In part one of the defense of Camille Paglia, we argued that there is quantitative evidence of a decline in American verbal skills, and that this evidence cannot be explained simply by appeal to the increasing popularity of the SAT. Paglia argued, and we won't attempt to defend this part, that "[T]he extraordinary technological aptitude of the young comes partly from their now-instinctive ability to absorb information from the flickering TV screen, which evolved into the glassy monitor of the omnipresent personal computer". For one, this essay isn't being written on a glass-paneled monitor; I'm using an LCD screen, thanks. More seriously, she complains that computers are responsible for "degraded sensitivity to the individual word and reduced respect for organized argument, the process of deductive reasoning". We won't be arguing for that position, either -- as we laid out in part one, analytic skills as measured by the GRE haven't changed appreciably. We're also not going to attempt to defend any claim that the "jump and jitter of U.S. commercial television have demonstrably reduced attention span in the young", because as we also laid out in part one, the evidence argues for a claim that reading skills are declining, but not as part of a general decline in cognitive ability (presuming that you can't do well on a test you aren't paying attention to). What we'll do most strongly here by way of defending Camille Paglia is lay out a case that the slide in reading abilities in America correlates with a change in values.
We're going to analyze the hypothesis that the values of Americans have shifted since the '60s from favoring a well-rounded education with attention to what we might call "metaphysical well-being" to preferring vocational/professional training on the path to largely material goals. Associated with this shift in focus is a shift in cultural attitudes and academic training, both of which indicate a present-day emphasis on material acquisition over other goods -- and we'll argue that this shift has resulted in decreased interest in the finer points of literacy. Being a subscriber to this magazine, and having always intended a commercial career over an academic one, SC is not unsympathetic to this ordering of priorities. However, it ought to be possible to look at this dispassionately, without turning this into an assault on the '80s as the "Me Decade", or sniping back the other way about class warfare.
Having said that, we'll start with a somewhat simplistic measurement, from the (in-)famous nationwide UCLA longitudinal survey of the attitudes of incoming college freshmen. Now in its 38th year, the survey provides the longest time series data available on the questions it seeks to answer. For our purposes, the big question is one they've asked ever since 1967 -- which of these values is "very important" or "essential": "be well off financially" or "develop a meaningful philosophy of life". There are 21 such values, ranked on a scale from "not important" to "essential", so these two aren't quite in binary opposition as framed in their presentation to students. Figure 4 from their 2003 press release (accompanying text can be found here) is about as blunt an instrument as can be imagined to support the claim that there's been a shift in values towards a more materialistic outlook. In 1967, the first year the question was asked, about 86% of students placed philosophy of life as being among the top concerns, while only about 40% of students put the financial goal that high. Almost immediately after the survey started, the two rankings started trending in opposite directions, crossing in 1979, and never meeting again since -- financial concerns have been more important to incoming college freshmen ever since, with a present-day split of about 74-40.
It might be tempting for some partisans to look at this data and say, "A-ha! Oliver Stone got it just right in Wall Street! Ronald Reagan is somehow responsible for the decline of verbal aptitude scores in America!". Such a view would overlook the fact that the financial preference has held at a nearly constant level -- over 70% -- since 1986, and that the philosophy-of-life preference spent the bulk of the '90s in a downtrend, after a small peak in 1992, the last year of George H.W. Bush's presidency. Not to mention the fact that verbal SATs bottomed out in 1981. The data doesn't really support the assignment of partisan blame, it just indicates that since 1967, preferences have gradually shifted from intangible to tangible goods. Radagast has commented (again, in offline discussion) that it would be instructive to see how this graph looked going back to 1900. It's quite possible that we could have seen the same pattern going the other way in 1930, and 1946 might have looked a lot more like 1979 than we can ever hope to prove now. It would be a mistake to extrapolate from the data that material preferences have never before dominated philosophical ones, and that the trend has never reversed before and never will again. All we've got from this is a demonstration that over the period we're concerned with, material values have become ascendant.
This is important because Camille Paglia appears to think that in fact the 1979 point is as historically unique as the point where we split the calendar between B.C. and A.D. She writes: "Decade by decade since the 1960s, popular culture, with its stunning commercial success, has gained strength until it now no longer is the brash alternative to organized religion or an effete literary establishment: it is the culture for American students." To hear her tell it, pop culture was never on top until the technological advances of the 1960s forced a change. For someone who displays the virtuosic command of art-historical facts that she demonstrates later in the essay, to make such a charge is simply bizarre. It might be shocking to Dr. Paglia to know that the plays of Aristophanes were also considered to be pop culture at one time, and also the lieder of Schubert (SC highly recommends this recording, while mentioning that point -- Fischer-Dieskau's Erlkonig is definitive). If it's true that The Beatles and Britney Spears represent a decline in the quality of our ephemera ([which is, in fact, the editorial position of this blog -- ed.]), then it's at least also as true that the technology that makes them possible has enabled the preservation and cheaper dissemination of those cultural artifacts that Dr. Paglia prefers. It's also true that we simply no longer have access to works that didn't stand the test of time, as SC comforts himself every time he hears Justin Timberlake.
However, we're here to praise Camille Paglia, not to bury her, so let's return to the evidence that reading is devalued. Remember the College Board study we cited earlier, demonstrating the slide in verbal scores? On pages 10-12, there's some data backing up our claim. Between 1992 and 2002, the percentage of high school students taking precalculus at some point in their high school careers went from 33 to 45%; calculus experienced a less dramatic jump from 20 to 25%, but the trend is still positive. English composition, meanwhile, dropped from 81 to 67% of students, and grammar showed an identically-sized drop, from 85 to 71% of students. These figures are, unsurprisingly, concourrent with the bulk of the recovery in math scores over the '92-'02 period.
Now, these figures couldn't be more than lagging indicators, as the big drop in verbal aptitude took place in the late '60s, and all through the '70s. Fortunately, we've got data going back to 1971 that gives us a better handle on the academic values of college-educated people. The National Center for Education Statistics annually publishes a massive survey called the "Digest of Education Statistics. This link is to the 2003 edition, specifically the chapter on postsecondary education statistics (the whole thing can be downloaded in segments from here; a much smaller non-PDF file of the relevant table can be had here). On page 304, one finds a table of undergraduate degrees awarded at 5-year intervals from 1971-2001. Keeping in mind that the aggregate number of degrees awarded annually increased by about 50% over that period of time, there are still some easy-to-spot trends. The number of business majors rose by nearly 80% over that period, after correcting for the increase expected from simply scaling up the population. Healthcare, including premed and nursing? Up 50%. Communications? Up an adjusted 250%. Same for generic "liberal arts". Computer and information sciences? A 1000% increase. While this was going on, there were declines in both nominal and real (adjusted) terms in education, English language and literature, foreign languages, mathematics, philosophy, and the social sciences. Perhaps even more interestingly, a very substantial part of this transformation occurred in the first of the three decades examined; over the period from '70-71 to '80-81, the total number of undergraduate degrees in business rose by 74%, even though the aggregate number of degrees increased only 10%. In that same time, the number of English majors dropped by 50%, and foreign language majors by 40%. Math also fell 50% in that first decade. The decline in mathematics might seem to be a counterexample to the claim that verbal skills were deemphasized over this time, but it could be explained just as easily in terms of the idea that math is regarded by many employers as a less useful credential than a business degree.
In tandem with the shift towards degrees which provide vocationally-oriented training, we find explosive growth in the number of professional degrees, as can be found from table 259 of the giant PDF, or viewed here. It's least true for dentistry, which has grown to larger class sizes per institution, but not nearly as much as medicine or law. That data lets us go back all the way to 1949, but we'll stick to 1970-71 as our baseline year, to keep comparable with the previous statistics. In that year, there were 78 grads/dental school, 100 grads/medical school, and 118 grads/law school. In 2000-1, those figures become 81, 130, and 197 respectively. The demand for doctors in our society is considerably greater than even this growth indicates, and if the AMA wasn't such a successful restraint on a free market in medical education, the medical figure would probably be nearly as high as the legal one.
It might be argued that lawyers are an example of a trade that gets by on verbal skills even more than almost any other field, and so the explosion in legal graduates ought to indicate that Paglia's claim of a decline in verbal skills doesn't hold up. However, we might question whether or not the skills that a lawyer needs are really those of a good writer, or those of a logician, leaning more towards the analytical/quantitative side. While the pop culture image of lawyers certainly features dramatic courtroom confrontations and eloquent oratory, the truth is that this sort of behavior only comes into play after a lot more work done preparing briefings, establishing precedents through research, and generally behaving like a scientist doing a review of the literature. Good grades in English classes are no doubt helpful to getting into law school, but that is a very different statement from saying that studying the law fosters an appreciation of literature.
So in review, we've seen that, coming into college, students of the last 30-35 years have gradually indicated a preference for making money to worrying about the life of the mind, and that this has been clearly reflected in their choice of majors, a proxy for their likely vocations. Additional data that might be interesting to look at, but which we won't try to cover here, would be the comparative sales of popular and classical music, popular and literary fiction , the trends of visitors to museums versus attendees at sporting events, and other figures demonstrating an economic commitment to particular activities. Even without that data, we have shown that the big drop of verbal SATs in the '70s nearly exactly lines up in time with the shift towards education as career preparation, and the change in student priorities towards making money Job 1. While Camille Paglia might be chagrined to learn that demon television doesn't even need to be a factor, she's right about two things: the culture has changed, and reading and writing skills are no longer valuable except as technical requirements for other career goals.