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Indicator V-15 Public Attitudes toward Literature
NOTE TO READERS: Please include the following reference when citing data from this page: "American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Humanities Indicators,".
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Figure V-15d, that dealing with opinions about censorship, was updated 8/2/2013 with data for 2010–2012.

This indicator addresses questions concerning Americans’ view of the value and influence of literature by presenting responses to four items that were included in the GSS at various times, beginning in 1972. The extent of the data varies by item. One item, concerning the suppression of texts, appeared regularly from 1972 to 2008, but others appeared only once or twice during this period.

The first item gauges Americans’ belief that the sorts of texts on which much humanities education focuses are valuable and contribute to young people’s ability to function in contemporary society. The results of the survey show that in 1993, 38% of Americans agreed with the statement “High schools and colleges make students spend too much time reading ‘classics’ that have little relevance in today’s world” (Figure V-15a). Whether fewer or more Americans feel this way today and whether events of the past two decades, including the rise of the Internet and electronic media, have influenced opinions of the value of the “classics” is, unfortunately, unknown.

Figure V-15a, Full Size
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Figure V-15b presents another perspective on Americans’ ideas about literature, this time focused on the extent to which ethnic and cultural differences were felt to be salient to literary meaning and value. In 1993, over three-quarters of American adults believed that certain works could be considered universal in their appeal, capturing elements of the human experience that transcend ethnic or cultural differences. Regrettably, without data for a more current year, it is not possible to gauge the extent to which this perception has changed in light of the debate about social as well as literary values that has taken place in the United States over the last two decades.

Figure V-15b, Full Size
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The next item, concerning Americans’ confidence in humanities educators’ judgment as to which texts young people ought to read, is more informative insofar as it appeared twice on the GSS, in 1993 and 1998 (Figure V-15c). In 1993, 63% of Americans reported that they trusted high school and college teachers to select readings for their students. Five years later, however, distrust had intensified, with the percentage of Americans indicating strong disagreement increasing from 5% to slightly more than 8%.

Figure V-15c, Full Size
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Weighing conflicting points of view to arrive at reasoned conclusions is a key humanistic competency, and Americans’ willingness to permit the public dissemination of texts that they find personally objectionable can serve as one marker of this capacity. In 1973, the GSS started asking whether survey respondents would favor the removal of books espousing particular beliefs if some people in their community suggested that such books be eliminated from the public library. As Figure V-15d indicates, by 2012 Americans were less supportive of suppressing most types of texts than they were in the early 1970s, even though a nonnegligible minority of Americans still supported censorship of this kind. The greatest decline, 24.2 percentage points, was in the share of Americans willing to suppress books advocating homosexuality.

The exception to this trend concerns books asserting the inferiority of African Americans, toward which the level of disapproval has been almost constant over time. At no point from the mid-1970s to 2012 was the percentage of American adults favoring the removal of such books from public libraries statistically different than the percentage recorded in 1976 (the first year in which such data were collected).

Figure V-15d, Full Size
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