Reading Literature: A Final Exchange

Kenneth H. W. Hilborn

To the Editor:

As most readers of Academic Questions probably know, Carol Iannone is Editor-at-Large, and I appreciate her open-mindedness in supporting the publication of my article, “The Crisis of Literacy and the Courage to Teach” (Spring 2007, vol. 20, no. 2), even though it is somewhat critical of something she herself wrote in the journal, “Reading Literature: Decline and Fall?” (Summer 2005, vol. 18, no. 3). I also understand why she chose to respond to my essay in a letter pointing out that she is in fact concerned with the decline of the reading of serious literature in all demographic groups.

I think Miss Iannone and I agree on a number of issues: there is a widespread crisis of literacy; the Modern Language Association (MLA) is a very troubled, even at times malicious organization. I dislike it myself. Our disagreement is only over the role that the MLA has played in the general decline of literary reading in America. Miss Iannone thinks that this role is far greater than I do. Miss Iannone’s focus on the MLA is certainly appropriate in the context of higher education, but can obscure the larger crisis of literacy, which in my view dwarfs academic politics. Indeed, it is difficult to link the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) report Reading at Risk, which so dramatically documents the larger crisis, directly to higher education, as Miss Iannone would do in her article. This is because, as I wrote, “the report is about voluntary reading pursued at the reader’s leisure, and carefully excludes any and all literary reading done ‘for work or school’ (ix), which would eliminate any reading done in a college class whatsoever, by either students or professors. Such reading plays no part in the data.” One can of course infer that the MLA is involved in this larger, general decline of literacy (probably true), but that may in the end be more symptom than cause. The focus of my essay is therefore to encourage readers to focus less on the admittedly difficult situation in higher education and attend to the real battle, which is in K–12, where the MLA has far less influence than the education schools, new media, and so on. Confucius reputedly said “Never argue with a fool—people may not be able to tell the difference.” Perhaps our best response to the MLA at this point is to ignore it and focus instead on the millions of younger students who need to learn how to read well, and who, with luck, may never even learn what the MLA was.

David J. Rothman

Program for Writing and Rhetoric

University of Colorado, Boulder

Carol Iannone Replies

I take David Rothman’s points, but I must return to the premises of my article. I acknowledged there that the NEA study Reading at Risk covered all levels of literature, from high to low, but I argued that since a decline in reading literature of any kind had occurred in every age, income, and education bracket, I was assuming a decline in the reading of good literature in particular for the purposes of my article. His article left the impression that I had simply overlooked that point.

Also, I was aware that the study looked at voluntary reading, rather than reading for work or school, but I argued that what students learn and read of good literature in school can be assumed to affect their reading habits later on. Add to this the fact that the most serious falling off in reading was in the younger age groups, groups most likely to have been affected by the newer fads in literary studies. In my analysis, therefore, the MLA is culpable in the decline in the reading of literature because in the past few decades it has abandoned its role as guardian of the literary tradition and instead promoted trendy, politicized, deconstructive approaches that were taught to younger professors who in turn taught them to the undergraduates in their charge. As I wrote in my article, “Is it any wonder that many college students of recent decades began to lose or failed to develop an appreciation for the specialness of the literary art?”

I agree with Mr. Rothman that there are other factors involved, but I do not think we can underestimate the negative trickle down effect of MLA policies, not only on literature departments, but on schools of education and high schools as well. I do grant his point that if students are not given good reading instruction in primary school they will be at a disadvantage in becoming good readers later. That factor may well be involved in the statistics we are seeing for young adults. Still, to repeat, when one sees the decline in every income and education bracket, it can suggest that this is due as much to a lack of interest as to a lack of skill.

Finally, I would like to add that the information in my piece on the decline in readers of literature in various income categories did not come from the NEA study, but can be obtained from the National Center for Education Statistics. Their statistics show, for example, that the percentage of readers of literature among those earning $75,000 or more went from 77 percent in 1992 to 61 percent in 2002. In the $50,000 to $74,999 bracket, it went from 69.2 percent to 52.4 percent. In the $30,000 to $49,999 it went from 60.3 percent to 47.2 percent.

Packing Heat

To the Editor:

Could the mass murderer at Virginia Tech have been stopped if some others on campus (students and/or faculty) had also been armed?

In his article “Homicides in Higher Education” (Fall 2007, vol. 20, no. 4), Peter Wood suggests that those who raised this possibility may have done so “facetiously.” It is hard to see, however, why the idea should not have been put forward as a serious criticism of Virginia Tech’s anti-gun rule. In 2002, at a Virginia law school, a murderous rampage was indeed cut short by students who were able to confront an armed killer with armed opposition. The incident is described by John R. Lott in chapter 2 of his book The Bias Against Guns, and also by Bernard Goldberg in an unnumbered chapter (“And Now, the Rest of the Story…”) of his book Arrogance: Rescuing America from the Media Elite. According to both authors, many news reports failed to mention the significant fact that the murderer (a student suspended for unsatisfactory academic performance) dropped his pistol and let himself be captured only after being challenged by two other students who had guns of their own.

The fundamental problem with making a campus legally “gun-free” is that the rule cannot be enforced unless the campus is surrounded by high walls with only a limited number of entrances, all of them guarded and equipped with metal detectors. On a campus that is more easily accessible, a prohibition on guns means only that the law-abiding will be unarmed and virtually helpless whenever a would-be mass killer decides to disregard the rule—and nobody intending to violate the law against murder is likely to have scruples about violating a law against possession of firearms.

If university authorities abandoned anti-gun regulations, it would not mean that any student could legally bring a gun to class. It would merely place the campus under the same “concealed carry” laws as the rest of the jurisdiction in which it is located. The fact that so many states (a considerable majority) grant adult citizens with clean records a legal right to carry concealed handguns suggests that the policy has proved to have no disastrous consequences. (Lott argues, indeed, that the consequences have been highly beneficial.) Do anti-gun rules in universities result more from ideology than from a realistic assessment of risks?

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