There was a time when the concept or definition of a civil society was pretty straight forward. Its attributes and benefits were the many threads that wove culture and social order together.
Literature was a major factor in helping realize, understand and internalize the elements of life and its experiences that helped define what was meant by “civil” for all people within human interactions. Not so today. What is acceptable and not acceptable has few objective definitions within the current context of culture and social order.
The degree to which we have forsaken literature – novels, short stories, poetry or plays – is the degree to which we have undermined a civil society. Data from studies over the past four years by the National Endowment for the Arts show that, by 2015, American adults who read literature fell to a three-decade low. Only 43 percent of adults read at least one work of literature in the previous year. That’s the lowest percentage in any year since NEA surveys began tracking reading and arts participation in 1982, when the literature reading rate was 57 percent.
By 2017 American adults who read novels or short stories fell even further to 41.8 percent. This research by the NEA also found that drops in the literary reading rate have happened across the board – all races, all ages and all educational levels.
Only as far back as the mid-20th century, America held internationally recognized positions in literature, dance, music, art, theater and cinema. Since then, income rose, college attendance ballooned and access to information exploded, but the interest young Americans showed in the arts, especially literature, has significantly diminished.
A past study by the National Conference of State Legislatures concluded, “Young people do not understand the ideals of citizenship ... and their appreciation and support of American Democracy is limited.” Results of the NEA studies revealed that literary readers are “markedly more civically engaged than non-readers.” They were two to four times more likely to perform charity work, go to a museum or even attend a sporting event. These social and cultural interactions may very well result from the civic and historical knowledge gained from literary reading.
Imagining and understanding lives quite different from our own is enlarged and enhanced through literary reading. Literature has introduce young people to past events and principles of social order and civil governance as they relate to moral and political conduct. The most important work in the abolitionist movement was the novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” And when recalling the Depression, it is the challenges of the Joad family from John Steinbeck’s novel “The Grapes of Wrath” that bring it into vivid reality.
I don’t think you can ignore the importance of literature to personal, economic and civic health and well-being. Literature needs to be an integral part of public policy discussion as we go forward into the future of education and the impact of any number of social media platforms and the questionable values they may instill in the culture and social order. The negative impact of some of these that already exist has been quite apparent. It’s time for parents, educators, elected officials and corporate leaders to put down our own smartphones and forget the selfies long enough to give this issue the long-term importance it requires.
I look around, just as most of you do, and no matter the age or political affiliation, it seems that intolerance is the watchword. We don’t disagree anymore, we must dislike! We are on the verge of becoming a disjointed circus of ideological fascism; self-serving and self-justifying. It’s the “ends justifies the means” syndrome.
I’m afraid that if we don’t seriously step away from this compulsion for self-absorption and self-promotion, we are not going to like or recognize where we will end up. At that point, it will be much too late. A civil society must embrace personal liberty, tolerance, open debate, the freedom to disagree and the value of trustworthiness.
I’m remind of a comment by Walt Whitman, the father of American poetry, which I still believe can be realized, if we are committed and sincere: “The largest part of our human tragedies are humanly avoidable: they come from greed, from carelessness, from causes not catastrophic, elemental: with more radical good heart our woes would disappear.”
I know, color me naive. Sometimes hope is all you have. But seriously, you get my drift and know what I’m saying. We all have a choice: Be part of a solution, or perpetuate the problem.
Ron Weber is a multi-award winning poet and writer who lives in Stevensville.