Losing our cultural heritage – and our readers

I was struck by a recent article comparing school reading lists from 1908 and today, and what it revealed.  It’s structured in such a way that it’s hard to pick usable excerpts from it, so I’ll simply recommend that you read the whole thing.  Briefly, the author pointed out that the books on the modern reading list were much less challenging to their readers, much less informative about our cultural and historical background, and very limited in their vocabulary.  She concluded:

Unless we give our students challenging material to dissect, process, and study, how can we expect them to break out of the current poor proficiency ratings and advance beyond a basic reading level?

Go read it all.  It’s worth your time.

Of course, this makes us wonder about those who are – and who will be – our readers.  Most of us are writing to and for a market.  We want our readers to be able to understand where we’re coming from, be aware of the cultural clues and cues and assumptions that inform our writing style and themes and vocabulary, and be able to assimilate them within the context of their own world view.  The question is, is that still possible for most modern school-leavers?  Has the “dumbing down” of education, as revealed in reading lists and other evidence, produced a generation that can no longer be automatically assumed to be capable of doing those things?

There are those who’ll argue that’s a function of one’s home life, not school.  In my youth, they’d have been right.  My parents made sure that we kids had a huge selection of books to feed our minds and intellects and curiosities.  We all grew up with Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and Andrew Lang’s “fairy books of many colors“, and Baba Yaga.  I ate up the books of C. S. Forester, and Ronald Welch, and Monica Edwards, and Arthur Ransome, and Rosemary Sutcliff, and J. R. R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis, with a big spoon.  My sisters had their own reading preferences, some similar to mine, others very different.  (Yes, boys can enjoy girls’ books too!  I recall Elsie J. Oxenham‘s “Abbey Girls” series with real pleasure.)  When it came to schoolwork, we had access to serried ranks of Time-Life reference sets, and no less than three different multi-volume encyclopedias, and shelves groaning with reference works used by our parents (which they were delighted – even though we were not! – to explain at the drop of a hat, and assign to us for further reading).

All those influences meant that I was extraordinarily widely read, even among my generation.  I read over 700 fiction and non-fiction books in my final year at school (yes, I kept count, for a class project), and served as head librarian for the school.  That, in turn, has influenced and informed my writing.  However, I was initially surprised (although I shouldn’t have been) to be told that I was writing at a level that was described as “too high-falutin’ for American readers”.  This really took me aback.  I simply hadn’t considered that in the intervening years, reading for pleasure had taken a back seat (sometimes a very distant one) to television, and movies, and increasingly to social media.  It seems modern society’s attention span is continually decreasing under the influence of technology, so that we’re no longer interested in spending hours absorbed in a book.  We wants our entertainment, and we wants it now!

This also applies to our choice of vocabulary and manner of expression.  To this day, there are some readers who dislike how I write conversations in my books.  They regard them as unnaturally forced, long-winded, wordy.  On the other hand, I’m writing what I consider to be “normal” English (rather than American) conversation – at least, normal for my age, upbringing and level of education.  I’ve had to adapt my style, “improving” it by bringing it more into line with modern expectations.  I haven’t altogether succeeded, because I simply don’t think or talk that way.  To me, it appears unnatural, simplistic, “dumbed-down”.  That’s almost certainly unfair, but given my upbringing, it’s also probably inevitable.  My conversations, in written form, remain a work in progress.

There’s also the aspect of word play.  My parents delighted (and taught their children to delight) in using the English language to its fullest extent, searching out synonyms and antonyms to enrich speech, enjoying puns and Spoonerisms and feghoots and limericks and other plays on words, and so on.  Nowadays, how many children are brought up to do the same?  I fear very few.  On the other hand, I know many writers who take equal delight in them, so much so that some conversations at SF and fantasy conventions can lead to onlookers screaming in mock-agony as the puns flow!  It’s one of the reasons I go to such gatherings.  (I’ve also been known to inflict them on my friends in comments at their blogs from time to time.  Sorry, Alma!)

At any rate, let me simply say that I think our society has grown more and more impoverished, from the perspective of grammar, vocabulary and linguistics, by the impact of modern technology.  We’ve been “dumbed down” as a whole – and that means our future readers, the generations growing up who we hope will enjoy our books, are arguably less capable of doing so, because we’re writing from the perspective of earlier generations who simply knew so much more about language than they do.  How do we address this?  If we write to the “modern norm”, are we not acquiescing in this “dumbing down”, rather than trying to resist it?  Is that, in fact, our job, or would it be considered “farting against thunder” (to quote one of my favorite African expressions)?  How can (or should) we use our writing as an example to our readers, trying to make them want to explore language and culture more deeply, instead of getting a quick, cheap literary “fix” and then moving on to the next one?

I don’t know the answers to those questions.  If you do, please share your views with us in Comments.  Let’s get this discussion going.  I think we’ll all benefit.

33 thoughts on “Losing our cultural heritage – and our readers

  1. I don’t know about that. I do know that I have quite upset a number of children’s librarians and public school teachers with offhand comments about my kids’ school reading lists. (www.ambleside.com if anyone is interested) “Oh, we read Ivanhoe in 7th grade” was particularly upsetting to a retired high school teacher friend-I found out she was struggling with what I considered a rather easy read!

    Which leads me to think there’s a smaller market of advanced readers out there in the two-million-plus currently home schooled kids, their parents, and many of us who were home schooled in our time. We might require a bit of specialized marketing to locate, though, let me think on how you’d find us. Besides home school associations, anyway, which might be a great place to market.

    Most home schoolers I know from real life, the rest I know from blogs and online fandoms. We roughly fall into two categories: those who can’t get their kids an education in the system and those who object to the kind of education their kids would get. The first category spans the IQ and LD scale, from kids off the charts on the high end to kids who may never be able to communicate. The second spans the religious spectrum. But we all face the same problems once we’re started and find we have a lot of common ground.

    I’ve gotten advertisements and discounts thru my HSLDA membership, which might be a very good place to start, actually. They have a pretty broad reach. Home School Legal Defense Association.

  2. If anyone is looking for a good set of books for children to be exposed to, I suggest the My Bookhouse series. Excellent series from nursery school to high school. Interesting stories and none of this modern pabulum.

  3. I had a co-worker once who told me she had loved watching the Anne of Green Gables mini-series, so I offered to loan her the books.

    She couldn’t get through the first one. She was what we in the South call a grown-ass adult, with an Associate’s degree. And she couldn’t read Anne of Green Gables, a book meant for children, because the vocabulary and style were too difficult.

    Couple this with the AR program that forces kids to read, and thus pushes them towards fast reads, and we’re going to get a generation that doesn’t read for pleasure at all, and cannot understand anything more complex than a tweet.

    1. Oh, dear … that’s just pathetic, not being able to grasp Anne of GG. Not getting “Ivanhoe” I can sort of understand because that was written for adults originally, and has the dullest first couple of chapters known to literature …

      1. I loved Ivanhoe in 7th grade. I grabbed it from my father’s shelves because he told me I had read The Hobbit/LOTR too many times in succession, and it was time for a change. But I fully admit to being weird – I finished Crime and Punishment in a week when it was assigned in high school, and by the time the class finished, I had to re-read it so I could write my paper (which, IIRC, compared the main character to Frank N Furter from Rocky Horror. Don’t ask me how.)

        1. I read _Ivanhoe_ because it was on TV. I also read the _Talisman_ to see if it was as good as the Once Upon a Classics dramatization. I liked _Talisman_ better. *shrug* I’m strange.

          1. I read it because I was on a Templar binge, and the card catalogue supplied the cross-reference.

            (What? I’m relatively certain that the ratio of people following this blog who have geeked out about the Templars approaches unity. )

  4. A, it probably isn’t the technology. Or at least not the tech alone.

    B, Kratman is where I learned to read layer of meaning, and to enjoy reading layers of meaning. One of my major influences is a fanfic, Sic Semper Morituri, which is packed full of literary allusions and stuff, much of which I did not originally get. As I’ve reread it over the years, I’ve started understanding more.

    In the modern era there are authors who write well-written, challenging material, and distribute it by innovative means.

  5. It’s not just the reading lists. Somewhere along the line we’ve lost the common literary heritage that used to define our civilisation; I think it happened about a hundred years ago, in the muddy trenches of the First World War. A writer before that time could assume that his audience was familiar with the Bible, the works of Shakespeare, the classics of Greek and Roman literature, and could use that body of knowledge to communicate with the reader by allusion and quotation, without footnotes. By contrast, what can we assume our readers are familiar with? A handful of movies and television shows?

    The modern reading lists are pitiful. But the schools alone cannot infuse literacy into a culture that rejects it, any more than the First Amendment alone can protect free speech in a society that no longer values it.

    1. ” A writer before that time could assume that his audience was familiar with the Bible, the works of Shakespeare, the classics of Greek and Roman literature, and could use that body of knowledge to communicate with the reader by allusion and quotation, without footnotes. By contrast, what can we assume our readers are familiar with? A handful of movies and television shows?”

      I observe that for a lot of people in, say, the 40-55 range, the great epics that they rely on a common knowledge about are Star Trek, and (sometimes) Lord of the Rings. (Talking mainly about guys…haven’t observed a particular commonality among the women.) Not talking basement-dwelling videogame fanatics here, these are mostly pretty or very successful people.

      1. Well, those and the Star Wars movies are the common knowledge of most women over 40 that I know, but maybe I hang out with sf geeks too much.

        For my illiterate daughters, the common references seem to be Gray’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, and Sex in the City. I don’t want to sound like a crusty old fart who thinks the culture is going to hell in a handbasket, but I think the culture is going to hell in a handbasket.

    2. And those “handful of movies and TV shows” get replacef every generation…I am so glad I grew up without a TV (and my kids don’t watch much either; OTOH, the one who loves to read also shows a disturbing interest in watching super stupid youtube videos, and loves click bait. Maybe discernment has to come with age).

  6. I have yet to see what the reaction will be to my writing. Absent some really huge objection, I’ll continue to write as I please. Hopefully someone out there will benefit, or at least be entertained for a few hours.

    1. You do that! Now that I don’t have to get past an editor, I’m letting the literary allusions fall where they may. I figure people who don’t get them will never know the difference, and maybe they’ll add an extra little bit of entertainment for the ones who do.

      1. That sounds like the way to go, Margaret. I was thinking of “Bewitched,” and how Samantha and the witches came from “Endor.” Viewers in the 60s probably understood the reference right away, and nodded or smiled. But ignorance of the reference wouldn’t interfere with enjoying an episode for kids who hadn’t learned that story yet in Sunday school.

        I call such those types of references “Easter eggs,” and if you’ve ever seen fans “theory-crafting” for assorted fantasy works, then you know that audiences just eat those up. A pleasantly-surprising number of fans love delving into the layers of mysteries in a series, and trying to guess what an author is up to.

        1. If your kids are in a church where the witch of Endor shows up in the Sunday School curriculum, blessed are you among parents.

        2. Sigh. I had to look that up (born 1960). But maybe that’s because the Books of Samuel were definitely not among my favorites. (That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!)

  7. When I escaped High School we used literature books that were over thirty years old. The teachers held onto them for dear life, because they could not be replaced for love nor money. They included Evangeline, Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, Saki, Gray’s _Elegy in a Country Churchyard_, _Paradise Lost_ (edited to remove the anti-Catholic bits) and other works. The more recent texts… I don’t want to know.

  8. It is worth pointing out that the fact that “reading for pleasure has taken a back seat to television and movies” is related to the fact that “pleasure reading” has become increasingly less pleasurable. There are those of us addicted to the written word who will read regardless, even if we have to hunt for our material, but for the average person who sees a choice between reading grey goo and rewatching the Avengers, the Avengers win every time.

    Even I’m not immune. Almost every time I’ve picked up a book at the library just because it looked interesting, I’ve been disappointed. I’ve enjoyed going on blogs and reading about people making fun of the book much more than I enjoyed the book itself. And if I have to choose between reading the latest Hugo winner and playing Final Fantasy, I’ll be on the couch with a controller in one hand and a soda in the other before you even finish the question.

  9. I had a coworker who was puzzled by a line from “Boyz in the Hood.” That’s “boys” spelled with a “Z,” so, not some high-falutin’ Merchant & Ivory production here. And the line was uttered by a gangbanger who said, “I’m Samson: my strength is in my hair.”

    The twenty-something coworker wasn’t certain if Delilah was Samson’s sister or not. And when the senior managing editor said of a scandal-plagued local politician, “Pride goeth before a fall,” another young editor was puzzled by the quote. This is Sunday-school stuff, “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader” territory.

    So now, even “low brow” entertainment goes over people’s heads when the Bible is referenced. At no point in the video game, “Mass Effect 2,” is it ever explained why the project to revive Shephard is called the “Lazarus Project.” And scary music plays when she meets an enemy AI, and it introduces itself by saying, “Call us Legion, for we are many.” At most, one of the characters names the chapter and verse the line comes from, but the writers clearly assumed we’d get the reference at all. Bioware was probably expecting that as its audience lives in Western Civilization, it could take our possession of such knowledge for granted.

    Even writers of non-fiction will have to face this issue. Think of all those political columnists who rely on being able to use words such as “hubris” and “shibboleth.” How old or narrow is their target audience? In high school, the 1990s for me, we learned all about hubris and Nemesis and sophrosyne in our art history / Western civ class. But that class was targeting “AP” students, not regular-track kids, which now worries me.

    An older coworker was impressed when I referred to a character in an opera as “a Vestal Virgin-type,” because he didn’t know “people your age ever learned about that stuff.” I guess such an education was normal in his day (the 60s?) but he’d learned not to expect it of younger generations. So we went from high schools offering Latin or Greek, to then expecting only college-bound kids to learn about our civilization. And now, based on my younger colleagues, even college-bound kids don’t get an education.

    You probably have to go with the Bioware solution of at least naming the source material for references. If you use them in a cool enough way, it could lead readers to the sources. That happened with me; I wasn’t interested in the “Art of War” until Miles Vorkosigan quoted from it during one of his adventures.

  10. I’d also say that having all of your reading be relevant to the particular issues of the day robs you of any and all context by which to gauge the issues of the day themselves.

    I’d say even having all of your reading be contemporary robs you, because even a modern person writing about the past will color it with his own perspective, frequently sufficiently enough to destroy any useful information. (I like to think it’s not all malice aforethought, but the frequency by which history is supposed to exactly mirror Contemporary Issue X (by running it through the breaking wheel a few times) leaves me skeptical.)

    On that note… the fact that Fahrenheit 451 is one of the few not Issue du Jour books allowed on the modern list is a little amazing. Well. Maybe they don’t see the parallel.

  11. Watching the Deadwood movie on HBO I noticed the rather formal somewhat stilted phrasing used by many of the characters. Cursing was a separate issue of course.
    I was reminded of something I first learned reading Louie L’Amour, when books were a precious commodity and you could only carry a scant few you tended to carry the classics.
    And traveling entertainers would like as not have a few Shakespearian plays in their repertoire.
    So apparently the Deadwood writers and director factored that into the movie.
    As an aside, my first job after High School was in a local factory. I was working away around the corner from two ladies and overheard them mention my name so my ears perked up. What was said was, “Larry’s a nice enough boy, but he uses all those big words.”
    First, but by no means the last, time I learned that I needed to dial down my vocabulary to suit the audience.

    1. Many of L’Amour’s (and Zane Grey’s) cowboys have larger vocabularies than a 21st Century reader might expect. I think Peter’s 19th Century characters speak in a manner “close enough” to these models. I certainly have no problem with them. But, like many others on this forum, i have a vocabulary from mid- (or earlier) 20th century (from reading Grey and L’Amour and Burroughs and …).

      1. I learned from Louis L’Amour that the Chinese visited California in the early 1400s, decades before there was a bestseller about it.

        1. Yes, the Fusang story. That’s one of those things that’s been suspected for a long time, though not proven.

  12. Our tools aren’t helping either, look at the mostly useless to me list of languages your Kindle can translate for you. No Latin or Greek so you are reduced to copy/past and getting the answer elsewhere. Really frustrating when I see a word or two I know I should know but my horrible language skills can’t pull up the answer.

  13. I’m reminded of people who don’t understand what that red room full of photographs is supposed to be on Stranger Things.

  14. It was ghastly, the sorts of contemporary books we had to read in school — and we still had some of the classics.

  15. I have to wonder if this is part of why my first novel isn’t selling. People I know will enthusiastically tell me they’re going to buy a copy as soon as they get home, but I check my Amazon reports a day or two later and— nothing. It’s well written and edited according to my standards, but maybe people check the Look Inside and think it’s too high-pitched.

    Or maybe it’s the prologue. Allegedly, readers never read prologues.

    Whatever it is, the lack of sales is depressing.

  16. I tend to suspect anything that compares something from 1908 and something from 2019, without examining things that happened in the intervening years.
    I’m not sure about the school system in Minnesota that’s cited. However, in the South, the Depression was a HUGE intervening variable. Both of my grandparents taught in one-room schools in the Post-WWI years; in those days, teachers didn’t have to have college degrees. At least there were kids getting an education, though. When the Depression hit, all bets were off.
    In Arkansas, the school year was cut to sixty days. In Alabama, five out of six schools closed. In Georgia (my home), 170,000 school children had their schools closed, and that’s when the entire state had a population of only 2,910,000, which is about HALF of the metro Atlanta population today.
    Ummm…I don’t know if those figures are including whites only. I DO know that in rural areas, 60% of school age kids weren’t in school, but if you just look at the black population, 95% of school age kids weren’t in school.
    That affected my mother’s generation.
    In 1970, the year before I graduated, the federal courts finally took control of the segregated public school districts in my home county of Bibb, redistricting so that each high school had to reflect the 60% white, 40% black racial makeup of the county at large. That lasted about 15 minutes, just long enough for a billion private schools to spring up.
    That affected MY generation.
    Today, the school where I graduated is 88% black, 7% white, 2% Hispanic, and the remainder don’t know how to fill out a form. In ALL of the public high schools the kids come from poor families; 99% are on a free-reduced lunch program.
    That affects my grandkids’ generation.

    I conclude that it ain’t just TV (which was Bradbury’s thesis), and it ain’t just video games (which I rather think is a common belief) that has resulted in an education system that appears to have been dumbed-down from 1908 schools. It ain’t no wicked teachers’ union neither. And my own direct experience is that it ain’t strictly a function of melanin content, neither; three out of seven of my black children children have college degrees, and one out of three of my white children have college degrees. Another white child has a high-level technical certification, though, so that counts for something.

    Further, the deponent sayeth not.

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