Reading and Democracy
This paper intends to analyze the implications for teaching, research, and the democratic process of a recently issued report, by the National Endowment for the Humanities, whose findings are little short of alarming. Dana Gioia, Chairman of the NEH, states that the report, entitled Reading at Risk, “merely documents and quantifies a huge cultural transformation that most Americans have already noted – our society’s massive shift toward electronic media for entertainment and information.” The report suggests that “Literary reading strongly correlates to other forms of active civic participation...If one believes that active and engaged readers lead richer intellectual lives than non-readers and that a well-read citizenry is essential to a vibrant democracy, the decline of literary reading calls for serious action.” It sees a direct correlation between the decline in reading and the widespread participation in electronic media, such as the internet, video games and portable digital devices. The report concludes that the trends in reading among all demographic groups in America, especially the young, indicate “an imminent cultural crisis.” This paper will argue that the decline of reading and of literacy in general is a form of ideological control; that the lack of appropriate funding for education is merely one of several strategies for ensuring the self-regulating quietism of citizens; that there is an intrinsic connection between the growth of capitalist markets – into the monopolisation of the media, the promotion of mind-numbing gadgets and mindless television programmes – and the degradation of reading and conceptual skills. The premise ultimately underlying my argument is that genuine partcipation in a genuine democracy presupposes a minimal set of critical reading and conceptual skills as well as a minimal foundation of knowledge. In education terms, the implications of all of these arguments are alarming because, in such a vastly globalising economic climate, the power of the teacher or professor to remedy educational deficiencies is severely limited.
Dr. M.A.R. Habib
Professor of English, Department of English, Kingston University