In an address to the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce last week, President Barack Obama revealed his plan for improving education in our nation.

Along with health care and energy, education represents the so-called third leg of the stool upon which will rest a transformation of our country wrought during a time of extreme economic crisis.

If it’s successful. Critics say that this is hubristic overreaching.

But is there ever a wrong time to do the right thing?

Some contend that energy represents a crisis as threatening as the economic downturn and that procrastination will lead to disaster. Health care? Perhaps it could wait until the economic crisis passes, but in the meantime, real people suffer — some of them are children — and much of the damage is irreparable.

The same could be said for education, as well.

We value it highly because of its impact on children and because its effects last throughout lifetimes. In fact, except for the very quality of American home life itself and the fabric of the family, few things have greater long-term consequences for individuals and for society than what children learn when they’re very young.

So Obama’s reform agenda starts with early childhood education and extends through college. Many billions of dollars are involved over a number of years, which is a sure sign that we’re thinking about getting serious.

But then Obama turns to the hard part. He asks parents to turn off their televisions, to put away their children’s BlackBerries and video games, and to read to them. As an English teacher I’m attracted to this quaint image of children sitting in their parents’ laps and learning to read by being read to.

But this happy scene is hard to picture in our modern culture; the fast-paced American home life doesn’t easily accommodate a pedestrian activity like reading.

Many of my college students are as bright and creative as students have ever been, but ordinarily they haven’t read very much by the time they reach my freshman composition class.

However, the fact that they haven’t accumulated a long history of reading isn’t as big a problem as the fact that they are calibrated to a rhythm inconsistent with the methodical pace that we associate with traditional reading.

This is another way of saying that they are typical Americans, well suited to the tempo of modern life. Children will adopt the rhythms of their parents, and they are unlikely to read in the home unless parents do.

‘m not sure if our nation was ever as studious as we like to think, but at least there was a time when the home was a slower, quieter place. Perhaps it could again be a place where parents read to their children, and parents themselves read.

If the economic crisis turns out to be as bad as everyone says, and we begin to turn to more prosaic — and much cheaper — forms of amusement and information, will being smarter — in the sense of knowing more and understanding the world better, sure byproducts of extensive reading — make us happier with having less stuff?

John M. Crisp teaches at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.