You are on page 1of 7

18

THE COMMONWEALTH June 2006


E
very 10 years the National Endowment for the
Arts (NEA) does a survey among American
households. Its the largest of its kind in the
world. We take 17,000 households, which the U.S.
Census Bureau matches to reect the total American
population as of the previous years census. We
interview those people in their homes a very
extensive interview about their participation in arts
and civics activities and we follow up with other
phone interviews. This allows us to judge in an
objective way (the error rate is about two-tenths of
1 percent about 20 times the size of your normal
national poll) how the arts are doing. We did this
a few years ago. Never in my wildest dreams did I
expect to nd what we found. To summarize, reading
has declined among every group of adult Americans:
every age group, educational group, income group,
region and race although Asian reading is at (the
single number of several thousand in this report that
is actually directionally positive). In some case the
declines have been precipitous. This has been going
on for 20 years, but the trends are getting worse,
and the worst declines are among younger American
adults. In the last 20 years, younger American adults
have gone from being the people in our society who
read the most to the people who read the least.
Reading prociency has fallen among all
Americans, and it has fallen the worst among adults
aged 18 to 24, 25 to 34. It has fallen the worst among
men, and, indeed, if you look at our study and other
studies, only about one-third of adult males are doing
what we call literary reading. Know that literary
reading sounds much better than it is. We dene
literary reading as any imaginative text essentially
any novel, short story, poem or dramatic work in a
DANA GIOIA Chair, National Endowment for the Arts
On the Importance of Reading
Gioia warns that as increasing numbers of Americans put down their books, they also invest less in
the nations civic and cultural life. In a program moderated by writer Jewelle Gomez, Gioia calls for a
revival in reading, beginning in the schools.
Monday April 10, 2006
book, magazine, newspaper or online. If you carry a
poem in your wallet and you look at it once a year, we
count you. If you have just nished Thomas Manns
Buddenbrooks in German for the third time, or youve
read one page of a Harlequin Romance and given up
because its too hard, we count you as equals. We are
very egalitarian!
What you see for the rst time in American
history is that less than half of the U.S. adult
American population is reading literature. Im going
to talk about what the causes of the problem are, and
then Ill talk about the consequences and the solutions.
To go into the data a little big further, we see
that were producing the rst generation of educated
people, in some cases college graduates, who no
longer become lifelong readers. This is disturbing
for reasons above and
beyond those that a poet
might be expected to
bring to the podium.
Literature awakens, enlarges, enhances and renes our
humanity in a way that almost nothing else can.
Franz Kafka once said that the book is the axe by
which we break open the frozen seas within us. That
metaphor is very true. We tend, by our very nature,
to be encased in our own egos. What literature does
nowhere more powerfully than in ction (the novel
and the short story) is put us in the inner lives of
other people in the dailyness of their psychological,
social, economic and imaginative existence. This
makes us feel, more intensely probably than anything
else, the reality of other points of view, of other
lives. That is obviously in jeopardy if we now have
a society in which the majority of adults are no
longer reading. But there are other things that we
can actually measure. Something seems to happen
with readers that does not happen with non-readers. I
cannot scientically prove that its causal, but I can
scientically prove with a wearisome amount of data
Reading has declined among every group of adult Americans: every
age group, educational group, income group, region and race.
19
THE COMMONWEALTH June 2006
that it is at the very least correlative.
If you are a reader, you are overwhelmingly more
likely to engage in positive social and civic behavior
versus non-readers. If you read, youre 300 percent
more likely to go to the theater and museums, 200
percent more likely to go to the movies, and over
twice in some measures three times as likely to do
volunteer work or charity work. And the argument
that this is a function of income because
the more education you have, the more likely
you are to read; the more education you have,
the higher your income is isnt true. The
poorest group of American readers does volunteer
work and charity work at twice the level of the richest
non-readers. You see other things that are rather
surprising. If you are a reader, youre more likely
to exercise, more likely to go to sports games, more
likely to play amateur sports bowling or softball
and much more likely to be aware of and involved
in your own community. There is a deep and arguably
statistical connection between readers and civic
involvement. The kind of communities that we want
to live in are, by denition, communities of readers.
The kinds of citizens a democracy needs are readers.
The interesting thing about people who read
versus people who dont read, is that they do exactly
the same things except that one group reads and the
other one doesnt. Readers play video games, watch
television; they do these things, but they do them in
a balanced way, versus people who are, increasingly,
simply passive consumers of electronic entertainment.
If you look at our data and the data of other
studies, you are almost compelled to believe that
there is now a bifurcation in the American population
between one group, which takes an active stance
towards managing their own lives, and another group,
which is increasingly passive. The passive people
come home, watch TV, play video games, go onto the
Internet, talk on the phone, go back to the TV, put a
DVD in and then its time to go to bed.
I believe that there is something fundamentally
intellectual and spiritual that happens to readers
through the combination of the sustained focused
attention that you bring to reading, the use of your
imagination to create pictures of the scenes, characters
and situations, and also your use of memory to draw
those pictures out, versus being passive and having
the images, pacing, tone and everything given to you.
This is a disturbing situation, and its not likely
to get better. Why isnt it likely to get better? This
is rather scary. If you see whats happening with
pre-adults, you see the same kinds of declines among
high school students and eighth graders. You see this
decline in the amount of reading, the command of
reading and in the ability to read at any complex level.
As a Californian, Im particularly ashamed. If you
look at eighth graders, California ranks 49
th
out of 50
states. If you look at fourth graders, we rank 48
th
. I
know all the excuses immigration and things like
this but as a Mexican-American Californian, I am
ashamed. Our public education system is not doing its
job especially in this state, which once enjoyed one
of the greatest public school systems in the world.
The problem is now at a tipping point. In the
last 20 years, the number of adult readers in the
United States has stayed the same. The number of
non-readers has increased by 40 million. There are
now a few more non-readers than readers. If we
allow the problem to get much worse, the better part
of this cultural capacity for reading, imagination,
civic engagement and human enlargement will be
irrecoverable.
Why did it happen? First, something isnt
happening in schools. Somehow, we are not
connecting reading with the expectation of pleasure
and the sense that reading is a necessary component
of a life of self-realization, of exploration of who you
are and what your individual potential is. That used
to be the goal of high school and college education in
some ways maybe quite modestly in high school,
but ambitiously in college. Now it seems we are
increasingly trying to focus on producing entry-level
workers for a service economy. That is not the same
as producing free citizens for a democracy.
Second, and this isnt arguable, we are now
surrounded by a great welter of electronic alternatives
to reading. About 20 years ago, the average American
household had one TV, one record player, one radio
and maybe one phone. Now weve got two to three
TVs, two video games, two computers, countless
phones (if you count both wired and cell phones),
DVDs, VCRs, the Internet, etc. Even when you leave
the house, you have your iPod, so theres now an
opportunity or a risk depending on how you want to
dene it of never cutting off this predetermined ow
of electronic entertainment, of which you are largely a
passive consumer.
Literature awakens, enlarges, enhances and refnes
our humanity in a way that almost nothing else can.
20
THE COMMONWEALTH June 2006
Third, and this is why its such a pleasure to
be speaking at The Commonwealth Club, is that
the media in our culture do not seriously discuss or
present reading or the rest of the arts. The talk shows
of 30, 40 years ago actually were talk shows; now
they are opportunities for product placements of new
consumer goods.
I was raised in an immigrant household where
the adults did not speak English. I would see Robert
Frost and Carl Sandburg on television inconceivable
nowadays for a network show. This vision that the
media gives us of ourselves is narrower and more
commercial than ever before. That is a reection of
the culture at large, which does not honor reading,
literature, the arts and the imagination in a way
designed to capture and develop someones attention.
If you went into a classroom of high school
seniors or college freshmen and asked them how many
NBA players they could name, you might get the
whole league. How many baseball players? Youd
get hundreds. How many hip-hop artists? Youd get
dozens, maybe over 100. How many movie stars?
Youd get countless names. Then ask them to name
one living American painter, sculptor, poet, dramatist,
architect, philosopher, historian, theologian, biologist,
physicist or mathematician. Youd get nothing. These
professions are not life roles that we honor in our
society, even by the simple act of paying attention and
acknowledging. Consequently, if you think of the role
models for a young person in this society, they are
terribly, terribly limited to sports and entertainment
(which are really both forms of entertainment), and
maybe a few public gures. That is a failure of
collective imagination. It is a frightening situation
for our society to nd itself in. This diminishment
of the possibilities of life through a diminishment
of public culture is leading to a diminishment of the
very intellectual, imaginative, cultural capacity of our
citizenry on a broader level. This is a crisis. This is
a problem of the gravest nature for a democracy to
face, because if we do not have a majority of adult
citizens who can actively manage their own lives and
engage with their own communities and the people
and institutions around them, we are a passive society.
How to fx the problem
W
hat can be done? We have to do at least three
things. First, we have to acknowledge theres
a problem. One of the most interesting things that
happened when the NEA released its Reading at
Risk report is that leaders in many of the elds
that were affected basically denied that there was a
problem. They said, Everybody was doing a great
job and everybody needed more funding; its not
my problem because were really doing one hell of
a job here. In psychobabble, thats called denial. I
understand why public servants often ignore or bend
the truth for their parochial gain, but I do not think
thats how problems get solved. So the rst thing we
have to do is acknowledge that theres a problem. If
you dont believe it, drop me a line and I will give you
so much information that you will be sorry you ever
asked.
Second, we have to acknowledge that to solve
the problem, we have to do something different. We
cannot expect to solve a problem that is growing
worse every day, every year, by doing the same thing.
I was in business for 15 years. (I guess Im the only
person in the world who can say they went to Stanford
Business School to be a poet.) And I needed a day
job, so I worked in corporate America. I learned
many valuable lessons working in big business,
but one of them and this is something that every
businessperson, educator and arts administrator should
recognize is that if you have the wrong solution, the
wrong strategy, you can spend and spend and spend,
and it still wont work. If you have the right strategy,
the right idea, you see the results almost immediately.
We have to understand that there is something about
our educational system in regard to reading that is
broken, and it includes colleges and graduate schools,
because thats where you are seeing the huge, huge
drop-offs.
Third, we have to try new things. There are
probably thousands of things that will work, because
what we are really talking about is how you engage
the attention of a younger generation and the rest
of us in the pleasure and potential of reading. The
National Endowment for the Arts is trying one idea,
on a scale that nothing but a national governmental
agency could manage. On May 9, we will announce
a civic reading program called The Big Read. Its
based on a program invented in Seattle 10 years ago,
where they encouraged people in the community
to read the same book. The best thing I can say in
defense of the NEAs idea of The Big Read is that
we didnt invent it! In fact, we threw out a couple of
ideas that wed invented because this idea struck us
as better. It recognizes something that intellectuals
often forget, which is that most people read to be
21
THE COMMONWEALTH June 2006
closer to other people, to understand other people, to
understand other situations. They want to read a book
that other people are reading. They want to have a
conversation about it. They want to be able to share
and explore their experience with other people.
Seattle is a town of around 2 million people.
Seattle judges their program successful if they can
get at least 5,000 people to read the book. Often
they are able to do far better than that, but thats
their minimum threshold. We felt that if you took
this idea, which has now been tried by 200 cities,
and you developed it in a way that no individual
community might be able to, why couldnt you get
50,000, 100,000, or a quarter of a million people to
read it? Were developing with an ever increasing
list of books, television material, radio shows, print
material, educational material and public advertising
a partnership that can go between many, many
institutions. In the community in Topeka, where
we tested it with Zora Neale Hurstons Their Eyes
Were Watching God, we had 153 community partner
organizations. We started with the libraries, mayors
ofce, schools, newspaper, public radio station, public
TV station, chamber of commerce and private-sector
bookstores. We included groups such as retirement
communities. We brought in everything from all-
night readings at the Krispy Kreme to public events
that recreate the milieu in this case the Harlem
Renaissance at all the branch libraries. And weve
had enormous public reception. In Topeka, one of
the things they were proudest of is bringing the black
community and the white community to the same
event in equal numbers. They were able to not only
build readers, but a more inclusive and balanced
community.
I would encourage you to do at least three things:
Say, Hey, we want to be part of The Big Read. Id
love that. Id encourage you to say, The Big Read is
the stupidest idea Ive ever heard; I can do something
better and come up with another idea. And the
third is basically to say, Forget about the civic level; I
have a whole different avenue to explore. But unless
we become engaged in addressing this problem,
unless we feel the civic dimension of this is worth
preserving, it wont happen.
Q U E S T I O N A N D A N S WE R S E S S I O N
Q: How does the Internet factor into the
measurement of literacy? How will proposed new
immigration laws perhaps afect literacy?
A: The Internet is obviously an enormously
inuential new medium that is changing the way
we communicate. I have enormous enthusiasm for
much of what the Internet does, but all of the research
that we have been able to use (most of it coming
from Internet companies themselves) indicates
that people do not read on the Internet. They take
information, but in a largely non-linear fashion. They
pull something from here and there. The Internet is
an extraordinary, powerful tool of communication,
but it does operate, cognitively, rather differently
from reading in the same way that television does
from reading. The Internet is changing the nature of
the American attention span, especially among the
younger generation.
Now for immigration: When we measure
reading, we measure reading in all languages not
just English. Obviously, immigration largely brings
people who are economically disadvantaged, so you
would expect lower levels of literacy
and reading from them than perhaps the
national norm, but the fact is that this
has always been a nation of immigrants.
My family migrated from Sicily, on the one hand,
and Mexico on the other, and they were all dirt poor.
I dont think this is a new American phenomenon,
but I do think that, for whatever reason, we are
handling the educational and literary integration of
these new populations less well. It is interesting that
the traditional measure of literacy is fourth-grade
education. If you had completed fourth grade, you
were literate. We now know that thats no longer true.
But both my grandfathers had only completed the
equivalent of a fourth grade education one in a poor
part of Sicily, the other in a poor part of the Southwest
and they were both lifelong readers, so I do think
there is something not happening now.
Q: As an artist, how do you deal with the loss of time
from poetry in being an administrator?
A: In my dark moods, it is a bitter loss; in my brighter
moods, I think it is a worthwhile sacrice. I did
not want this job and I refused to interview for it.
They chose another wonderful man named Michael
Hammond to be chairman. He died after eight days.
Most people read to be closer to other people, to
understand other people, to understand other situations.
22
THE COMMONWEALTH June 2006
If you have had my job, you will know why. One of
the reasons I didnt want to do it is that having spent
so many years working and having a day job, and only
writing at nights and weekends, I was very protective
about my time as a writer. But somebody needs to do
the job. Somebody needed to rebuild the NEA as a
major public institution after 20 years of culture wars.
Unfortunately, that was me.
Q: What are your refections on the role of the arts,
particularly theater, in education?
A: I dont see any way that someone can be educated
unless the arts play a role. This is not a novel idea.
Throughout history, across cultures, the arts have
played a major role in education for several reasons.
First, the arts guide you by pleasure, introducing a
component of delight above and beyond the arithmetic
or spelling class. Second, one of the problems in
our education right now is that there are only three
ways for a guy to nd a social life: go into sports,
join a gang or try to be an A-student. Most kids are
not going to go into sports, theyre not going to be
A-students and they dont want to join gangs. But
if you bring a very awkward, alienated 14-year-old
into the production of a play, suddenly he discovers
there are many other awkward, alienated 14-year-olds,
and when they get together they really have a good
time. And they not only develop a skill which earns
them applause which is a nice thing for a kid but
they also nd a better sense of themselves both as
individuals and as social beings. Its the same thing
with music, dance, the school paper, the literary
magazine and studio art. We need to give our kids
multiple ways of discovering what they are best at, as
well as multiple ways of discovering who they are and
where they are going. The more avenues we cut off,
the more kids were going to lose and its appalling
how many kids we lose. The high school graduation
rate in the United States now is about 71 percent and
that actually inates the numbers, because it doesnt
count the kids who drop out after ninth grade. You
see it in the incarceration rates and similar things. A
kid that you see in a school production of a play, in
the library or in a high school band is probably not a
kid youll see in jail.
Q: Do you think college students have been really
hammered by the administration, and that No Child
Left Behind has been left behind? What would you
suggest our president read to make
him more in touch or connected or humane?
A: I would not presume to tell the president what to
read. What I will say is that No Child Left Behind
has been surprisingly effective. Children involved in
the program have signicantly increased their reading
and math scores. African-American children most of
all, Hispanic children next and white children, too.
The problem is that that is the most basic
measurement of educational success. We need
to go back to the initial legislation of No Child
Left Behind, which identied the arts as a core
component of American education at all levels. Take
the success thats been built into the reading and the
math and work towards a complete education. That
is one of my primary goals, even though, as chairman
of the NEA, I do not have any statutory sway over
curriculum most of which is still a state or local
issue. Insofar as Im involved in education, one of
my chief goals is to bring the arts back into the core
curriculum.
The ability to teach the arts and to bring people
into the arts exists within most communities. We have
2 million Americans who dene their career their
economic status as artists. This country is full of
underemployed artists: actors who are
only acting a couple of weeks a year;
musicians who are not working most
of the time; writers who need a day job
of some sort. We could staff all of the public schools
in the United States! I believe working artists would
bring both enthusiasm and expertise to the issues.
Q: Where is your plan to bring productions of
Shakespearean plays to the U.S. armed forces?
A: Its actually happened. One of the programs that I
launched when I rst came to the NEA was a program
called Shakespeare in American Communities. What
we tried to do was look at the arts not as all these
disconnected things, but as a kind of ecosystem
with ARTA, actors, directors, theater companies,
the people who present the theater companies,
audiences, younger audiences, students, their teachers
and see if we could create a program that went
across that. So far, 47 theater companies have toured
1,100 communities mostly mid-size and smaller
The Internet is changing the nature of the American
attention span, especially among the younger generation.
23
THE COMMONWEALTH June 2006
communities that dont have Equity theater. Theyve
reached several thousand schools, and we have
brought 1 million kids mostly high school; some
junior high school kids to their rst production of
Shakespeare. For 70 percent, its the rst time they
have seen a play. It also means they can see the play
they are studying all 50 states mandate Shakespeare
to be studied in high school. Weve also brought
free educational materials to 12 million kids in the
classrooms.
While this was going on, we were able to talk
to the U.S. Department of Defense. The argument I
made was that we have almost 4 million Americans
that are in either the military or military families.
Most of them live in relatively isolated rural
communities. We have the oldest, best-educated and
best-trained military in our history, and what are we
bringing them? Country Western music, rock bands,
movies and, as one senator put it, girlie shows the
USO. Im all for Country Western music, rock bands,
movies and the USO, but couldnt we bring them
something else?
We were able to get the Department of Defense
to give us $1 million to bring a couple of theater
companies on tour to military bases and the schools.
It was a wonderful thing. We were able to give
actors work and reach a new audience. Now we
have 24 opera companies touring military bases and
performing gala evenings two thirds opera and
one-third Broadway. We are playing to capacity
audiences. We are turning people away. At Camp
Lejeune we had 16,000 people who up for the
concert. One of the most important things the arts
can do is create conversations across societies, with
groups that wouldnt meet otherwise. Its good for
the actors, good for the troops, good for the kids. Im
particularly proud of this, and Im particularly proud
that the U.S. Department of Defense gave us the
money to do it. Its all incremental.
Q: Many years ago students learned classic poetry by
memorizing and reciting in class. Do you think the
decline of this has created a lack of interest in poetry
and a lack of ability to write poetry?
A: Yes. That is one of the reasons poetry became less
popular. Ill tell you why. There are many ways of
teaching an art form. Over the last 50 years we have
been teaching poetry as a problematic, difcult text
that you had to unravel and explain. Some poems
are difcult texts you want to unravel and explain,
but poetry is primarily a performative art. There is
a very holistic thrill about getting up and reciting a
poem this great construction of language of emotion
and imagery and bringing it into the center of your
being.
As a teacher, Ive noticed that you have students
who really like to puzzle things out and write the
papers, but there are also kids that are terribly
disruptive. When you give them a performative
assignment, sometimes your
class clown becomes your
class star and you bring
a whole different energy
into the class. I play the two types off of each other
the people that are performing and people that are
analyzing. It makes for a much more interesting class
and it gives more people more chances at excellence,
more chances for participation.
Were doing a national poetry recitation contest
this month. We have a quarter of a million U.S. high
school kids that are competing. We are having our
state nals over the next two weeks. Next month we
will have the nals in Washington. Well be giving
$70,000 in scholarships to the winners, and we also
give money to the library of every high school that
puts somebody in the national nals.
Q: Have the poetry slams, which have been a rising
phenomenon among young people, helped poetry?
A: Yes. There has been an explosion of popular
poetry in the last quarter-century. You see it in rap
and in the hip-hop culture. You see it with poetry
slams. You see it with cowboy poetry. You see it
with cafs and bars and bookstores taking poetry
outside of the university. This is all good. The more
diversity that we have, the more avenues we have to
bring people into the art form. What I particularly
like about poetry slams is that they do something that
was unthinkable, un-genteel and rude: have a winner.
The funny thing is that all the Greek arts be they
drama, poetry or athletics were done in competition,
because the Greeks felt the drive for individual
excellence was best stimulated through competition.
Americans must believe that, too, or they wouldnt
be watching American Idol. I dont see any other
reason to watch it! And dont feel bad if you lose
One of the most important things the arts can do is create conversations
across societies, with groups that wouldnt meet otherwise.
24
THE COMMONWEALTH June 2006
the competition. Remember next time you have a
manuscript rejected that Sophocles lost with Oedipus
Rex! Theres hope even for people who dont win.
Q: Can you talk a little about the last eight years in
regard to the federal funding of the NEA?
A: The NEA was created in 1965, which means we
are enjoying our 40
th
anniversary this year. It was
created at the end of the Great Society program. It
was a relatively small program, but $7 million was
seen more as a committee that gave a few large grants
to distinguished institutions. Surprisingly, the person
who turned it into a major institution was Richard
Nixon. He grew it 40-fold because he felt it brought
people together in a divided nation. Over the next 10
to 15 years, the NEA grew at a very, very high level.
Our highest funding was $177 million, which would
be the equivalent of about $400 million-plus today.
During the 90s, in the culture wars, the whole thing
fell apart and the NEA was literally a few votes from
being abolished. In the mid-90s, the budget was cut
to $99 million and half the staff eliminated. Forty
percent of the money was given directly to the states,
and it became marginalized.
Im happy to say that we have been able to grow
the budget for each of the last four years, and weve
launched the largest initiatives in our history. We now
have a bipartisan majority in both houses and, over
the last three and half years, weve had nothing but
success. We are at the beginning of another really
great era for the NEA, but it has been very, very
difcult. Previously, the NEA never understood that
as a public agency, you have to communicate to the
public the value of what you are doing. For nearly
40 years, the NEA let the critics of the institution
dictate the public conversation about the institution.
The most important thing that Ive done at the NEA
has been to change the public conversation about the
funding of the arts and public arts agencies to bring
the real issues before the public.
Q: Do you feel youve been successful in
communicating the importance of the arts to the
White House, which doesnt seem that supportive?
A: No, we have been successful. Contrary to that
question, we have very strong support for the
endowment from the White House. The problem
really is that there were 20 years of congressional
problems that needed to be resolved.
Q: What is the most infuential book you have read
since being at the NEA, and which living poet have
you most recently read?
A: Im such a compulsive reader. Since Ive come to
Washington, Ive stopped sleeping, so I just read book
after book after book. The book that Im proudest
to have nally read is War and Peace. The nest
new novel that Ive read is Mario Vargas Llosas The
War of the End of the World, which is an absolute
masterpiece.
Im hard-pressed to say what the best book would
be I read so many. The poet that Ive read most
recently is a woman who lives in Greece named A.E.
Stallings. Her wonderful new book of poetry has a
terrible title, Hapax, which is apparently a classical
grammatical term for a word which appears only once
in the history of a language. The poetry is just superb.
I ended up re-reading it within about a week.
Q: Do you have any feelings about the need for
popular entertainers to spur the interest in reading?
A: It is important for public gures to talk about the
importance of reading in their lives. It is enormously
important, because these people have the publics ear.
If they talk about why reading is important in their
lives, it is compelling. With The Big Read, were
trying to bring surprising people into the discussion
about books not just literary people.
Q: Do you have one of your own poems youd like to
read this evening?
A: This is a short poem only six lines long. Its
about how the lives we lead are almost invisible to
anyone but ourselves because they are so private.
Theyre internal. The poem is called Unsaid.
So much of what we live goes on inside
The diaries of grief, the tongue-tied aches
Of unacknowledged love are no less real
For having passed unsaid. What we conceal
Is always more than what we dare conde.
Think of the letters that we write our dead.
This program was made possible by the generous support of the
Bernard Osher Foundation.