From a global perspective, the democratic progress achieved over the last 35 years has now disappeared. At the same time, reading skills have declined. Reading is democracy’s and freedom’s most important weapon.

Nearly three-quarters of the world’s population live under autocratic rule. Disinformation, polarization, and autocracy mutually reinforce each other, as shown by the report from the Varieties of Democracy Institute at the University of Gothenburg, which produces and analyzes the world’s largest dataset on democracy development.

The information technology developed in the last thirty years has provided new opportunities for freedom of expression and knowledge sharing, but has also created many challenges through censorship, fake news, stigmatization, and polarization. The development of artificial intelligence provides new opportunities and challenges for freedom of expression.

In Europe, we in Norway and others are now mobilizing to protect our external borders. A significantly larger portion of society’s resources will be used to upgrade border defense in the years to come. But another battle is equally important; we must also invest in protecting the borders from within by maintaining democracy. A democracy relies on informed citizens who, based on knowledge and information, make independent choices, and participate in shaping societal development.

An informed citizen is a reading citizen. There are several indications that Norwegian citizens now read less and less effectively than before. For example, data from PISA 2022 shows that the proportion of low-performing students (below proficiency level 2 out of 6) has increased from 19 to 27 percent over four years. To continue a well-functioning democracy in Norway, we must strengthen our efforts to promote reading.

Reading is not just about recognizing letters and words; it must be defined broadly and include reading, interpreting, and evaluating skills, as well as an understanding of source criticism. The goal is not only for citizens to be able to read, but also to be capable of finding valuable information, knowledge, ideas, and reflections.

The internationally acclaimed research report, The Ljubljana Reading Manifesto, which was launched at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year, emphasizes the necessity of measures to promote reading. Its conclusion is that we must “understand that reading is our culture’s central training technique for cognitive and social behavior—a prerequisite for a well-functioning democracy.”

The main message of the report is that we must consider reading as more than just decoding texts. We need to encourage what is known as “higher-level reading,” a literacy skill developed through critical and conscious reading, as well as the willingness to engage with lengthy texts.

To sharpen our reading skills, it’s essential to read books. According to the researchers, such texts “help us test various interpretations, discover contradictions, biases, and logical errors, and establish the sophisticated and delicate connections between texts and the cultural background we need for the exchange of human judgments and emotions.”

The manifesto also refers to recent studies indicating a decline in “higher-level reading” in Europe. This means that we not only need to improve, but also reverse a downward trend.

Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre wrote in an article last year: “Ensuring good reading skills encompasses everything from democracy to imagination: Without strong reading skills, active participation in society becomes challenging. And without reading literary texts, whether short or long, it becomes harder to develop imagination and immerse oneself in the lives and thoughts of others.”

This week, the Ministry of Culture and Equality and the Ministry of Education will launch a national strategy to enhance reading. The central questions are whether the strategy will be comprehensive enough, whether planned measures will bring necessary changes, and whether sufficient funding will be allocated.

A strategy to enhance reading must be anchored in a necessary and ambitious democracy development project. The analysis should include the new opportunities and challenges, such as those related to AI, while taking into account the research findings and evaluations from The Ljubljana Reading Manifesto. The action plan should thoroughly review existing measures and propose necessary changes. We need ongoing research and follow-up – and, importantly, sufficient funding for implementation.

The significance of reading for democracy development will be a crucial topic at this year’s World Expression Forum, currently taking place in Lillehammer. This global gathering also features various activities to encourage youth participation in society, where reading, open discussions, and diverse forms of expression take center stage. Our goal is to empower young citizens to be informed and engaged participants. Therein lies the key to democracy for future generations.

This article was first printed in VG in Norwegian on 27 May 2024