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January 01st 2011 print

Rob Nugent

The Decline of Reading in an Age of Ignorance

History has become a battleground of late, with the debate over the ins and outs of Australian self-analysis raising a lot of ruckus. However, there’s a war on another front which has been taking place for quite a while now just over the horizon, the thunder of whose guns will dwarf those of our own small skirmish. History—in fact, the transmission of culture in general—is under siege.

If the twentieth century was called the Age of Anxiety, the twenty-first should be called the Age of Ignorance. To coin (or rather, purloin) a phrase, never in human history has so much knowledge been available and accessible, and yet so little curiosity or effort been expended by so many in response to it. 

These are dark thoughts; and I think it is possible that darkness may be what we are talking about. The politically unreconstructed, such as myself, still call that period following the collapse of the Roman empire in the West, the Dark Ages (knowledge was lost, many major cities shrank to collections of huts, the science of the classical world was a curiosity in books unread or even lost). It is deeply depressing to consider that we may be confronting something of a Dark Age ourselves; and there is a terrible bleak irony to it. A period of mass education descends into mass ignorance. History has a grim sense of humour.

The numbers, of course, appear to tell us something else. More people in the developed world are literate than at any time before. More children complete secondary school. More school leavers go on to university. More homes have a computer which offers access to all the knowledge of the world at the press of a key. We are more information-advantaged than at any time in human history. More, more, more. We are swimming in information and opportunity. Yet … yet … a nagging doubt refuses to be dismissed.

What are we doing with all this information and opportunity? What is the most accessed item on the internet? Porn. Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan rank up there as most-Googled topics. The issue of Tiger Woods’s sexual impropriety was a major item on the national news. Print newspapers cling to existence in country after country. Quality television programming exists in the cracks between wall-to-wall lifestyle programs and reality television so abysmal that parody itself couldn’t imagine anything so banal (there’s even one about New Zealand traffic accidents, for goodness sake; a guaranteed sleep-inducer if ever there was one). Conspiracy theories and crackpot “science” multiply like viral contagion and cross-infect each other with increasingly baroque interpretations of events; they suffocate rational debate, as if by merely appropriating scientific terminology, validity is given to total flapdoodle. 

Another set of pretty frightening numbers underpins these factors. In America, for example, cultural institutions have noted the collapse of literary reading over the last few decades. The National Endowment for the Arts, in a 2007 report (To Read, or Not to Read) noted that while young Americans spend almost two hours a day watching television, only seven minutes of their daily leisure time is spent reading. Less than one-third of American thirteen-year-olds are daily readers (a 14 per cent decline from twenty years earlier); while the percentage of seventeen-year-olds who are non-readers doubled over a twenty-year period, from 9 per cent in 1984 to 19 per cent in 2004. Nearly half of Americans between eighteen and twenty-four years old read no books whatsoever for pleasure. Moreover, as the NEA chairman (and poet) Dana Gioia noted in the report, “Most alarming, both reading ability and the habit of reading have greatly declined among college graduates.” 

As the NEA report indicates that reading is not only associated with better personal and financial circumstances, but that readers are also more likely to participate in cultural and (surprisingly) sporting events, to undertake exercise, and to volunteer for community work, the knock-on effects from the decline in literary reading are significant. In Australia, it was reported that the chairman of the national Curriculum and Assessment Authority, Professor Barry McGaw, attributed the decline in the reading scores of fifteen-year-olds between 2000 and 2006 to a fall in the standards of the top-performing students. The reading proficiency of high-ability students is therefore a matter of concern not just in the USA but also in Australia. 

So, what is going on? Hold on to your hats, folks, I’m going to mention that scary E-word, elites, and their role in the larger society. One could make an argument that things have not really changed much at all. Societies have always institutionalised inequalities of one sort or another: wealth, class and, yes, intelligence (though the inbred and intellectually-challenged Hapsburg dynasty provides a perfect example of the lack of necessary correlation between those factors). In the past, the pursuit of knowledge and culture was very much an elite preoccupation. In the Renaissance, for example, whether it was Leonardo da Vinci as a representative of the intellectual elite pursuing it, or the Medici and the French king, Francis I, as the class-based elite commissioning it, the engine of culture that produced advances in science, technology, art and philosophy was driven by a minority. Therefore, perhaps it is not so counter-intuitive after all that, despite the overall increase in educational attainment, a large segment of society reflects “non-elite” interests. In this view, “high” culture (with which the modern world has an ambivalent relationship at best) has always been the prerogative of the few. Perhaps contemporary political and social democratisation has therefore merely placed majority culture in full view. 

Well, yes … and no. The problem is not that we have failed to “bring culture to the masses”, but that the usual mode of cultural transmission has been inverted—the supposed culture of the masses (in fact, the muddleheaded confabulation the intelligentsia passes off as the culture of the masses, the poor maligned masses, if anyone bothered to ask, wouldn’t touch with a barge pole) has become the currency of the intellectual elite. As the decline in literary reading amongst the most educated indicates, the pursuit of ignorance has become a cultural imperative. In the name of a spurious “relevance”, the chief channels of culture—schools, universities, the arts and literature—have followed a downward spiral into contentless, valueless and narcissistic mediocrity. Tracey Emin’s conviction that the state of her bedroom would be of burning interest to anyone other than a cleaning contractor—and the art establishment’s support of that self-indulgent delusion—represents a total failure in artistic consciousness. (If you want to look for artistic energy, look to China, where assimilating the culture of the past is the jet fuel to that particular social engine.) Enervated and actually disengaged from “life”, our contemporary intellectual elite does not represent to us a worthy democratisation of the knowledge base. Through its dismal failure to fulfil its significant function to transmit culture and history, it instead sells short the aspirations of our society in general.

The transmission of cultural knowledge is one of the most important functions of any society. In the past, the major obstacle to attaining it for those with ability was merely gaining access to the necessary education and preferment. Societies have handled this differently. The imperial Chinese state had a system of examinations whereby smart but poor boys could become a part of the state bureaucracy (they even had a god of examinations!). On the other hand, the poet Keats—who has come to represent knowledge, beauty and culture in our own tradition—had to cease such education as he had at fourteen to work as a surgeon’s assistant (a bloody business in those days). Opportunity was something he didn’t take for granted. When I read “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” as a kid, the premise of the poem didn’t strike me as unusual; after all, I couldn’t read Greek either. But the poignancy of it now strikes me so clearly. This was a man who, unlike most of his Romantic peers, had had his educational options limited. Chapman’s translation really did open up to him those new lands of the mind. What burns through the poem is his delight in, his passion for, the learning and culture of the past. 

Like the children in Africa who walk miles each day to get the education their parents scrimp and save to pay for, Keats knew that knowledge mattered. Now, however, we seem to have become wilfully amnesiac. We, who have opportunities for education and advancement of which Keats could only have dreamed, who have access to the world’s information store without setting foot outside our door, are like the peasants who stripped Rome to build fences and pigsties. The intelligentsia of our “more enlightened” era is either blind to the culture of the past or actively hostile to it. As the shade of W.B. Yeats would probably concur, our intellectual and cultural elite not only “lack all conviction”, they seem to lack the very will to value the pursuit of knowledge or aesthetic excellence. 

Them’s fightin’ words, and I’m expecting the massed armies of the luvvies to gather bearing their laptops, pitchforks and battered copies of postmodernist readings forthwith; but bear with me, there’s more than a little method in my seemingly retrogressive madness. 

Take education. While bemoaning the manifold inadequacies of the young has been a staple of older generations probably since humanity could snap two synapses together (Tacitus, for example, could fulminate along with the best of them; Roman matrons were falling down in their duties, he thundered; their children were getting a substandard education because Roman women were allowing ill-tutored nursery maids to educate their children instead of the matrons inculcating knowledge themselves—daycare, it’s been an ongoing problem), the vast changes in modern telecommunications and technology give the issue a new urgency. In this technological age, surrounded as we are by an absolute blizzard of trivia, it is worth considering how much we are managing to transmit of our cultural heritage to the young. While more of our young people may be in educational institutions of one sort or another, are they receiving the kind of education which would equip them to become participants in the great dialogue across the centuries which has propelled civilisation? University students, for example, probably represent a large proportion of the future leaders of our society, the best educated, and often (but not invariably, as far too many talented kids still meet roadblocks to opportunity) the most gifted of their generation. So, what do all those kids—our intellectual elite on trainer wheels—stumbling through the portals of our universities, actually know?

The portents aren’t good, and it’s not just a local phenomenon. In the UK, for example, Professor Derek Matthews of the University of Cardiff had the temerity to expect that his first-year undergraduates would have a basic understanding of key historical facts (he does teach history of economics, after all). Over three years, Professor Matthews asked his first-years (who represent, as he says, part of the top 15 per cent of school leavers in the country) five questions which he thought reflected the kind of grounding in historical knowledge necessary for a British citizen: 

1. Who was the general in charge of the British Army at the battle of Waterloo? [Wellington]

2. Who was the reigning monarch when the Spanish Armada attacked Britain? [Elizabeth I]

3. What was Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s profession? [engineer]

4. Name one Prime Minister of Britain in the nineteenth century? [out of twenty—including notable figures such as Gladstone and Disraeli]

5. In what country was the Boer War of 1899–1902 fought? [South Africa]

It isn’t rocket science. This is the kind of historical knowledge that used to be taught at primary school. The equivalent in Australia would be like asking a student to name the captain of the Endeavour, in which war Australia’s involvement at Gallipoli occurred, or what ANZAC stands for. These are the basic building blocks of more sophisticated understanding and analysis. Not to know them is as handicapping as trying to read without knowing the alphabet. 

The results of Professor Matthews’s study were staggering. Only 16.5 per cent could name Wellington, 11.5 per cent could pick out a nineteenth-century prime minister, 34.5 per cent could identify Elizabeth I as the monarch at the time of the Spanish Armada, Brunel must have been taught in science because he scored a massive 40.5 per cent (irony alert) identification factor, while 30.6 per cent could place the Boer War in South Africa. Remember that these kids are from the top 15 per cent of school leavers—this means that the other 85 per cent are likely to have even less knowledge of the history and culture of their country. Nor is it just a matter of class, as the kids from fee-paying schools or selective schools did slightly worse than the rest. What this represents is a widespread pattern of historical and cultural ignorance. As Professor Matthews states, “In other words, we are looking at a whole generation that knows almost nothing about the history of their (or anyone else’s) country.”

In his 2008 book, The Dumbest Generation, American university lecturer Mark Bauerlein paints a similarly grim picture of the intellectual life of the young, mustering a welter of dispiriting statistics. More than half of US school leavers, for example, score below basic achievement levels even in US history; 52 per cent think that Germany, Italy and Japan were US allies in the Second World War! Moreover, it is the Digital Age which has, he postulates, stunted and diminished not only the knowledge young people attain, but the very tools they require to attain it. 

Now this is a significant point, as the argument usually raised at this juncture is that in our new technological age young people have gained other skills that support their knowledge and understanding and do not need knowledge stores—the internet is, after all, a regular fount of knowledge. Strangely enough, similar things tend not to be said about mathematical or science skills, where solid groundings in basic knowledge are crucial to moving to more advanced analysis of data (perhaps that is because maths and science are seen as essential areas of study, whereas historical and cultural understanding is “expendable”). Let’s imagine a teacher trying to make a convincing argument that kids don’t need to understand mathematical operations because they can always use a calculator. Nope, not happening, not getting a picture here.

How did we get to this point? The collapse in literary reading, as noted earlier, has more than a little to do with it. General knowledge grows out of an instinctive familiarity with core concepts built up over long-term exposure to the kind of cogently developed arguments and information best supplied in (surprise, surprise) books. Overfilled school schedules packed with supposedly “engaging” lesson plans, plus the many recreational hours given over to a host of social networking activities, probably also account for more than a tad. However, how knowledge is “packaged” for kids seems to me to be a major source of the problem. 

In the absence of comparable quantifiable data for Australian universities, I’ve noted anecdotal evidence which seems to support Derek Matthews’s discussion of history teaching’s failure to provide a framework for cultural knowledge. At a major Australian university with which I have some small acquaintance (I’m not going to identify it; the object here is to mark out trends, not prepare the ducking stool), a first-year course in Early Modern European History reflects the fundamental problems facing the teaching of humanities subjects in universities worldwide. This course deals with a critical and eventful period in history by managing to avoid discussing most of the significant movements and issues of the time. So, no focus on the Renaissance, no English Civil War, no Enlightenment, no beginnings of industrialisation (Blake’s “dark Satanic mills” came from somewhere!), no French Revolution. Because the history of Eastern Europe doesn’t even get a look-in, the Fall of Constantinople and the subsequent effects for Western Europe raise nary a ripple, despite the fact that the impact of this event is still ricocheting around contemporary Europe. Even when a rare major topic is raised—such as the Reformation—the pressing question of peasants baring their backsides in churches is addressed in preference to considering the kinds of intellectual ferment that drove the Reformation. 

Typical areas covered in the course include discussion of the kinds of food that people ate (Thomas Aquinas scores a mention, not as a great philosopher and theologian of the previous era, but as a lover of herring) or their sexual behaviour. The period (the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries) offers a rich smorgasbord of intellectual fare, but the students get barely a morsel of it. Their required readings do not include primary sources such as Bacon, Montaigne, Machiavelli, da Vinci, Locke, Descartes, Kant, Burke, Paine or Rousseau (let alone the host of literary figures from the time; the list of what’s not covered is too long to detail). They don’t get to study the artistic culture of this incredibly vital period (the movement from International Gothic to the Renaissance, the Baroque, Mannerism, Neoclassicism and so on). The course hardly touches on and does not illuminate for them the huge changes in science (cosmology, knowledge of the human body, the application of the scientific method), technology, art and society that occurred in this period; but they do get to read the testimony of a transgender prostitute on which they are supposed to make some fairly loaded and sweeping generalisations about sexual behaviour, as if differences between classes, regions and time periods were irrelevant. Well, that will really clarify the period for them nicely. 

It’s easy to parody a course like this (and I have to say, Aquinas the herring lover is a Monty Python skit waiting to happen), but the implications of such a truncated perception of history for the development of students’ understanding are disturbing. To be fair to the (assuredly well-meaning) course designers, the course does advertise its particular emphasis on “everyday life” (though even that premise is open to question—how everyday is a transgender prostitute?). As a major component of the university’s undergraduate coverage, and for many students the only introduction they will get to European history, the course essentially fails to put such information as it does provide within a coherent historical context.

In the first instance, this kind of thematic approach does not give students the mental scaffolding they need on which to build any kind of real analysis. Derek Matthews was driven to undertake his study by his students’ ignorance of what the term “Protestant” meant (which, one would think, might have made economic history—the Protestant work ethic—a bit difficult). Many students doing the history course at the Australian university also do not understand the difference between Protestant and Catholic. Fortunately (or unfortunately) for them, however, as the Australian course largely avoids dealing with political change, their total blankness with regard to the political and economic ramifications of the Reformation remains serenely untroubled. 

For those of us of antediluvian age (anything over thirty-five probably), the notion that university students could arrive at the place knowing so little seems inconceivable; but there are first-years out there studying history who, for example, don’t know what BC and AD refer to, who don’t understand how it can possibly be that the sixth century BC happened before the fifth century BC (“that’s weird”), and who think that the New Testament is just the revised edition of some stuffy old book. God (Old or the apparently Revised Version) help us. Such lack of familiarity with basic constructs makes it impossible for students to grasp the more complex issues that consideration of any historical period inevitably raises. 

Compounding the huge vacancy where the narrative thread and intellectual architecture of history ought to be, the Australian course also fails to give students the methodological tools and understanding of historiography that they need in order to be able to assess and use primary and secondary sources, skills without which the interpreting of historical processes becomes mere “opinion”. For first-year students, this represents a serious lacuna. Over the entire course, for example, students read a mere handful of primary sources and are presented with secondary sources which do not address alternative points of view or give any sense of the climate of intellectual debate. Thus, while failing to give students the kind of structured knowledge base they need as a springboard to even preliminary historical understanding, the Australian course is prepared to present, as unquestioned material, articles that very much push ideological barrows the students are too naive (and too poorly educated) to appreciate. 

This is a depressing picture all round. Students come in knowing next to nothing, and go out in a similar state of empty-headedness, but with a shiny new vocabulary of ideologically-correct jargon to suit all occasions. All in all, it’s an outcome Stalin himself would envy. 

And here we return to where we started: the failure of the intellectual elite to act as the channel of culture. The course in history at the Australian university, in its hostility to “traditional” historical knowledge and method, limits access to texts and scholarship (though postmodernism is in decline, it has yet to pass completely through the long intestine of academia; its influence is therefore likely to linger until the generation of academics and teachers most influenced by it retires). The core premise of the Australian history course is as simple and as lacking in political nuance as “four legs good, two legs bad”. In this view, “real” history is not the history of events or of political, intellectual or artistic movements. “Real” history reflects those without power, not those who wield it. “Real” history is not literary or textual. It is largely unwritten. “Real” history is “apophatic”, and like the postmodern God, visible only in its absence. There’s a truth here, a simple truth that all historians recognise—but it’s a very simple truth, and absolutely nothing in history can be reduced to simple truths without losing analytical power. 

Here’s a really radical thought: the study of history involves the careful assessment of evidence in the service of understanding the past, and through it (if we’re fortunate), ourselves. Without relevance to ourselves, history is pointless antiquarianism. Without genuine openness to the past, historical study is an endless process of rootless revisionism. Without evidence, any discussion may as well be speculative fiction. Historical understanding comes from a respectful engagement with the past, not what we determine to be the past. We need to approach the historical past as we do another society or culture, sensitive to the fact that we bring to it a worldview that is “other” to that of the people who lived then; and that our job is to be as receptive as possible to the experience of their world, not impose upon it intellectual constructions designed to suit our own purposes. (I am always amused by the fact that those most concerned to prescribe and to police sensitivity to other cultures in a contemporary setting, also seem to be those least likely to show a similar sensitivity to the societies and cultures of the past.) The irony is that in the pursuit of so-called “real history”, history courses such as the one discussed actually write an unreal history, an ideological construct that they fabricate largely in the absence of evidence. 

The core premise is that in discussing the experience of “ordinary” people, then “real history” will be revealed—and there is some truth in that. The larger truth is, however, that the particularity of this experience occurs within the framework of events whose pattern was set in motion, in the case of the 1300–1800 course, in the centres of government, learning and commerce, in royal courts and on battlefields, and in the intellectual thrust and parry of universities, taverns and coffee houses across the European continent. This is “real history” too; and failing to give students—students who may not even have within their repertoire a simple fact like the distinction between Protestant and Catholic—an understanding of the shifts and turns in the geopolitical pattern and intellectual currents of the past, prevents them from ever making good use of whatever insights they may glean of village life in Shropshire, Silesia or Bohemia. All too many contemporary history courses are actually a-historical, in which the social experience of the past somehow floats in a timeless and eventless “now” where all regional and temporal differences are elided over. 

Such an approach necessarily becomes a history which is not about process, development or change; one which is weirdly a-temporal in its study of that by-product of time, history itself. In the Early Modern course, for example, students were expected to make—on the basis of next-to-no access to primary sources—judgments about the sexual behaviour, the religious experience and the eating habits over the entire continent for the entire period. Given the diversity of experience across regions and centuries, this is meaningless. For many students, studying history becomes a kind of QI experience, in which odd and interesting bits of information bob about in a sea of general ignorance (as Stephen Fry would say). It is all Quite Interesting (and history is full of fascinating and curious facts, such as the recent QI pearler that the Athenians made dildos out of baked bread, which has given a whole new meaning to the notion that bread is the staff of life), but it does not provide the tools for developing historical understanding. The likelihood is that, in the absence of detailed knowledge, students will parrot the views of the academic articles which are uncritically presented to them as accepted “reality”. Thus, while being unable to discuss the momentous impact of the English Civil War on the religious experience of the Brits, our poor students will drone on about peasants dropping their daks in German churches as revealing to us the “real” attitudes of the poor and oppressed to the immorality of the church overall. 

What this attitude generates is not a sympathy for the oppressed masses of the past, but precisely the kind of intransigent moral certainty for which the proponents of “real history” would condemn bourgeois Victorians. It is complacent, self-absorbed and convinced of its own rectitude. And it is absolutely antithetical to the “real” pursuit of knowledge. 

Socrates was already making an historical allusion when he stated that our purpose should be to “Know thyself” (it was, in fact, the Delphic Oracle who first relayed this message from the god Apollo). However, as the dialogues show so tellingly, Socrates realised that such knowledge is gained through interaction with others. We are a social species, and understanding the “other” is essential to how we live and learn. The process of gaining this access to the inner worlds of others is called theory of mind. Theory of mind is a developmental process whereby children gradually achieve understanding that the inside of someone else’s cranium may look entirely different from their own. In other words, older children begin to be able to place themselves in someone else’s position, to understand something from someone else’s point of view—which is the absolutely necessary beginning to that long road of gaining wisdom, Socrates’ sophia

Our friend Keats called it not theory of mind but negative capability (which as he noted, Shakespeare had in spades), that ability to place yourself within the mind and experience of another; and such openness to the experience of the other is crucial to the process of historical understanding. Our contemporary culture’s preoccupation with imposing its ideologically correct point of view, while loudly propounding the importance of “real” people, prevents us from hearing the voices of those who actually do seek to speak to us, the writers and thinkers who provide us with the surest road to that other country which is the past. 

It is no accident that literary reading has diminished in recent years. Reading is the ultimate form of exercise of theory of mind. It places us within the consciousness of both the writer and the characters he or she creates, while also giving us access to the writer’s world. It makes weird sense, therefore, that in our narcissistic age, while creative writing courses boom, reading withers. People want to be read, they don’t want to read. They demand an audience; they don’t want to be one. Contemporary “a-historical” history is thus perfectly attuned to its times. You don’t need to engage with the past; you just rearrange your own mental furniture. Texts and events don’t matter. History is merely the mirror for your own reflection, a Rorschach blot on which you project the amazing wonderfulness of your preconceptions (yep, waiting with bated breath for Tracey Emin’s no doubt forthcoming History of the Western World—anticipating a cultural treasure there). 

I hold to Keats’s side of the argument. Knowledge, truth, beauty and civilisation matter. Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” reveals to us a man with a deep and intuitive understanding of the heartbreakingly poised tension between fragility and permanence which is civilisation; and it is this, of all things, that we need to transmit to the young, who will be its future guardians. 

In the contemporary weltanschauung, the term “civilisation” has almost become a pejorative. Like “real” history, “real” human society is seen as existing outside the process of civilisation, which is perceived as being inherently corrupt. However, civilisation—discontents and all—is the natural outgrowth of being human, of being a social species that seeks to come together in larger conurbations to suit increasingly complex needs; and the moral zealotry which espouses a return to a utopian uncivilised human state (a strand at the extreme apocalyptic end of the Green continuum) reflects a hunger for a prelapsarian world, the gates of whose Eden are actually forever shut to the complicated human consciousness. (Be honest now, would you really prefer to spend long hours munching on fruit in Milton’s deeply-dull Eden, or hanging out with Lucifer’s fallen but very companionable angels enthusiastically discussing philosophy and ideas, designing buildings, playing games and sport, attending music gigs, and tossing off the odd bit of creative writing? Don’t worry, Milton’s heart wasn’t really in it either. Satan not only had the best lines, he had the more creatively-fulfilling lifestyle.) Civilisation is more than the sum of its discontents. The pursuit of knowledge, the appreciation of beauty (both natural and the human product), the ability to connect with the chain of meaning that humanity has been constructing over the millennia (the chain of meaning we share across cultures, by the way), these are the imperatives that we must communicate from one generation to the next. Yet this is precisely where we are failing.

The English scientist Baroness Susan Greenfield uses the term “mind change” to highlight the potential danger to human cognitive development that she sees in the unmonitored and unregulated exposure of young minds to modern digital technology and media. The failure of our cultural institutions to counterbalance the social and technological pressures on consciousness, to provide the intellectual ballast of history and culture so as to give solid weight to young minds adrift in a muddling world, is probably “the great moral challenge” Kevin Rudd should have been looking for. 

Keats’s Grecian urn, “Thou foster child of silence and slow Time, / Sylvan historian …” reminds us of the true purpose of history, to thread together the human story and to communicate it to the future,

When old age shall this generation waste, 
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man …

If, however, we have allowed our children to stop their ears to the melodies of the past, then the music stops here. We won’t have to worry about History Wars—this really will just be the end of history.

Rob Nugent wrote on the parallels between Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and the Labor overthrow of Kevin Rudd in the November issue.