“People of the Book” Did Not Make The Top 10 List Of Literate Nations


Saturday is the eve of Shavuot, the holiday when we celebrate Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah to the Jewish People at Mt. Sinai. This gift has turned us into People of the Book, and as throughout the centuries Jewish identity was connected with the Torah, we have come to regard ourselves as a literate nation.

However, this is no longer the case, in a recent list of the world’s ten most literate nations, in the Guardian Finland ranked first, and Israel did not make the top ten at all. John Miller,who conducted the study, believes that Finland, Norway, Iceland, Denmark, and Sweden achieved the top marks because their culture values reading.


That research did not look only at literacy achievement tests, but it closely examined  “literate behavior characteristics,” which means parameters like numbers of academic, public and school libraries, and the numbers of books in libraries, and statistics on years of schooling, computer penetration and newspapers.

When basic reading assessment were the only factors considered, Singapore, South Korea, Japan and China came on top. However when adding in the factors of literate behaviors, none of those countries made even the top 25 list. 

This study proves what many of us feel intuitively, that reading matters. It concludes that “literate behaviors are critical to the success of individuals and nations in the knowledge-based economics that define our global future”.

The United Kingdom reached  the 19th place. Diana Gerald, the chief executive of UK reading charity BookTrust, expressed her disappointment from the low ranking:  “We come from the nation of Dickens and Shakespeare, we have an extraordinary literary background.” “I believe we are doing lots of good work on core literacy and phonics, which are vital, but we need to add … getting children from a young age into loving reading, and wanting to read .”

Similarly, we are the people of the book and have an extraordinary literary tradition. We also do lots of good work on teaching our children to read. So what happened to us, why did we cease to be a literate nation?

There must be many important reasons to that decline, but I would like to focus on the most obvious one. For the last 10 years, in Israel the ministry of Education and Culture has been divided into two. How is it possible to separate between education and culture?

It isn’t, this was a cynical political move, which reveals that for the last ten years our governments have not been taking education and culture seriously. Moreover, our leaders fail to see the crucial role education and culture have in devising  the future of our nation.  Obviously this separation has not made the whole greater than the sum of its parts, and it is not surprising that although Israel is number 2 in its educational investment (after Brazil) this investment does not make us a literate nation.

Traditionally on Shavuot many Jewish people stay up all night reading and studying a variety of sacred texts. This custom Tikkun Leil Shavuot, goes beyond reciting the Torah, toward a more philosophical and humanistic reading of the different texts

I read that the custom of Tikkun originated with the mystics of Safed in the 16th century. This was our past, and it is exactly the kind of approach that we need to bring back into our culture today. The literate study clearly finds that if our children and our nation wish to succeed in tomorrow’s world  we should start by reading books now.



About the Author
I have a PhD in English literature from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and I usually write about issues concerning women, literature, culture and society. I lived in the US for 15 years (between 1979-1994). I am widow and in March 2016 started a support/growth Facebook group for widows: "Widows Move O.," In October 2017 I started a Facebook group for Older and Experienced Feminists. I am also an active member of Women Wage Peace and believe that women can succeed where men have failed.
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