The National Endowment for the Arts has released a new study of studies of the decline of reading in the United States. Some kinds of reading were apparently not considered.
Zeus and Mnemosyne [Memory] were the parents of the nine Muses. Calliope was the muse of epic poetry, Clio was the muse of history, Erato was the muse of love poetry, Euterpe was the muse of music, Melpomene was the muse of tragedy, Polyhymnia was the muse of sacred poetry, Terpsichore was the muse of dance, Thalia was the muse of comedy, and Urania was the muse of astronomy.
Of these nine, two are now off the reservation. Urania has clearly taken Astronomy over to the Science side of the Arts, and Clio has had the misfortune of presiding over history and nonfiction, and so, at least for the National Endowment for the Arts, has evidently lost her status among the Arts.
In 2004, the National Endowment of the Arts conducted a $300,000 study of the reading habits of Americans. It found a significant decline in literary reading for pleasure among just about every group. In The Washington Post, on Friday, July 9, 2004, Jacqueline Trescott wrote that the NEA study found that an industry group “predicts that annual sales for all types of books will top $44 billion by 2008, up 59 percent from last year. Nevertheless, only 46.7 percent of adults say they are reading literature, compared with 56.9 percent two decades ago.”
Their new study of studies continues this limited focus on literary reading for pleasure.
It is part of Ancient Survey Lore that if you don’t ask about something, you may not find out about it. In this case, apparently the survey didn’t ask the fairly obvious question whether, if annual sales of books are booming, and fewer people are reading literature, what are they reading instead? Could it be nonfiction? Could it be history? They never asked.
Here the banishment of Clio comes in. Although she is one of the original Daughters of Memory, apparently the National Endowment for the Arts has decided that she is no longer one of the Muses of the Arts, so History is off the radar. If anyone enjoys reading history books, for example, the NEA might still not count them as literature.
The NEA makes clear that they are very interested in music, art, drama, poetry, literature, and dance, and they have awarded, they say, more than $4 Billion for 126,000 grants to support those activities since 1965, but they seem to have no interest in history, and no understanding that it is one of the Arts, and that Clio is still one of the Muses. Her mother, Memory, would find that odd, no doubt.
Although no one seems to want to fund a small study to find out, there appears fairly general agreement that in our high schools, because the English Department controls reading and writing, complete history books are not assigned, so if adults are reading more history, they must have discovered it either in college or on their own.
To be fair to the NEA, their focus on entertainment is understandable, given the huge dollar value of American entertainment exports, not to mention the gigantic domestic sales of Guitar Hero II, Grand Theft Auto San Andreas, etc. Entertainment in the United States is a very important business.
That may be why the NEA, in its surveys, for example of college student reading, asks what they read for pleasure. It doesn’t show any interest in what they may be reading for history classes, or for political science or philosophy or any of their other courses. If you only ask about reading for pleasure, then reading for pleasure is all you will find out about. And if you only ask people what literary reading they are doing, you will learn nothing about what history books or other nonfiction books they may be reading as well.
In its new study of studies, the NEA found pretty much what the 2004 one did, that people are not reading much literature for pleasure. It also didn’t inquire into the reading of history or other nonfiction books, in school or college or after.
One sad outcome of these large but hobbled NEA studies of reading is that they do not shed any light on the absence of complete nonfiction books for American high school students. If our students do not read a single nonfiction book before they go to college, they will be less well-prepared for college reading lists. Some college courses have shortened and dumbed down their reading lists, partly because the students can’t read, and for all students, unless they read more on their own, this lack of preparation makes them less able to take advantage of college-level work as soon as they start paying tuition. We and they pay a price for having forgotten Clio, the Daughter of Memory…
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