Wednesday, July 06, 2005
Literature in Public
With the recent discussion here and elsewhere on the decline of literature departments, we might add some information about literature and books in public life.
From 1982 to 2002, the percentage of 18-24-year-olds reading literature fell 17 percentage points, from 60 percent to 43 percent. From 1992 to 2002, the percentage reading books of any kind fell from 59 percent to 51 percent. (National Endowment for the Arts)
On an average day, a 15-24-year-old devotes only 8 minutes of leisure time to reading. (Bureau of Labor Statistics)
On an average day, 0-6-year-olds spend about 40 minutes with a book. They spend close to 2 hours in front of a screen. (Kaiser Foundation)
On an average day, an 8-18-year-old logs eight-and-one-half hours with media. This takes place in only six-and-one-half hours of time. (Kaiser Foundation)
From 2000 to 2002, consumer expenditures on reading fell nearly 5 percent. At the same time, income rose around 10 percent, and spending on “Entertainment” rose around 11 percent. (U.S. Department of Labor)
In 2002-03, unit sales of books fell by 23 million. In 2003-04, they fell by nearly 44 million. (Book Industry Study Group)
One could add to these numbers the loss of book review pages in newspapers, The Atlantic’s decision to drop fiction in its monthly magazine, the fact that Amazon last November sold more electronics than books, the fact that literature provides less than 20 percent of revenue for Barnes & Noble, and the decline in pages read in high school English classes.
That literary culture is deteriorating at a time of proliferating screen and digital diversion is hardly surprising. What is surprising is how little humanities professors have noticed and responded.
That one book by the guy claims that it’s making everyone smarter, you know.
I share your concern about the rise of digital diversions, but I thought I would raise some objections in the vein of devil’s advocacy.
--To begin with, the number of kids reading books may have declined sharply, but one might want to think about some of the books kids used to read. If kids are reading fewer books like “The Hardy Boys,” that’s not such a great loss, is it? Those books were primarily diversions themselves.
The number of kids doing serious reading was always small. I would hazard a guess that those kids are still out there, and will feed the next generation of readers and writers.
We might respond to the decline by pushing any kids who are still reading to read more ‘serious’ stuff, but would it work?
Compare the U.S. to India on the question of digital diversions. The U.S. has way more of this than India (where only 2-3 percent of households have home computers, and video game consoles have a tiny market), but there is such pressure in the middle class to read for utility and self-bettering that a ‘reading for pleasure’ culture is still very small, and very marginal. Middle class parents don’t encourage their kids to read for the sake of reading—they encourage them to study, to pass exams.
--It’s true that teenagers especially spend an amazing amount of time on the internet. And while much of that is downloading illegal music and playing online computer games, at least some of that time is spent doing relatively textually-intensive reading and writing activities such as blogging.
--The Amazon statistic might be misleading. Electronics are generally higher-ticket items than books. $300 for a digital camera…
--The fall in unit sales of books has followed a sharp rise in prices. A lot of people can’t afford drop $30 on a book every couple of weeks. (I would be curious to see how public library circulation has changed over the same period...)
--Book sales are declining across the board, but the number of titles has never been greater. And just as there is more selection than ever before, there are also more authors than ever before. Not a definitive point considering everything else that’s been happening, but it’s something to consider.
Has anyone revisited Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy?
Yes, Jonathan, Steven Johnson’s book claims that pop culture is making us smarter. Too bad there isn’t a shred of evidence for it. Surveys of young people’s knowledge of civics, history, culture, art, current events, geography, and science consistently show dismal results. The same for reading comprehension and math. But then, Johnson wants to talk about cogntive aptitudes, so he goes to IQ scores, which have, indeed risen. But the 3-points per decade rise started in the 1940s, well before video games (his favored medium) appeared. Furthermore, the only aptitude that shows significant increases is spatial reasoning, which may indeed indicate a more visual environment. But verbal and math aptitudes have increased only slightly, and at the lower ends, where better nutrition and education are likely causes.
Amardeep’s points assume that the call is for more serious reading. But just about any kind of book reading is better than the preferred screen options for young adults. Compare a children’s book and a primetime tv show and you’ll find that the language is more varied, with more rare words, in the former. The same problem affects digital activities that appear to be verbally intensive. In terms of development, a good verbal exercise in one in which the language and content are slightly higher than the competence of the reader. Check the teen blogs and you’ll find language and meanings that merely reinforce the standard social habits (along with the spelling and grammar errors, the solecisms, the cheap slang). If this kind of communication is an occasional alternative to books, magazines, and newspapers, fine, but if it becomes normative, well, we see the results in our classrooms and the workplace. About 53 percent of college students today must undergo remedial coursework, and corporate America spends around $3 billion a year on writing training for employees.
Library circulation is indicative. Overall item circulation is up, but break it down and DVD, video, and media are way, way up, while books are mixed. In some places it’s down, others up.
Yes, the number of titles has grown, from 122,000 a few years ago to 175,000 last year. That’s because publishers want to improve the odds of finding a blockbuster. It also explains why bookstore returns to publishers are up 25 percent in the last 10 years.
A received finding of composition history is that each generation thinks the next can’t write. This phenomenon is usually attributed to the ever-changing standards of literacy and the natural evolution of language.
The Flynn effect is sociologically interesting for what it tells us about the psychometric industry’s worldview, but I can’t see why anyone would take it seriously.
These are complicated issues, and I don’t mean to be glib about them. But I couldn’t take Hirsch seriously after the “wind listeth” anecdote, and corporate America’s rage against the dying of the serial comma and apostrophe is symptomatic of other anxieties. In any case, they’re simply throwing sand against the wind.
I, for one, believe Mark’s data. But what exactly should humanities professors do about it? I’d like to hear Mark and others speak to this, because it’s the part that always seems to get left out of editorials about the decline of reading.
The problem corporate America has with the entering workforce’s writing skills isn’t a matter of the niceties of punctuation. It’s a matter of faulty communication, and it’s posing serious blocks to productivity and innovation.
It is also posing serious costs to universities. The labor of planning and staffing remedial comp courses is huge, and growing by the year. Universities are now doing the work traditionally done by middle and high schools. One can’t attribute these trends to generational grudges.
Blah asks a good question about what profs can do. One thing they might look to is K-12 education, where a host of reforms are on the table--No Child Left Behind, vouchers, charter schools, standards-based curricula, standardized tests. These came out of “A Nation at Risk” and a group of governors (led by Clinton) in the Eighties. Are they worthy reforms? Maybe, maybe not. But I don’t know of any case of the humanities professors (with the exception of historians) weighing in on them.
I’ll also jump in on the devil’s advocate side, trying also not to be glib. Two points: (1) couldn’t the statistic that says 53% of college students need remedial training be at least partially explained by the upsurge in kids going to college? A larger percentage of the population going to college may mean that a larger swath of the performance curve enters college, i.e. college students are not just drawn from, say, the academic top 50% of h.s. students but from the top 75%. (2) When mark says that teen blogging uses language that reinforces “standard social practices” & is otherwise non-developmentally helpful, what is the implied comparison? Not critical social analysis, right? When I was a teenager, just before the Internet went large, no one was reading newspapers or magazines, & I think the fact of increased composition that blogging testifies to must be a developmental good. Naturally the language there won’t be SEE, but, again, few were practicing essay writing in their spare time beforehand, & it does seem codgery to demand SEE in teenage informal discourse.
Both points of Dr. Palpitate are well-taken. We do have a higher percentage of kids going to college. In fact, this year’s entering cohort will be the largest in history. On the teen blogging issue, yes, the major developmental improvement wouldn’t lie in more social analysis, but simply in richer vocabulary. The question is whether intensifying existing speech and writing habits among adolescents prepares them for the demands they will face in college and the workplace.
Mark has hit the nail in the head in something he said above. He named several possibilities for curricular reform, and then said that he doesn’t know whether they would improve this situation. I admire his honesty, and I certainly take his point that they are worth considering. However, if _he_ doesn’t know whether the reforms would be effective (and he, I suspect, has invested much more time in this topic than most humanities professors), then how am I supposed to? How is a tenure-track faculty member who specializes in, say, Whitman and pragmatism and needs to publish two books for tenure and serve as director of undergraduate studies supposed to learn enough to be expert in these matters? Besides, I thought one of the problems with the professoriate was that we overstep our bounds too often.
Part 2 of comment:
A real solution to this—very long term, of course—would be to incorporate some relationship between college and K-12 education into the graduate student curriculum, as well as into the teaching of the professoriate. So that a Ph.D. in English would know how English is taught in high schools (I don’t, except anecdotally) and so that structures would be in place to foster communication between middle, high school, and collegiate teachers. But current humanities professors, from at least where I sit, already have a full workload, and so the change would require alterations at the istitutional level. I am not optimistic.
Would it not be better if we separate the demise of print culture from that of literary culture?
Writing seems to be alive and, err, kicking, as a previous comment has already pointed out (not only blogging, but also reading newspapers and poetry online etc). Moreover, written texts will probably not disappear soon. There has always been and will continue to be the need to print certain things, if not for literary, then for legal and historical needs.
It might also be interesting to consider the gradual compartmentalization of literature. Nowadays, Literature is often separated from didactic, religious, historical writings and plays as well as from genres such as journalism, travel writing, biographies and what have you. This might distort our assessment of current literary culture.
Are we lamenting the demise of reading, by the way, or the loss of proper writing skills? Pointing out that English departments are falling short of their duty to deliver ´good writers´ for corporate America might lead to more proficiency rather than to more literature classes. Surely there are more cost-effective ways to make journalists and PR-people write correctly.
I have noticed that even well-educated, ambitious college and post-college kids ("kids" = under 30) reading seems to be a chore—the kind of thing they did to make the prof happy—and the stuff they like to read seems to be pop culturish stuff which is about in a sense about them.
A agree that the bureaucratization and methodologization of academia has something to do with it. Even people who make their living somewhere in the academic humanities sometimes seem to be using their tenure to finance other activities which are more fun. “The Arts” are all poppy and fluffed-up too. (This point, however, is an obsessive grumble of mine not motivated by this post.)
I think it also has to do with the fact that everything else has more corporate and bureaucratic too, and success depends on “networking” and “usable skills”, and the humanities help only a little at best in those two key areas, and in many cases are harmful. An economist who’s sharp in statistics will do well even if his conversation is all taken from TV and his personal philosophy comes entirely from The Federalist Society. ("My secretary has a master’s degree and she does my spelling for me”.)
A century ago in various parts of the world an educated adult had to have a nodding acquaintance with Vergil, neo-Kantianism, Goethe, Aquinas, Confucius, the Bible, Aristotle, and various other canonical figures (depending on where they were) in order to get ahead. No one needs any of that any more. And the personal-identity things that used to be done with novels are now done with films.
"Wind listeth” + Hirsch is not in Google BTW.
That literary culture is deteriorating at a time of proliferating screen and digital diversion is hardly surprising. What is surprising is how little humanities professors have noticed and responded.
The deterioration of literary culture probably has little to do with proliferating screen and digital diversions. Reading has never occupied much of the average person’s discretionary time. Time spent watching television has grown with increases in discretionary time, not with decreases in time spent reading. Data I’ve collected suggests that on average a U.S. adult in 1925 spent 6 hours per week of discretionary time reading. By 1965 this figure had fallen to 4 hours per week. Time spent watching television grown from 0 hours in 1925 to 10 hours per week in 1965, while discretionary (e.g. non-work) time grew 9 hours over that same period. See Section III, “Time with Media in Everyday Life” in my work Communications Policy, Media Development, and Convergence (pdf file).
Artful use of black print on a white page can create amazing, highly attractive experiences. But on average for most persons throughout history, not for many hours per week. More sensuously rich artifacts, such as the medieval picture bible of Louis IX, more efficiently provide a key good that persons seek.
I take one of Mark’s points to be that google doesn’t index everything worth knowing.
The ancedote is in Cultural Literacy, near the beginning. He may use “wind lists”; I can’t remember.
Well, I’m not going to buy a book he says is no good just to get an anecdote.
Here’s something I would like to know the answer to: do public libraries participate in the ILL system? I’d guess they do.
"A century ago in various parts of the world an educated adult had to have a nodding acquaintance with Vergil, neo-Kantianism, Goethe, Aquinas, Confucius, the Bible, Aristotle, and various other canonical figures (depending on where they were) in order to get ahead. No one needs any of that any more. And the personal-identity things that used to be done with novels are now done with films.”
I am not entirely convinced that the situation is that different nowadays.
First of all, many of these texts were available to but a small part of society, probably comparable to the learned elite that nowadays makes up academe. The only difference is that current scholars focus on literature (which might explain the perceived lack of interaction between literature and other fields of society).
Secondly, it is perhaps plausible (but I am not that knowledgeable in terms of ´history of the book´-type research, sadly) that certain parts of this learned readership only knew these works via commentaries and summaries rather than via a detailed reading of their own. Of course, many medieval scholars supposedly had very powerful memories, so maybe there is indeed a difference in this respect.
Thirdly, detailed knowledge of certain texts (the titles themselves have altered in part) is still required in some professions, for instance literature departments, EU culture commissions and other cultural organizations. The point is perhaps, again, that the idea of a shared tradition has been replaced by the idea of a shared disciplinary tradition, to the extent that certain parts of the literature department are completely unaware of other types of literary research (not all classicists know de Man intimately, for instance, nor do all postcolonial critics know the intricacies of editorial scholarship). This might be down to the rise of print culture and reading rather than its demise, however (how can anyone keep up with recent publications in his or her own (sub)field, let alone that of others?)
Finally, I think that books still play a role in identity formation, not only by being read (lest we forget, there are still incredibly avid readers), but also by being referred to in movies, games, songs, newspapers etc. To give but a small -and admittedly rather ridiculous- example, I read several games magazines and their pre- and reviews frequently refer to and play on famous literary quotes. Although this does not in itself imply that either writer or reader is intimately aware of these texts, I am not entirely sure as to how detailed a knowledge previous generations had of Shakespeare, for instance, apart from such quotes and passages. Again, it seems to me that it is very hard to adequately compare previous times with current literary culture.
Seriously, Jonathan, I’d like to hear the anecdote but you’ve already said that the book itself is no good. I make extensive use of libraries, bookstores, and ILL when possible, but I won’t do it for Hirsch.
And Google does bring up a lot of obscure stuff much more valuable than Hirsh: enormous bodies of of translations of medieval and patristic literature, for example. The complete works of a number of XIXc French poets. The complete Cosmas Indicopleustes. The complete Jordanes. (This is just examples I’ve used recently.)
Trickster, my point was (or should have been, I didn’t say so, quite) that the elite may have been small then, but they were the people who ran the world. I read a fair amount of XIXc scholarship by retired British military officers or minor clergy, for example.
There may be a quantitatively equal number of literate people now, but they aren’t movers and shakers any more, and ambitious young people figure out that literacy isn’t a path to success, whereas science, tech, econ, and pop culture networking are.
One of my other stock bitches about the contemporary world is that there’s no real concept of a general educated culture, and that those who try to contribute to the making of such a culture are often for that reason less respected by their professional peers. Academics who are proud of their professional expertise often are scornful of the idea that they should care whether their ideas ever reach anyone outside their specialty.
I just said that I personally found the book to be hard to take seriously because of what seemed to me to be the exceptionally anachronistic character of Hirsch’s perception of the corporate mentality. The book has a long appendix filled with factoids you should know in order to be culturally literate. There’s precious little about Prester John, as I recall.
´my point was [...] that the elite may have been small then, but they were the people who ran the world. [...] There may be a quantitatively equal number of literate people now, but they aren’t movers and shakers any more´
Well, in part I agree. Self-professed ignorami such as GWB spring to mind (´We have a lot in common. Bill [Buckley] wrote a book at Yale. I read one´). Yet compare with the following account of the contrast between GBW and de Villepin: <http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,1068-1640334,00.html>.
This is of course but a single example and therefore perhaps unrepresentative. Yet it does not seem implausible that certain people at the top of the food chain still care about literature. If I interpret it correctly, however, your point is not simply that politicians, for instance, do not read books (which might easily be refuted), but that politicians do not care about literary culture. That might be a harder claim to disprove. To continue my role as devil´s advocate, however, I would point out that many politicians still resort to literature in their attempts to come up with something like a national identity.
Moreover, literary scholars and people from the cultural sphere at large are still part of the elite, are they not? Granted, they might receive less funding nowadays, but I think that this might be indicative of a larger turn away from fundamental/theoretical towards applied research rather than of a specific turn away from literature. It seems to me, by the way, -my library has no copy yet, I´m afraid- that publications such as ´Theory´s Empire´ and the whole ´Against Theory´-movement form part of that shift. As regards the prestige-aspect, I think that literary scholars´ low self-esteem is part of their habitus, to use Bourdieu´s term, and is therefore as much caused by themselves as by others (not least by writers, who have always been fond of critics and theorists). But I need to read up on these issues.
´ambitious young people figure out that literacy isn’t a path to success, whereas science, tech, econ, and pop culture networking are´
Are you drawing a distinction between literature and politics/economics/... or between academic literary studies and a non-academic career in politics/economy etc? Perhaps academe´s appeal and prestige has suffered an overall blow, what with Sokal and counter-Sokal-affairs (I always forget the name of those guys who exposed a physics journal). I might add, however, that there are plenty of young people out there -among whom yours truly- who do not think badly of a career in academe. On the contrary.
“One of my other stock bitches about the contemporary world is that there’s no real concept of a general educated culture, and that those who try to contribute to the making of such a culture are often for that reason less respected by their professional peers. Academics who are proud of their professional expertise often are scornful of the idea that they should care whether their ideas ever reach anyone outside their specialty.”
Again, this might be down to the academe versus rest of the world-type mentality that is not unique to literary studies. You might have a point with regards to the lack of -or perhaps fragmentation (cf. the remark on compartmentalization)- of a general educated culture, however.
Trickster, I once did a mental experiment, asking myself who the hundred most powerful men in the world were in terms of making the big decisions. (Little need for nonsexist language here). It would be mostly Americans, Europeans, and Japanese, plus a few Saudis or and a few top leaders of the other nations of the world.
Then I asked myself what their intellectual culture and institutional affiliations were. My guess was that they were almost all either in government or large corporations or both, with training and experience in finance, law, military planning / international relations, engineering, politics in general, and marketing / media.
My guess was that there were few, perhaps no, humanists or even people with literary interests in the group, and probably not many hard scientists either. There would probably be a few serious believers in one religion or another, and probably a few who had studied history with some seriousness.
I don’t think that it gets a lot better as you go down the ladder, either, and maybe it gets worse.
(I was thinking narrowly about power: not influence over public opinion, or the kind of long-term changes made by scientific discovery).
In short, the alienation of humanists is almost structural by now. I don’t actually think that grad schools can be blamed much.
Of course, you have a point. Most of the world leaders are not writers or English professors. As regards their intellectual background, I am not familiar enough with their biographies to verify their literary interests, even though I concede that they will probably be slight or even non-existent.
But, as you already suggest, this might be down to the relative lack of power of all sorts of academics. So I am not entirely convinced that humanists are alienated from power or society in a way that, say, philosophers or physicists are not. If politicians, for instance, were more concerned with literature in previous times (that is no rhetorical ´if´; I am not entirely sure of this), that might, again, be down to the differentiation of social functions and the pressures of disciplinary specialization. On top of that, it is difficult to look at this from a contemporary perspective. Are people such as Cicero/Jesus/Newton/Darwin writers?
Moreover, I do not necessarily think that this specialization is a bad thing. There are some theorists who think of literature as a sort of instrument to unsettle accepted systems of thought such as law/politics/economy etc. It might, therefore, be partly the point -which might be a way to reassure ourselves, of course- that literature is different from the systems and powers that be. It might therefore make sense that the study of literature is different from these systems as well.
These comments raise a question. There is a big cultural debate going on right now in areas of primary and secondary education, among local government officials, among business leaders, and among interested journalists. It bears upon how to create “livable communities,” and everyone agrees that livable communities must have a vibrant artistic and literary culture. That means good bookstores and libraries, strong schools with good arts and lit programs, and local media support from newspapers, radio, and TV. But in all the discussions and symposia I’ve heard about, a humanities professor is never--repeat, never--at the table. Why?
In the old days, literature could be a path to power. In the West, many of the famous poets were part of the aristocracy, often from the military aristocracy. In China, the elite was selected by litarary examination. In the British XIXc, classics study was required from everybody. Oxford or Harvard, as entrances into the elite, required a degree of classical study. This was an old aristocratically and culturally-defined elite, different than the technocratic-meritocratic elite we have now. The common culture Hirsh regrets the loss of was a marker of a kind of elite that no longer eists, but which has been replaced by a different, non-humanist elite.
In aristocratic and even high bourgeois culture literature and philosophy had a practical functionality it doesn’t have nowadays. Some of its functions havebeen taken over by pop music and film, and another part by various sorts of social science and applied policy studies.
Mark: on your comment way above, you’re right about the unhelpfulness of something like blogging to formal (school, work) writing. Developmental good as it may be, I was even thinking that the increasingly written character (blogging, IMing) of informal language might be really bad for the mastery of SEE, inasmuch as written informal language becomes a competitor for formal written language. Something like: if at some point all writing was formal writing (informality mainly relegated to speech), now informal language is written too & gets greedy (e.g. things like “tho” showing up in essays, or structural devices being left out, etc.).
As a solution I wouldn’t advocate discouraging blogging, etc. Pedagogically, maybe there could be an emphasis placed on “codes” or dialects like in speech. Is this something you’ve thought about?
My feeling about blogs in the classroom is that they can be a wonderful tool, and a provocative one. If, that is, they can be controlled. The same goes with other digital advents in the classroom. The Internet is like society, offering every kind of virtue and vice available, and one can’t trust the adolescent temper to keep things focussed. Yes, they can illuminate language and speech codes and patterns, but getting the kids to frame them in a wider context, that’s the hard part.