M.A.R. Habib
Paper Presented at Fifth International Conference of the Book
Spanish Research Council, Madrid, Spain
October 21, 2007

In this talk, I would like to analyze the implications for teaching, research, and the democratic process of a recently issued report, by the National Endowment for the Arts, whose findings are little short of alarming.

Dana Gioia, Chairman of the NEA, states that the report, entitled Reading at Risk, “merely documents and quantifies a huge cultural transformation that most Americans have already noted – our society’s massive shift toward electronic media for entertainment and information.” The report suggests that “Literary reading strongly correlates to other forms of active civic participation…If one believes that active and engaged readers lead richer intellectual lives than non-readers and that a well-read citizenry is essential to a vibrant democracy, the decline of literary reading calls for serious action. ” It sees a direct correlation between the decline in reading and the widespread participation in electronic media, such as the internet, video games and portab le digital devices . The report concludes that the trends in reading among all demographic groups in America , especially the young, indicate “an imminent cultural crisis.”

I am going to argue that the decline of reading and of literacy in general is a symptom of of ideological interests; that the lack of appropriate funding for education is merely one of several strategies for ensuring the self-regulating quietism of citizens; that there is an intrinsic connection between the growth of capitalist markets – into the monopolisation of the media, the promotion of mind-numbing gadgets and mindless television programmes – and the degradation of reading and conceptual skills. The premise ultimately underlying my argument is that genuine participation in a genuine democracy presupposes a minimal set of critical reading and conceptual skills as well as a minimal foundation of knowledge. In educational terms, the implications of all of these arguments are alarming because, in such a vastly globalising economic climate, the power of the teacher or professor to remedy educational deficiencies is severely limited.

I would like to offer a few details about the survey itself. It was instigated by the National Endowment for the Arts and conducted by the U.S. Bureau of the Census in 2002. It was based on a large sample size of more than 17,000 adults, providing data on literary reading among most demographic groups in terms of gender, age, education, income, region, race and ethnicity. I think that most of us would agree with Dana Gioia’s statement that while oral culture and digital culture have undoubted benefits, such as speed and efficiency of communication, print culture “offers irreplaceable forms of focused attention and contemplation that make complex communications and insights possible.” He goes on to say that the decline in reading “parallels a larger retreat from participation in civic and cultural life” (RR, vii). As more Americans lose this capability, he says, “our nation becomes less informed, active, and independent-minded” (RR, vii).

The report states explicitly that “a well-read citizenry is essential to a vibrant democracy” (RR, ix).

In general, the report’s finding include the following major statistics: since 1982, the level of literary reading among American adults has declined from 57% to 47% so that now, less than half the adult population reads literature. Respondents were asked if they had read any literature in the past year. The term “literature” was is used in a broad sense to include novels, short stories, poetry, drama and popular fiction. They were not asked if they had read literary non-fiction such as criticism, commentary and essays (RR, 3). The decline in reading is especially marked among young adults aged 18-24, a factor which foreshadows continued erosion in cultural and civic participation, and indeed an “imminent cultural crisis” (RR, xii-xiii). This decline correlates with increased participation in electronic media, including the internet, video games and portable digital devices. A 1999 study showed that the average American child lives in a household with 3 televisions, 2 VCRs, 3 radios, 2 CD players, 1.4 video game players and 1 computer (RR, xii). Making literary reading appeal to teenagers is of course a significant problem, as outlined by the National Institute for Literacy (RR, 26). Having said this, the report does acknowledge that the proportion of people reading literature is higher than that participating in most cultural, sports and leisure activities. Only television, moviegoing and exercising attracted significantly more people. But the report is adamant that people who are classified as “strong” or avid readers tend to have the highest participation in other activities (RR, 5).

The report offers some interesting comparisons with European countries. In general, a recent study reported that the overall book reading rate in 15 European countries was 45%, which falls below the U.S. level. The highest reading rates are in Sweden (72%), Finland (66%) and Britain (63%), and the lowest are in Belgium (23%) and Portugal (15%). But the proportion of Europeans classified as “strong” readers was above the U.S. level, overall 37%, with the highest proportion in Britain (52%). The proportion of strong readers in the U.S. falls in the bottom third of the European countries surveyed (RR, 7).

In terms of demographic groups, more women (55%) read literature than men (38%); the rate among white Americans is 51%, among Black Americans 37% and among Hispanics (26%). Literary reading is closely related to educational levels in all ethnic and racial groups and it does not vary as strongly in terms of family income (RR, 11-12). People in managerial, professional and technical occupations are more likely to read literature than those in other forms of employment (RR, 13). There was found to be a strong connection between parental encouragement to read and adult literary reading, an influence stronger even than educational level (RR, 14). One of the surprising findings is that there is no conclusive evidence that watching television affects reading substantially; frequent readers watch only slightly less television than infrequent readers (RR, 15). But clearly, the effects of mass media, movies and the internet merit further research. According to a 2000 Census Bureau report, 42% of households used the internet at home, representing a dramatic rise from 26% in 1998. But internet users have a similar profile to literary readers, tending to be well-educated, having at least a college degree. A more alarming finding from a 1995 report of the National Center for Education Statistics shows that 45% of adults read at prose literacy levels one and two (out of a possible five); people at this level, suggests the report, probably don’t have the skills to read many types of literature. The one exception to the general decline is in creative writing, which does not increase consistently according to income or race. The number of people engaging in creative writing actually rose 30% between 1982 and 2002 (RR, 22).

Clearly, this report is an invaluable document, and it calls for educational and governmental bodies, as well as book publishers, to consider how deficiencies education and literacy might be addressed. The report also appropriately ponders the wider cultural implications of the declining in literary reading. But it seems to me that the report is incomplete in certain respects. For example, it acknowledges that it did not question respondents about non-literary forms of reading (for example, newspapers, magazines, political journals), or even literary forms of reading such as essays, biography and perhaps political speeches. It does not give any information as to what people watch on television, the level of their political knowledge, and their sources for remaining informed. It seems to me that literary reading is but a symptom of a wider desirable activity of critical reading, which is essential for a vibrant democracy.

In his book Democracy in America , Alexis de Tocqueville has some interesting observations on general attitudes to the arts and sciences in democratic nations. He observes caustically that, in a democratic society, it is conceivable that “a despot may find that it is in his interest to render his subjects equal and to leave them ignorant, in order more easily to keep them slaves. Not only would a democratic people of this kind show neither aptitude nor taste for science, literature, or art, but it would probably never arrive at the possession of them” (DA, 38). Of course, the scenario depicted here by de Tocqueville is an extreme one, which can hardly be said to apply to current conditions in America . But the situation is still alarming in terms of both the levels of general literacy and political literacy in particular. When most of the television stations are controlled by a handful of companies, when information is sometimes deliberately withheld from people, when information itself and knowledge are controlled by economic markets rather than deliberated reflection on the basis of intellectual or moral concerns, the political and cultural process of democracy becomes inoperable. We might remember that shortly after 9/11, polls revealed that over half the American population believed that some or most of the 9/11 bombers were Iraqis, when in truth not a single one was from Iraq .

What we, as educators, professors, college administrators, authors and publishers must face is the disconcerting truth that political, historical and cultural illiteracy are often actively promoted: and sought for economic ends: consider, for example, the array of gratuitous violence, amorality and self-indulgence that is offered up as entertainment today for teenagers and even very young children. What can we possibly do, what difference can we possibly make when confronted with such vast forces, fomented by large historical tendencies, and globalising in their scope? De Tocqueville observes a number of attitudes to knowledge which he believes to be structurally inherent in democratic society. In general, a state of equality tends to promote a reliance on individual judgment, a taste for the tangible rather than the abstract, and a contempt for tradition. Such a society, composed of men in constant activity devoted to “purely practical objects,” is not suited to meditation, and will display little inclination for the theoretical portions of human knowledge, holding learning and contemplation in low esteem. (DA, 38, 42-44). In such a state, men’s goals are directed primarily toward acquiring what they do not have, and this directs their minds to what is useful rather than what is beautiful, and to whatever shortcuts toward gratification are available (DA, 51-52). Rather than any disinterested passion for learning, there will be a “selfish, mercantile and trading taste for the discoveries of the mind,” and all knowledge will be geared to the efficiency of profit, labour and production (DA, 45-46). In democratic communities education will tend to be “scientific, commercial, and industrial rather than literary” (DA, 66). And most of the available books will be in the form of “elementary treatises” and works that are “easily read” (DA, 62). Hence, although the circle of readers is vastly expanded in a democratic society, the modes of reading and the content of what is read will have its own peculiar characteristics.

As professors, authors and publishers, I think that we are all painfully aware that the characteristics cited by de Tocqueville have, if anything, multiplied and intensified. And indeed, our own role has not been so much marginalised as remoulded in the image of the very forces of commercialisation and economic globalisation whose effects we are trying so desperately to counter. Are there any strategies available to us? First of all, we should not succumb to the Romantic and Victorian self-delusion that literary reading will somehow cure the world’s ills. We can deeply empathise with the projects of Matthew Arnold and F.R. Leavis inasmuch as it is tempting to view the study of literature and criticism as the last bastion of genuine intellection, free of the hysterical distractions of the political and economic arenas. But we know also that we must compete in the capitalist market; we are obliged to sell the value of books, literature and critical reading against other products whose power for gratification and indulgence is far more immediate. What teenager today would rather read a Jane Austen novel than play with a play station portable? An even more alarming situation is when certain students take courses in literary theory and excel at expounding Foucault or Lacan, and then quite smoothly adapt to a job on the corporate ladder. Does this show that we, as teachers, researchers and authors, we are completely ineffectual, not in virtue of our individual talents or abilities but simply in virtue of the historical position we find ourselves structured by?

There are a few fundamental strategies that a perhaps undue optimism might open up for investigation. Firstly, it is worth remembering that every single student in the United States is obliged to take usually at least two composition courses; and instead of leaving these courses to adjunct professors (who usually teach them with great dedication and passion), we should take this responsibility seriously, perhaps integrating these courses into our literary and theoretical offerings. One could envisage, for example, a composition courses taught by an esteemed professor, which focused on the politics of the Middle East or on the history of African Americans or other ethnic groups. Secondly, we might recall that the vast tradition of literature itself is rich with innumerable examples of moral struggle, political circumstance, and issues of religion and gender. But we clearly have not been successful at conveying this to our student populations. We have partly ourselves to blame: in the very area that we have attempted to extrapolate to the study of popular culture, namely literary or cultural theory, we have lapsed into a self-insulating and self-perpetuating jargon, focusing on language and achieving a pseudo-complexity, at the expense of dealing with moral and political issues that are highly pertinent today in the lives of our students. We cannot unilaterally combat the vast historical forces which have structured the prevalent attitudes toward reading today. But we can use our position and our role to ameliorate rather than aggravate the present crises in literacy, reading and political awareness.