WC President's Op-Ed Piece in Cincinnati Enquirer
April 6, 2006
Creativity and Lack Thereof Addressed in Two Reports
Two government reports were issued in July. One is the 9/11 Commission Report and the other, by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), is entitled Reading at Risk. Not surprisingly, the former report has received much more attention than the latter one.
What is surprising, however, is the connection between the two reports. As we all know, the 9/11 Commission Report believes many government agencies and offices were at fault for failing to anticipate and prevent the despicable terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001. The conclusion I find most interesting is the one the report labels "a failure of imagination," implying that the intelligence community could not connect all the evidence on terrorism it had, in part, because of an inability to conceive of the possibility of such a horrific attack.
The Reading at Risk report documents that reading literature (novels, poetry, and plays) is in dramatic decline with fewer than half of American adults now reading literature. The steepest rate of decline - 28 percent - occurred in the youngest age groups. Overall, the study finds a 10% decline in literary readers from 1982-2002. Most disturbing about this finding is the weakened capacity among Americans for the "focused attention and imaginative growth" that reading develops.
So both reports say something about imagination. One laments its absence and the other documents its decline. Despite this link between the two reports, I doubt we will see a proliferation of bumper stickers any time soon asserting: "Promote Our National Security: Read More Novels, Poems, and Plays." But is that thought so far-fetched?
Reading literature is essential to the development of one’s imaginative and creative sensibilities. Dana Gioia, Director of NEA, knows what the general collapse in advanced literacy means to American life. "To lose this human capacity [for imagination] – and all the diverse benefits it fosters," he says, "impoverishes both cultural and civic life."
Writing in The New York Times Magazine recently, Professor Mark Edmundson persuasively makes the point that literature can profoundly influence individual lives. He relates how the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson stirred Walt Whitman. Their impact on Whitman accounts for much of his literary transformation. He also notes that similar things happen in the lives of everyday individuals, recalling what it was like for him to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X at age 17. His example struck a chord in my memory. I can still remember when, at 15, I read Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin’s compelling book about how he was treated after he "became black" by having the pigment of his skin darkened. The brutality and bigotry of racism that Griffin recounted shocked me into a new level of awareness.
The 9/11 Commission report represents an important bipartisan contribution to strengthening national security. Its recommendations will be considered, implemented, and we will move on as a nation. Reading at Risk, I hope, will get the attention it deserves as well. While our national security may not literally hang in the balance if it doesn’t, there will be consequences to ignoring its key findings. Because to have a safer, better, and more secure future in America means that we have to imagine both the promise and the threats to such a future.