During the pandemic we all noticed how television interviews carried on Zoom and Skype often had bookshelves filled with books in the background. Why is that? Books are a universal symbol of learning and knowledge. Thus the background of books makes the interviewee look intellectually sophisticated and learned.
In 2015 on World Book Day (celebrated annually on April 23) there was a survey taken in the United Kingdom: “How many books does the average UK home have on its shelves?”1 The answer was 158 but with the qualifier that a quarter of them had never been opened. In 2018, a similar survey reported that the average American home contained 114 books.2
But does the number of books in the home that a child grows up in make a significant difference in terms of their ultimate educational success?
Books in the Home and a Child’s Ultimate Level of Education
More than a decade ago, one of the largest and most comprehensive studies concerning the influences on the level of education a child will attain was completed. The 20-year study’s most surprising revelation was that the number of books in the home that a child grows up in was as great or greater a factor for educational advancement than other social variables (including class, country of origin, etc.).
Here’s the abstract from the study entitled “Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations:”
“Children growing up in homes with many books get 3 years more schooling than children from bookless homes, independent of their parents’ education, occupation, and class. This is as great an advantage as having university educated rather than unschooled parents, and twice the advantage of having a professional rather than an unskilled father. It holds equally in rich nations and in poor; in the past and in the present; under Communism, capitalism, and Apartheid; and most strongly in China. Data are from representative national samples in 27 nations, with over 70,000 cases, analyzed using multi-level linear and probit models with multiple imputation of missing data.”3
This was a doozy of a study but other studies have found similar results supporting the view that “immersing children in book-oriented environments benefits their later educational achievement, attainment and occupational standing.”4
But let’s think carefully about the exact relationship between abundantly bookish homes and students who advance educationally.
Correlation vs. Causation: Books or Parents?
Could the relationship between the abundance of books in the home and ultimate educational advancement and success for the child be one of mere correlation rather than causation? For example, highly educated parents tend to deeply value learning and seek to provide such an environment for their children. So, maybe books are the result of an environment that is associated with learning (e.g., parental intellectual curiosity) and not the direct cause.
Yet sociologist M. D. R. Evans, who was directly involved in the research, said the study indicated that children of lesser-educated parents benefited the most from having many books in the home.5 A science report about the study stated the following:
“For years, educators have thought the strongest predictor of attaining high levels of education was having parents who were highly educated. But, strikingly, this massive study showed that the difference between being raised in a bookless home compared to being raised in a home with a 500-book library has as great an effect on the level of education a child will attain as having parents who are barely literate (3 years of education) compared to having parents who have a university education (15 or 16 years of education). Both factors, having a 500-book library or having university-educated parents, propel a child 3.2 years further in education, on average.”6
My Story about Parents, Books, and Learning
Both of my parents were Great Depression-era teenagers and grew up in rural West Virginia with only elementary school educations. But they wanted higher education for their kids and tried their best to support us in those endeavors. However, although my parents struggled to do so, two books that were in my boyhood home succeeded in setting my mind on fire (C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity and Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book). These authors became inherent teachers to me. Entering a library, especially a convenient library right in your own home is a dangerous thing. Your life may never be the same again. My graduate school education and my work as an educator were influenced by my home library.
Reading is, of course, the foundation of all learning. As educator E. D. Hirsch notes: “We all know that reading is the most important academic skill, and that there is a big reading gap between haves and have-nots in our schools. We know that reading is a key not just to a child’s success in school but also, in the information age, to his or her chances in life.”7
Books, reading, and education can change lives dramatically. Our culture’s present preoccupation with such factors as race, sex, and class doesn’t seem to set people’s minds on fire at least not in a consistently positive and constructive way that books can and do. Filling our homes with books helps to ensure that future generations are inspired and motivated to succeed academically and reach the highest levels of education.
Reflections: Your Turn How many books were in the home you grew up in? Did the number of books have an influence upon you?
See my various articles on the importance of reading, books, and educators:
- Reading as the Foundation of Learning
- Reading, Human Exceptionalism, and Dyslexia
- Voted the Best Christian Book of All Time
- Should We Read Print Books or E-books?
- Wednesday Wisdom from Thinker E. D. Hirsch
- #WednesdayWisdom from Thinker Mortimer J. Adler
- Take Up and Read: How to Read a Book
- Wednesday Wisdom from Thinker William Bennett
- Brilliant Teachers Once Removed: Gleaning Wisdom from Beloved Author
- “How Many Books Are in the Average Home?” The Spectator, May 9, 2020.
- Robby Berman, “This Is How a Bookish Home Helps a Child to Thrive,” World Economic Forum (October 17, 2018).
- M. D. R. Evans et al., “Family Scholarly Culture and Educational Success: Books and Schooling in 27 Nations,” Research in Social Stratification and Mobility 28, no. 2 (January 2010): 171–197.
- Joanna Sikora, M. D. R. Evans, and Jonathan Kelley, “Scholarly Culture: How Books in Adolescence Enhance Adult Literacy, Numeracy and Technology Skills in 31 Societies,” Social Science Research 77 (January 2019): 1–15.
- University of Nevada, Reno, “Books in Home as Important as Parents’ Education in Determining Children’s Education Level,” ScienceDaily (May 21, 2010)
- University of Nevada, Reno, “Books in Home as Important as Parents’ Education in Determining Children’s Education Level.”
- E. D. Hirsch Jr., Joseph F. Kett, and James Trefil, The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, revised and updated, 3rd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002), vii-viii.