The teaching of reading and writing goes far beyond imparting two very useful and necessary skills. Reading, of course, is basic to survival in our modern world (think: leases, contracts, small print on the credit card...) Writing, not nearly as much, but is clearly the skill that opens doors.
Not only is literacy the way up and out of poverty, developing these skills improves the world. Yes. They may even pave the road to world peace, saving the planet, eradicating hunger, and a host of other human-created ills.
All of these changes are possible because good readers and writers learn empathy along with their ABCs.
In order to read well (and with pleasure) the fluent reader conjures an entire world in their mind. Like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix we really are having a virtual experience. We stand in someone else's shoes, have their thoughts, feel their feelings. We even experience smells, excitement, fear, and love.
All this cognitive practice is transferred to the real world where mind-mirroring grows easier and easier after the accumulation of these virtual experiences. It is no mistake that my poorer readers have a harder time sympathizing with their classmates. They've had less practice. Pleasurable reading is a long graduate course in understanding our fellow man. Is it any wonder that the non-reading rabble in Medieval England enjoyed public hangings as spectacle?
And what about writing, reading's conjoined twin? Writing is also an act of empathy. Strong writers imagine an audience as they write. Who will read this? What would appeal to his or her taste? What does my reader need to know in order to understand my point?
And not only that, the strong writer is often a strong reader who has had years of practice negotiating virtual worlds across continents of imagination. They need only conjure their own world, and then write it down. Visualizing experience is the first step in showing rather than telling.
That's why we need to focus on creating readers who love to read, above all else. Even above STEM skills, because what use is engineering, science, technology, and math if you don't know (or have) humanity? And every test--even a math test--is a reading test first.
One day we will expend whatever it takes to create readers out of every child. We know how. We just need to commit. Moreover, we need to expand the time students have to learn to read and to learn to love to read. And following on the heels of that will be scores writers.
And one day, we will change the world.