The Literary Remains
by Elaine Tuttle Hansen, President
In July, the National Endowment for the Arts issued a warning: Americans who share a passion for books are part of a shrinking minority. Analyzing data gathered in the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts conducted by the Census Bureau in 1982, 1992, and 2002, Reading at Risk reveals a consistent downward trend in the numbers of people reading books, and an even greater decline in literary reading — the consumption of novels, plays, and poetry.
That the rate of decline in literary reading is greatest, moreover, for the youngest people surveyed (18– to 24–year–olds) should not surprise us. Growing up in America today means spending more time participating with others in highly organized activities, such as sports and community service, and more time interacting with electronic media, downloading music, instant messaging, and playing computer games. Of course there’s less reading going on.
Youth soccer and the World Wide Web have many educational benefits. We need future citizens who are team players and can harness technology. But there are reasons to be concerned about the decline in literary reading among traditional college–age students. In a recent article in The New York Times Magazine, Marc Edmundson argues that literary reading is particularly important to the goals of a liberal arts education: Encounters with fictional worlds enable us to explore our identities and to imagine things otherwise. If college is about finding out who you are, expanding your horizons, and developing the ability to question and create, then exposing more students to the joys of literary reading remains critical to the mission of higher education.
As a medievalist by training, I also believe that the experience of the past is the soil out of which all future growth comes, whether or not we like it or even know it. And the past, I submit, is most accessible, engaging, and meaningful as we discover it in the literary remains of earlier days. It is in their imaginative and reflective writing that the voices of the past most clearly speak to us across time, and reading offers us an unparalleled way to engage those voices in a conversation about the things that matter today.
Here at Bates we have a curricular model that promotes good literary habits and offers access to some of the richest and most deeply buried treasures of the past—our Program in Classical and Medieval Studies. While Bates students are no longer required to take Latin or Greek, and while interest in these areas has declined nationwide, enrollments in CMS courses have nearly tripled in five years; including enrollments in courses that are cross–listed between CMS and the departments of history, art and visual culture, and English, the number of students in these courses is several hundred annually. And at Commencement this coming spring, the program expects to graduate 14 majors, the most in its history.
What could the Bates faculty who lead this program teach others who care about the fate of reading? Above all, the CMS faculty have eschewed hand–wringing in favor of aggressively reaching out to students who do not comprehend, at first, the relevance and accessibility of the classics. One example is the recent course “Democracies and Crisis: Athens and America.” Team–taught by Margaret Imber, CMS associate professor, and by Peter Brann ’77, a prominent Maine appellate attorney, the course examines classical precedents to give students insight into key political issues today.
As program chair Lisa Maurizio says, “The challenge in CMS is to get the students in the front door.” Attracted by courses with broad appeal, students are then exposed to great teachers who demonstrate their own passion for the past. As has always been the case, only a few students will pursue careers as literary historians. But through reading Ovid, studying Viking myths and monastic mysteries, or decoding Byzantine icons, all our CMS students hone some of the most important skills they need in any career. And for the rest of their lives, they see the human experience in a broader perspective and share in the work of preserving, using, and growing the literary endowment.
On the Web: Course descriptions for classical and medieval studies courses at www.bates.edu/cms.xml