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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Dana Gioia

The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?

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I remain optimistic in general terms about the United States. Despite all the troubling economic, political, and social trends, I still trust the energy and common sense of the average American. However slowly and painfully, the country will eventually sort out its most pressing problems.

I am far less confident, however, about the nation’s cultural and intellectual future. There has been a vast dumbing down of our public culture that may already be irreversible.

There can be no doubt from the many detailed and reliable studies available that Americans now know less, read less, and even read less well than they did a quarter century ago. These trends have measurable consequences in lowering academic achievement and economic productivity. They also demonstrably diminish both cultural activity and civic participation. We live in a society addicted to constant electronic entertainment—mostly done by individuals at home, isolated not only from their communities but increasingly even from their own families.

Our public culture consists mostly of low-level entertainment and advertising (often intermixed), which is now ubiquitous—filling not only television, radio, the Internet, and print, but also restaurants, bars, airports, and even gas stations and elevators. Media saturation is no longer voluntary but mandatory for anyone entering public spaces. The goal is to fill every moment of human consciousness with paid commercial content. Perhaps this is good to stimulate economic consumption, but it cannot be good for human thought and reflection. “How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea?”

Cultural vitality has fewer advocates than do wealth and prosperity. When the arts and humanities break down, the outer signs are less immediately visible. There are no sophisticated monthly measurements to track their progress or decline. But their collapse has human consequences as devastating as material decline, even to a society that may have forgotten why they once mattered.

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Dana Gioia is a poet and the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.