[Paleopsych] [Fwd: biopoet: The decline of literature [Another Evolutionary Trend?]]

G. Reinhart-Waller waluk at earthlink.net
Wed Apr 20 03:06:32 UTC 2005

Just in case anyone is interested.


  Why literature matters

    Good books help make a civil society

By Dana Gioia  |  April 10, 2005

In 1780 Massachusetts patriot John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, 
outlining his vision of how American culture might evolve. ''I must 
study politics and war," he prophesied, so ''that our sons may have 
liberty to study mathematics and philosophy." They will add to their 
studies geography, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, he continued, 
so that /their/ children may enjoy the ''right to study painting, 
poetry, music . . . "


Adams's bold prophecy proved correct. By the mid 20th century, America 
boasted internationally preeminent traditions in literature, art, music, 
dance, theater, and cinema.

But a strange thing has happened in the American arts during the past 
quarter century. While income rose to unforeseen levels, college 
attendance ballooned, and access to information increased enormously, 
the interest young Americans showed in the arts -- and especially 
literature -- actually diminished.

_According to the 2002 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, a 
population study designed and commissioned by the National Endowment for 
the Arts (and executed by the US Bureau of the Census), arts 
participation by Americans has declined for eight of the nine major 
forms that are measured. (Only jazz has shown a tiny increase -- thank 
you, Ken Burns.) The declines have been most severe among younger adults 
(ages 18-24). The most worrisome finding in the 2002 study, however, is 
the declining percentage of Americans, especially young adults, reading 

That individuals at a time of crucial intellectual and emotional 
development bypass the joys and challenges of literature is a troubling 
trend. If it were true that they substituted histories, biographies, or 
political works for literature, one might not worry. But book reading of 
any kind is falling as well.

That such a longstanding and fundamental cultural activity should slip 
so swiftly, especially among young adults, signifies deep 
transformations in contemporary life. To call attention to the trend, 
the Arts Endowment issued the reading portion of the Survey as a 
separate report, ''Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in 

The decline in reading has consequences that go beyond literature. The 
significance of reading has become a persistent theme in the business 
world. The February issue of Wired magazine, for example, sketches a new 
set of mental skills and habits proper to the 21st century, aptitudes 
decidedly literary in character: not ''linear, logical, analytical 
talents," author Daniel Pink states, but ''the ability to create 
artistic and emotional beauty, to detect patterns and opportunities, to 
craft a satisfying narrative." When asked what kind of talents they like 
to see in management positions, business leaders consistently set 
imagination, creativity, and higher-order thinking at the top.

Ironically, the value of reading and the intellectual faculties that it 
inculcates appear most clearly as active and engaged literacy declines. 
There is now a growing awareness of the consequences of nonreading to 
the workplace. In 2001 the National Association of Manufacturers polled 
its members on skill deficiencies among employees. Among hourly workers, 
poor reading skills ranked second, and 38 percent of employers 
complained that local schools inadequately taught reading comprehension.

Corporate America makes similar complaints about a skill intimately 
related to reading -- writing. Last year, the College Board reported 
that corporations spend some $3.1 billion a year on remedial writing 
instruction for employees, adding that they ''express a fair degree of 
dissatisfaction with the writing of recent college graduates." If the 
21st-century American economy requires innovation and creativity, solid 
reading skills and the imaginative growth fostered by literary reading 
are central elements in that program.

The decline of reading is also taking its toll in the civic sphere. In a 
2000 survey of college seniors from the top 55 colleges, the Roper 
Organization found that 81 percent could not earn a grade of C on a high 
school-level history test. A 2003 study of 15- to 26-year-olds' civic 
knowledge by the National Conference of State Legislatures concluded, 
''Young people do not understand the ideals of citizenship . . . and 
their appreciation and support of American democracy is limited."

It is probably no surprise that declining rates of literary reading 
coincide with declining levels of historical and political awareness 
among young people. One of the surprising findings of ''Reading at Risk" 
was that literary readers are markedly more civically engaged than 
nonreaders, scoring two to four times more likely to perform charity 
work, visit a museum, or attend a sporting event. One reason for their 
higher social and cultural interactions may lie in the kind of civic and 
historical knowledge that comes with literary reading.

Unlike the passive activities of watching television and DVDs or surfing 
the Web, reading is actually a highly active enterprise. Reading 
requires sustained and focused attention as well as active use of memory 
and imagination. Literary reading also enhances and enlarges our 
humility by helping us imagine and understand lives quite different from 
our own.

Indeed, we sometimes underestimate how large a role literature has 
played in the evolution of our national identity, especially in that 
literature often has served to introduce young people to events from the 
past and principles of civil society and governance. Just as more 
ancient Greeks learned about moral and political conduct from the epics 
of Homer than from the dialogues of Plato, so the most important work in 
the abolitionist movement was the novel /''/Uncle Tom's Cabin."

Likewise our notions of American populism come more from Walt Whitman's 
poetic vision than from any political tracts. Today when people recall 
the Depression, the images that most come to mind are of the travails of 
John Steinbeck's Joad family from ''The Grapes of Wrath." Without a 
literary inheritance, the historical past is impoverished.

In focusing on the social advantages of a literary education, however, 
we should not overlook the personal impact. Every day authors receive 
letters from readers that say, ''Your book changed my life." History 
reveals case after case of famous people whose lives were transformed by 
literature. When the great Victorian thinker John Stuart Mill suffered a 
crippling depression in late-adolescence, the poetry of Wordsworth 
restored his optimism and self-confidence -- a ''medicine for my state 
of mind," he called it.

A few decades later, W.E.B. DuBois found a different tonic in 
literature, an escape from the indignities of Jim Crow into a world of 
equality. ''I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not," DuBois observed. 
''Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where 
smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls." Literature is a 
catalyst for education and culture.

The evidence of literature's importance to civic, personal, and economic 
health is too strong to ignore. The decline of literary reading 
foreshadows serious long-term social and economic problems, and it is 
time to bring literature and the other arts into discussions of public 
policy. Libraries, schools, and public agencies do noble work, but 
addressing the reading issue will require the leadership of politicians 
and the business community as well.

Literature now competes with an enormous array of electronic media. 
While no single activity is responsible for the decline in reading, the 
cumulative presence and availability of electronic alternatives 
increasingly have drawn Americans away from reading.

Reading is not a timeless, universal capability. Advanced literacy is a 
specific intellectual skill and social habit that depends on a great 
many educational, cultural, and economic factors. As more Americans lose 
this capability, our nation becomes less informed, active, and 
independent-minded. These are not the qualities that a free, innovative, 
or productive society can afford to lose.

/Dana Gioia is chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts./


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