep. Nunes would have failed this reading exam so badly his parents would be called in to talk about his performance.

Of course, he is not alone in his embrace of non-reading as a political maneuver.  There have been a number of reports about the fact that the President he works for refuses to read any briefing of any length, and that Trump struggles to find the attention and motivation to read even the one-page bullet point lists that are drafted by his staff.  This is in keeping with earlier statements of his in which he bragged about always coming to the right conclusion even when he doesn’t have relevant facts or information at his fingertips – he just knows.  Evidence suggests that he has been a non-reader for much of his adult life.

Within the field of education, the term “aliterate” is used to describe those individuals who do not read, even though they have the ability to do so.  The term was created to differentiate this population from those who don’t read because they can’t (that is, the illiterate).  The key concern, of course, is that by choosing not to read aliterate individuals are losing out on chances to learn new things, develop their vocabulary and become stronger and more critical readers. Teachers around the country struggle to motivate young readers who demonstrate alliterate behaviors, looking for books that might pique their interest and activities that might convince them that reading can be a powerful and moving experience.

In this context, what message does President Trump send with his public and unabashed aliteracy?  That he is above reading?  That reading limits your ability to hold onto your ungrounded beliefs and is thus for those suckers who care about facts?  His limited vocabulary and knowledge of the world are sometimes laughed off or seen as just another example of the incompetence of the Trump Administration, but it is not amusing.  Rather than being ridiculed, Trump and his cohorts should be challenged to defend their embrace of aliteracy as a political weapon for sowing confusion and sustaining baseless narratives.  How can teachers hope to motivate students to read when the most powerful people in the country consistently suggest that actively not reading is a good political strategy?  How can teachers and schools hold students accountable for their ability to use textual evidence when the Trump administration works to undermine the very notion of textual evidence?  It is high time adults in power are held to the same reading standards that students are.

  • Erik Jacobson

IMG_4995_400x400Erik Jacobson works on literacy in a variety of contexts and with students of various ages, including adults. He can be contacted at He is also on Twitter – @LearningJustice


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