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Reading at Risk, Culture at Risk

by Mark Bauerlein - February 02, 2005

A summary of The National Endowment for the Arts study "Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America."

Last July, the National Endowment for the Arts released Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America.  Designed by the Arts Endowment and executed by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, it originally formed part of a broader study conducted every 10 years since 1982, the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA), which asks adults about their voluntary enjoyment of a variety of arts and cultural activities.  The SPPA is the largest survey research project on the arts in the United States.  In 2002, the Census Bureau obtained 17,135 responses through in-person interviews followed up with phone interviews.

When the 2002 results came in, we saw that most art forms had dropped slightly.  The drop in the literature figures, however, was extreme.  The percentage of Americans reading novels, short stories, poems, or plays in their leisure time fell 7 points from 1992, 10 from 1982, a loss of 20 million potential readers.

% of adults reading literature








For something that has been such a basic activity for so long, a 17-point decline is a swift and marked change.  Keep in mind how little literary reading one had to do to fall into the reader category.  Reading but a single poem or short story in the preceding 12 months qualified.  The report allowed for works of any quality and any length in any language in any print format, including the Internet.  A romance novel e-book and a classic novel in the Library of America series were treated equally.  The survey set out to pick up the modest presence of literature in citizens’ daily lives.  That literature has no existence in the lives of more and more Americans—note that the rate of decline nearly tripled from 82-92 to 92-02—signifies deep changes in the home and in American society.

No demographic group escaped falling rates. A gender gap in literary reading has existed in the United States at least since the mid-nineteenth century, but 1982-2002 saw it widen considerably.  Women fell 7.9 points, men 11.5 points.  Today, barely one-third of adult males read a line of verse or a paragraph of fiction for pleasure.

Whites remain the most active reading group at 51.4 percent.  African Americans rose three points to 45.6 percent from 1982 to 1992, but from 1992 to 2002, they reversed course and fell 8.5 points.  Hispanics scored the lowest of racial/ethnic groups that were captured by the survey, rating only 26.5 percent.  (Asian/Pacific Islander and other groups were deemed too small by the Census Bureau to be included.)  No doubt, immigration and second-language issues come into play, and we need further research into work/leisure patterns and access to Spanish language publications.

Age breakdowns provide the most troubling figures.  Young adults showed the steepest declines in the entire report.

% of persons 18-14 reading literature








Young people used to form one of the most active reading groups.  Now, with the exception of that age 75 and older, they are the least active.  Many of them read literature in school, to be sure, a fact that might mitigate the results.  But the same condition held in 1982, and three-fifths of college-age Americans still read literature outside of class.  Why did 28 percent of young literary readers fall away in 20 years’ time?  What leads so many of them during the 20 weeks of vacation a year to avoid literature?

The media have been quick to seize upon Reading at Risk as a dire prophecy, and so far more than 500 stories have appeared in print, most of them taking the findings at face value.  Some commentators, though, while accepting the statistical results of the survey, have questioned the significance of the downward trend.  Citing other, non-literary, and non-book reading that adolescents and twenty-somethings engage in, they claim that contemporary culture is moving away from traditional genres and the book form.  Young people prefer weblogs, anime, instant messaging, graphic novels, web surfing, and other novel forms of communication not picked up in the Endowment’s survey.  And these activities, I’ve been told at two recent meetings of educators and librarians are extraordinarily rich and sophisticated.

It is true that young people have turned to digital reading formats, but the indiscriminately high value placed upon them is, so far, unwarranted.  In the 1990s, advocates of the Internet predicted that digital access would make individuals more informed and engaged than ever before.  One would expect to see gains in measures of young people’s verbal comprehension skills and cultural, historical, and civic knowledge (traditionally defined).  That hasn’t happened.  In terms of reading skills, scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the SAT verbal section have been flat for two decades.  On the 2002 NAEP test of high school seniors in reading, 26 percent rated “Below basic” and only five percent reached “Advanced.”  Colleges report a growing number of entering students need remedial course work, and employers in a National Association of Manufacturers poll in 2001 said that the second biggest problem they encounter in the workplace is the poor reading and math skills of employees.

One reason for continued comprehension problems despite rising digital habits may lie in the habits themselves.  Internet reading is a literacy behavior, to be sure, but does it inculcate comprehension skills as well as book reading or literary reading?  In 1997, Sun Microsystems conducted a study of on-line reading in hopes of helping companies with Web page design.  Entitled “How Users Read on the Web,” its first sentence declared, “They don’t.”  Only 16 percent of the test subjects read the screen text linearly, word by word.  The rest scan the page, hunting for keywords and heeding the visual content.  Such dispositions do not cultivate an eye for detail or the craft of interpretation.  Texts that slow users down make them impatient, an outcome that blocks them from enjoying more complex expressions.  Of course, the digital universe contains work that solicits a more deliberate reading process, but the majority of it does not, and that is where kids and young adults gravitate.

Indeed, a recent study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics casts doubt on how much reading young people do of any kind.  In its Time Use Survey, the Bureau found that in their leisure time 15-24-year-old males spend about 2 hours 17 minutes a day watching TV and 48 minutes playing games and computers for fun.  Their reading time?  Eight minutes.  Young women spend less time on the computer, but they, too, chalk up only eight minutes of reading.

The costs of non-reading go to the heart of American democracy.  Alexis de Tocqueville caught the spirit of democratic reading when he toured the states in the 1830s and found an “ever increasing crowd of readers” and noted, “There is hardly a pioneer’s hut that does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare.”  Not so today.  Fewer people read books, and the civic and historical awareness of the population in general and young people in particular has never been lower.   On the NAEP tests in civics in 1998, 35 percent of high school seniors scored “Below basic,” and only four percent reached “Advanced.”  The history test (from 2001) was worse, a full 57 percent earning “Below basic.”  In a Roper study commissioned by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, seniors at the top 55 colleges and universities took a history test derived from the basic high school curriculum.  The result: 81 percent of them received a grade of D or F.  98 percent of them could identify the rap singer Snoop Doggy Dog, but only 34 percent could identify Valley Forge, words from the Gettysburg Address, or basic principles of the U.S. Constitution.  

Contemporary knowledge is no less troubling.  Law professor Ilya Somin has written in “When Ignorance Isn’t Bliss: How Political Ignorance Threatens Democracy,”  “The American electorate does not have adequate knowledge for voters to control public opinion.”  Almost 70 percent of Americans know nothing about the prescription drug benefit added to Medicare.  The 2002 National Election Study found that only 32 percent of the electorate knew that Republicans control the House of Representatives.  Some 70 percent cannot name either of their U.S. Senators, and only 11 percent could identify Supreme Court chief justice as the post held by William Rehnquist.

The trend grows among younger Americans.  A 2003 survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures found that while 82 percent could name the town in which the cartoon Simpsons live, only 48 percent knew the political party of their governor.  Sixty-four percent knew that Ruben Studdard was the American Idol, but a mere 10 percent knew who the Speaker of the U.S. House is.  The study concluded, “young people do not understand the ideals of citizenship, they are disengaged from the political process, they lack the knowledge necessary for self-government, and their appreciation and support of American democracy is limited.”

Young people are no less intelligent and energetic than they were 40 years ago, but the knowledge that matters in their world has changed fundamentally.  Some skills have improved—visual literacy, for instance—but the saturation of young people’s lives with fast-paced entertainments is crowding out knowledge and habits that should be sustained, such as deliberative reading.  The potential of the Internet for educational purposes is strong, but so is the potential for frivolity.  Teachers and schools have not yet found ways to restrict the latter, but the influence of the Web on student learning grows.  Meanwhile, the common culture of the populace erodes.

Civic and historical understanding may seem a far cry from literary reading, but in truth they belong on a continuum of intellectual activities that come together in an enlightened citizen.  Literature often has served to introduce young people to events from the past and principles of civil society and governance.  Ancient Greeks learned more about moral and political conduct from the epics of Homer than from the dialogues of Plato, and Americans have become familiar with the Revolutionary War as much through Longfellow and Johnny Tremain as through the Federalist Papers.  The decline of literature in the lives of younger Americans coincides with the decline of history, civics, and art. Using movies, weblogs, graphic novels, and the like as a bridge to literary and book reading hasn’t worked, and the only reliable solution to the reading problem is to surround kids with books and engage them in reading in the classroom and in the home.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 02, 2005
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11697, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 5:05:29 PM

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