The American Academy of Arts & Sciences has developed a Humanities Indicator prototype to track the state of the arts and humanities over time and compared to other countries. The inspiration appears to be the National Science Board's Science and Engineering Indicators.
Some of the more interesting findings from their press release:
- Among Western industrialized nations, the United States ranks near the top in the percentage of highly literate adults (21%) but also near the top in the proportion who are functionally illiterate (also 21%).
- Since the early 1970s, the number of Americans who support the banning of books from the public library because they espouse atheism, extreme militarism, communism, or homosexuality decreased by at least 11 percentage points. 26% of the public would support banning some type of book. In the case of books advocating homosexuality, the decline was 20 percentage points.
- The number of American adults who read at least one book in the previous 12 months decreased from 61% to 57% in the decade between the early 1990s and the early 2000s. The greatest rate of decline (approximately 15%) occurred among 18-to-24-year-olds.
That last data point provides a nice cautionary note about the dangers of extrapolating from pop culture trends. Given that the early part of this decade was the peak of the Oprah Book Club and the Harry Potter frenzy, I would have guessed a different trend line.