Since an NEA study recently determined that Americans are reading less, I can only ask What the f*ck are Americans doing these days? After all, as studies have shown arts audiences are dwindling, we know they’re not attending arts events. Meanwhile, other studies have shown that civic involvement is down—especially among younger Americans—so we know they’re not attending political rallies, or volunteering down at the senior center, or helping the local art center with a fundraising event. Has it become nothing but video games, Internet porn, spectator sports, and music downloading for everyone these days?
I’ve been writing on this site about what results when a society eschews its support of the arts and artists, but I can only imagine what results if a society’s reading habit goes away.
The NEA study, “To Read or Not to Read,” does speculate a bit on what’s happening now. Interestingly, it seems many of the forces driving artistic failure—expanding media, the Internet, a failing education system, economic forces, changing leisure-time priorities, popular resentment of creatives—are similar to those currently destroying reading as a cultural activity. Consider the following NEA Study findings:
- 72 percent of high school graduates today are deemed by employers to be “deficient” in writing in English. (Failing education system.)
- In 2002, only 52 percent of Americans aged 18 to 24 voluntarily read a book; let me repeat that, only half of college aged kids in this country read books for fun (this is down from 59 percent in 1992). (Shift in youth away from intellectual and cultural activities and toward media.)
- Money spent on books, adjusted for inflation, dropped 14 percent from 1985 to 2005 and has fallen dramatically since the mid-1990s. (Change in economic activity vis a vis culture.)
- The number of adults with bachelor’s degrees who are “proficient in reading prose” dropped from 40 percent in 1992 to 31 percent in 2003. (Failing education system.)
What’s particularly frightening about this loss of reading trend is researchers have seen, across the board, a marked decline in tests for reading comprehension. We’re rapidly moving toward a duller, more sluggish, less creative, less informed and less engaged, slow-on-the-uptake society.The report particularly emphasizes the social benefits of reading (which, of course are now being lost): “Literary readers” are more likely to exercise, visit art museums, keep up with current events, vote in presidential elections and perform volunteer work.
NEA Chair Dana Gioia said: “Reading creates people who are more active by any measure. … People who don’t read, who spend more of their time watching TV or on the Internet, playing video games, seem to be significantly more passive.” And he called the decline in reading “perhaps the most important socio-economic issue in the United States.
“‘To Read or Not to Read’ suggests we are losing the majority of the new generation,” Gioia said. “The majority of young Americans will not realize their individual, economic or social potential.”
And by the time they realize they have not reached their potential, it will be too late.