Stories, Learning & Place

Friday, November 23, 2007

Reading at the end of the world
   The New Dark Ages?

The NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) recently published a report that documented a precipitous decline in literary reading among Americans. Chairman Cana Gioio found the news grim:

“This report documents a national crisis,” Gioia said. “Reading develops a capacity for focused attention and imaginative growth that enriches both private and public life. The decline in reading among every segment of the adult population reflects a general collapse in advanced literacy. To lose this human capacity - and all the diverse benefits it fosters - impoverishes both cultural and civic life.”

This follows, somewhat tardily, an earlier report that took a somewhat worse view of the state of literary reading among Americans:

The works of the great poets have never yet been read by mankind, for only great poets can read them. They have only been read as the multitude read the stars, at most astrologically, not astronomically. Most men have learned to read to serve a paltry convenience, as they have learned to cipher in order to keep accounts and not be cheated in trade; but of reading as a noble intellectual exercise they know little or nothing; yet this only is reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls us as a luxury and suffers the nobler faculties to sleep the while, but what we have to stand on tip-toe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

I began my teaching career hoping we might get nearer Thoreau’s ideal—that more of us might read “as a noble intellectual exercise.” The schools I’ve worked in, however, have increasingly seen reading mostly as something in the realm of accounts and trade, as part of the world of occupations and money. One studies mostly so that one can later make money. This is in harmony with the therapeutic tone of these student-centered schools, which also teach young people that “what’s in it for me?” is the fundamental question that remains when an ethic of self-fulfillment is taught in a narrative environment where ultimate, which is to say religious, concerns are avoided.

Who would expect many people so educated to be drawn to the sort of reading Thoreau is talking about, when videos are more titillating and require less effort? Expecting a nation of readers at this stage of the game would be foolish, as would be expecting any real educational leadership from our official leaders, who did not get where they are by giving long hours to the best that has been thought and said.

As with all reports based on survey data, we have willful readers who point out the numbers may not mean what it is claimed they mean. In this case, the critic ignores the important point that the NEA is talking about literary reading, and not merely scanning the sports page or the twitterings of friends. Nevertheless, the constant disagreement and argument over virtually all the education data we have gives us a great variety of possible opinions with no certain way of knowing the truth, and so our plight is that we remain quite free to think whatever we want, which is much of the reason these reports seldom have much impact.

My biases, based on my experiences, lead me to think that if we are talking about literary reading, as the NEA says it is, things are quite dismal. The time is long past when I’ve been tempted to support a point with a quote from Donne or Blake. It would sound alien and odd to most listeners. Our literary culture is not really our culture any more.

By 1984, Alasdair MacIntyre, one of the more important moral philosophers during the second half of the twentieth century, observed in After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory that it was too late to avert a new dark age:

What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. . .This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.

The first time I read that, I thought MacIntyre was speaking hyperbolically. Now, reading with more experience, I think he was only saying aloud the obvious. Though the NEA does its best to sound the alarm, I find its warning far too mild. One way I read the history of the 1930s and 1940s is that the poetry of totalitarianism, with its grandiose vision of individuals sacrificing to the common good as defined by a ruling elite, clashed with a centuries-long tradition of English poetry in the form of a people whose characters had been influenced by visions of hearth and home, of the essential dignity of every person, and of the sacred duties of liberty.

Today, the poetry of totalitarianism is again ascendant—one hears it at home and abroad—but the cadences of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats have gone mostly silent. For those who cannot or do not read them, they might as well have never existed.

Most public schools are now attended by some young people whose plight is similar to that of the urchin in Auden’s great poem ”The Shield of Achilles”:

A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who’d never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.

Such urchins are what I see beyond the NEA’s numbers.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 11/23 at 10:18 PM
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©2007 Michael L. Umphrey
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