University of Southern California professor and former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts Dana Gioia has one question: Do they read?
When Dana Gioia was Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts under President George W. Bush, he found that the state of reading in America was in decline. Seven years later, there hasn’t been much improvement, he laments.
Gioia, a highly-regarded Catholic poet and who now teaches at the University of Southern California, says people are reading less and reading less well. That situation imperils not only their future career prospects but deprives young people of an inner life, as well.
Under Gioia’s chairmanship, the NEA issued two reports: Reading at Risk and To Read or Not to Read. He recently spoke to Aleteia correspondent John Burger about the importance of reading, especially among the young.
What can you say about reading in America today, in general?
Reading at Risk caused a kind of an international flurry of interest, and then about a year later we did a report called To Read or Not to Read, in which we took every federally funded national study on reading and looked at them from every possible angle — I think it was 40 studies — to see basically what we could generalize from these things. Comparing data is always a problem because nothing ever agrees. But in this case, it was really scary because at least 40 studies were done on everything from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to national education to the Bureau of Prisons, [and they] basically told us the same thing. I wrote a summary for Congress and the Senate, and we were able to summarize it in three sentences: 1) Every group of Americans is reading less. 2) Consequently, they read less well. 3) Reading less well has measurable negative consequences for education, employment, income, civil involvement and personal success.
That’s the macro view: that our society is losing an extremely important collective skill, which is high-level reading. If you look at the data carefully, the younger you are, the more severe the decline, so that the older you are the better you read, the more you read, etc.
And if you want to go one step further, people who are most affected are boys. Boys read less and read less well. There is a kind of stupid rationalization that you see in society. You have to understand that how much we read about this is determined by the publicity departments of electronics companies, video game companies, things like this. People want us to believe that reading is a kind of old-style skill that has been superseded by all these wonderful electronic things and that reading on the internet is every bit as good as reading a book. I don’t disagree, if what people were doing on the internet is reading traditional texts, but they really aren’t. They’re looking at films and videos, and when they do read, it is usually a photo caption. When people read on the internet, they tend to read no more than 17 words at a time.
Should we be concerned? Why does this matter?
If you could know only one thing about a 17- or 18-year old to predict his or her future success, you’d probably want to know whether they voluntarily read. If the answer is yes, you can be reasonably sure they will do better in school, they’ll do better in the job market, they’ll become more integrated with their community, and they will have higher odds of successful personal outcomes. It may seem counterintuitive, but it is massively documented in statistical and behavioral studies that if you read, you’re more likely to volunteer in charity work; you’re more likely to vote; you’re more likely to exercise; you’re more likely to play sports; you’re more likely to go out to all sorts of civic events, from sports events to cultural events.