Gioia on Cultural Decline

Since literature seems to be the theme this week, check out Dana Gioia’s speech delivered at Stanford’s commencement exercises. Some highlights:

“There is an experiment I’d love to conduct. I’d like to survey a cross-section of Americans and ask them how many active NBA players, Major League Baseball players, and American Idol finalists they can name.

Then I’d ask them how many living American poets, playwrights, painters, sculptors, architects, classical musicians, conductors, and composers they can name.

I’d even like to ask how many living American scientists or social thinkers they can name. Fifty years ago, I suspect that along with Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Sandy Koufax, most Americans could have named, at the very least, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Arthur Miller, Thornton Wilder, Georgia O’Keeffe, Leonard Bernstein, Leontyne Price, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Not to mention scientists and thinkers like Linus Pauling, Jonas Salk, Rachel Carson, Margaret Mead, and especially Dr. Alfred Kinsey.

I don’t think that Americans were smarter then, but American culture was. Even the mass media placed a greater emphasis on presenting a broad range of human achievement. . .

Our country is dividing into two distinct behavioral groups. One group spends most of its free time sitting at home as passive consumers of electronic entertainment. Even family communication is breaking down as members increasingly spend their time alone, staring at their individual screens.

The other group also uses and enjoys the new technology, but these individuals balance it with a broader range of activities. They go out—to exercise, play sports, volunteer and do charity work at about three times the level of the first group. By every measure they are vastly more active and socially engaged than the first group.

What is the defining difference between passive and active citizens? Curiously, it isn’t income, geography, or even education. It depends on whether or not they read for pleasure and participate in the arts. These cultural activities seem to awaken a heightened sense of individual awareness and social responsibility.”

Here’s a nice biographical feature about this poet and NEA Chairman: he used to be a businessman in a big corporation. I love reading about life transitions like that, don’t you? Now go read something edifying.


  1. Scott

    Too true. Of course as much as I like to think I’m in the latter more socially/intellectually engaged group I feel I’d fail her test. But I’m not letting that get me down. I’m actively striving to change.

  2. Joel

    Gioa is way over-optimistic about the extent to which people knew of cultural figures 50 years ago. Sure, people knew who Jonas Salk was — finding the cure for polio was big news and directly impacting people’s lives. The others: Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Arthur Miller, Thornton Wilder, Georgia O’Keeffe, Leonard Bernstein, Leontyne Price, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Well, I’m a survey researcher and I’d just say to Gioa — show me the evidence. Otherwise you’re just making s*** up.

  3. redneckprof

    My first reaction was that we would be better off as a nation if fewer people had ever heard of Rachel Carson (fabulist), Margaret Mead (wierdo), Kinsey (freak), Frank Lloyd Wright (his homes leak), and Arthur Miller (McCarthy was right). But I’m guessing that’s not the point being made here and just represents poor judgement on the part of Gioia about who is important. Of course, if you are the NEA’s chairman, that pretty much says it all. Welfare for the elite. Because popular music (American Idol) is so gauche when compared to classical music’s composers and conductors. If their stuff is so superior, why do they need government funding? It’s like the terrible bumper music on NPR. Who would pay for advertising with that horrid squelch coming over the airwaves? By all means, lets raise taxes and take over the airwaves in order to show the great unwashed the error of their ways. I blame government schools and progressive education for dumbing down the nation to the point that any concepts of quality and enduring truth are rejected.

    Man, that was cathartic!

    Thanks Tony. I will now return to reading Pascal’s Pensees.

  4. Gary R Sweeten

    The issue is not just the culture at large but the people who write and do quality work are often not as creative in their use of media. Just look at the churches that are still caught up in trying to make themselves in the image of a sixteenth century parish instead of communicating in current dynamic ways. Scientists and the creative class must learn to compete for brains with the dead heads.

  5. Tom

    Does reading SiTG qualify as a cultural activity?
    How about posting a comment?
    I hope so…oh, this is my free time so I gotta get back to watching the ballgame while killing aliens on the Xbox and cue up Bono on my mp3. Then later on, after voluntering at the soup kitchen after playing ball with the summer softball league, I can take my wife to the opera and plan our visit to the art museum…

  6. PJ

    If I understand correctly, Gioia’s premise is that the overindulgence in “electronic entertainment” is culturally retarding America-as evidenced by the fact that many, if not most, of the general population, if asked, could not name more than one or two living poets, writers, artists-or even notable scientists or thinkers.

    I read-obsessively. So I’m certain I can name numerous writers-primarily popular ficton though (it’s actually kind of embarrassing to admit that here-with all the intellectuals around here, who would deign to read anything “enjoyable”). But, past that, despite that fact that I DO NOT HAVE A SINGLE TELEVISION IN MY HOME, nor have I ever (or for that matter, a radio-come to think of it!), I can’t think of a single notable, living artist-of any sort. Classical musicians…can’t think of any (wait-do the Three Tenors count, or are they too “commercialized”). Let’s see: scientists…nope; architects-uh uh; playwrights…none; composers-ha; social thinkers…not off the top of my head (well, I take that back, Tony-do you count?).

    But, I’ve got to say, I couldn’t name you a sports figure of interest either (well, aside from Barry Bonds-whom everyone, I think, is PAINFULLY familiar with by now). Nor an American Idol contestant.

    So then-what does that make me? I’m obviously “culturally retarded”-at least according to Gioia, but you can’t blame it on “electronic entertainment” (unless reading SiTG counts; oh yeah, very rarely even surf the Net…really only to check the news briefly, and check out SiTG, and a few other notable sites).

    I almost always agree with you Tony, but on this one…I don’t know. I just don’t see it. But then, might be because I have yet to experience my own, “heightened sense of individual awareness and social responsibility.”

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