Thursday, December 28, 2006

Great Books: Good News and Bad News

For the third time (1985 and 1997 being the first two), the Siena Research Institute has conducted a survey of college freshmen and faculty to see which books they have read from the list of 30 great works they use as a reference.

The bad news is that in each year, freshmen have read fewer books from the list.

"In every case, the expectations by faculty what they believe college freshmen should have read in high school exceeds the reality of what they've actually read," said Tom Kelly, a Siena history professor emeritus. He conducted the survey with Douglas Lonnstrom, director of the Research Institute.

"There's a continuity of decline," Kelly said. "When you get to the bottom 10 of the 30 books, they're being read by fewer and fewer students."

For example, Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" was read by only 3 percent of freshmen surveyed, Tolstoy's "War and Peace" by just 4 percent and Aristotle's "Politics" by 5 percent.

The Bible dropped from 80 percent to 56 percent between 1985 and 2006 among surveyed faculty who recommended that freshmen should have read the Scriptures in high school.

Among novels read by freshmen, "Great Expectations" and "A Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens and George Orwell's "1984" dropped the most, with double-digit declines from 1985.

On the upside, the survey revealed a Brad Pitt factor and the power of Hollywood.

Kelly attributed sharp increases among students surveyed regarding those who've read Homer's "Odyssey" and "Iliad" (up from 43 percent to 59 percent) to the 2004 release of "Troy," a film adaptation of Homer's epic starring Pitt.

Similarly, a 2005 movie of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" starring Keira Knightley caused that book's stock to rise from 14 percent in 1985 to 23 percent among students surveyed in 2006.

The good news would seem to be that if they make a movie from a classic work, young people are more likely to read it. This is somewhat scary, since Hollywood isn't known for tackling heavy works too often. Still, if Brad Pitt can get people to read Homer, then more power to him.

Other bloggers
have felt that the good news is that fewer people are reading books on the list because the list was created by William Bennett during the Reagan years. I think that is stupid. The list has its flaws and is missing many things I'd like to see (maybe it should be 50 works), but all of the stuff on the list is material that an educated person should have read.

Here's the list:
1. The Works of Shakespeare
2. The Declaration of Independence
3. Twain, Mark, Huckleberry Finn
4. The poems of Emily Dickinson
5. The poems of Robert Frost
6. Hawthorne, Nathaniel, Scarlet Letter
7. Fitzgerald, Scott F., The Great Gatsby
8. Orwell, George, 1984
9. Homer, Odyssey and Iliad
10. Dickens, Charles, Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities
11. Chaucer, Geoffrey, The Canterbury Tales
12. Salinger, J.D., Catcher in the Rye
13. The Bible
14. Thoreau, Henry David, Walden
15. Sophocles, Oedipus
16. Steinbeck, John, The Grapes of Wrath
17. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays and poems
18. Austen, Jane, Pride and Prejudice
19. Whitman, Walt, Leaves of Grass
20. The novels of William Faulkner
21. Melville, Herman, Moby Dick
22. Milton, John, Paradise Lost
23. Vergil, Aeneid
24. Plato, The Republic
25. Marx, Karl, Communist Manifesto
26. Machiavelli, Niccolo, The Prince
27. Tocqueville, Alexis de, Democracy in America
28. Dostoevski, Feodor, Crime and Punishment
29. Aristotle, Politics
30. Tolstoy, Leo, War and Peace
I've read 90% of what's on there -- never a big Dickens fan and never made it through Tolstoy. There's nothing on the list that should not be there. There are things that maybe should be there, which is why I'd like to see it expanded to 50.

Among the stuff missing: Poems of T.S. Eliot, Invisible Man by Ellison, Zen Mind Beginner's Mind by Suzuki, Varieties of the Religious Experience by James, Poetry of Allen Ginsburg, On the Road by Kerouac, and The Greek Myths by Robert Graves.

What else is missing?


Anonymous said...

Hey Bill,

I struggled through the Cliff's Notes of one or two of the works on the list when I was in high school. I never had any interest in--nor did I retain anything positive from--a book that someone told me I should read. I'm probably unusual in this regard, but I did not read a book of my own free will until I was in my mid- twenties. To this day (I'm 36 now), I've only read a handful of authors. One of them, Henry Miller, wrote the following, which pretty much sums up my approach to reading:

What we all hope in reaching for a book, is to meet a man of our own heart, to experience tragedies and delights which we ourselves lack the courage to invite, to dream dreams which will render life more hallucinating, perhaps also to discover a philosophy of life which will make us more adequate in meeting the trials and ordeals which beset us. To merely add to our store of knowledge or improve our culture, whatever that may mean, seems worthless to me.

By the way, your blog is #1 on my list these days. I greatly appreciate your efforts.


william harryman said...

Thanks, Bob,

Glad you enjoy what I'm doing here.

I like the Henry Miller quote -- and I really like Henry Miller. I think he is one of the great unsung Zen masters (though I doubt he ever really "studied" Zen).

I'm one of the semi-rare people who feels compelled to read EVERYTHING. I was an English major in college and often read Beat writers on the side, in addition the to the novel or two I was assigned each week. Now I no longer read fiction, but I still read lots of philosophy, poetry, history, psychology, and anything else that strikes me.

I think there are a lot of kids who respond to books the way you did/do. With TV and video games, a book seems boring by comparison. I have to admit that if I were a teen now, I'd read a lot less Asimov, Bradbury, Tolkien, and pals and would probably be addicted to one of the fantasy adventure games with its own self-contained universe.

It's a tough issue -- to be able to think "integrally," we need a certain base of information. The question is how do we get that base if we don't read books?


Anonymous said...

2 women out of 30 -- something is missing...