Monthly Archives: November 2013

The lost love of reading

Our local university has been sponsoring a series of symposia on education. The panelists have either touted the new Common Core standards or excoriated these reforms for being too reliant on high-stakes testing. While it’s hard to disagree with the need for reform, the evangelists for federal education standards fill me with unease. I can’t help agreeing with one NPR commentator, who basically said: after all the money and studies and legislation, we still have no proof that any of this is working.
I see this each semester, when I ask my undergraduate English and journalism students to fill out a questionnaire. I ask them, What was the last book you read? Nearly all the students answer “I don’t remember” or even, “I don’t read.” The ones who come up with an answer list a series book like The Hunger Games or, tellingly, a tome like Moby Dick or The Great Gatsby, obviously a class assignment. It’s no surprise that the students who have read a book on their own tend to do much better in the class.
When did American students stop reading? Was this a gradual thing, starting with the popularity of television in the 1960s and 1970s? Or is it a more recent phenomenon, fueled by the multiple screen options of iPads, cellphones, and laptops? Whatever the reason, it’s clear that whatever limited desire our adolescents have for narrative is being fulfilled by video games, movies, and television shows. And this is not a story of nostalgia for an outdated medium. Students are not reading books on Kindle, either.
From the time I read my first Nancy Drew mystery – “The Secret of Red Gate Farm” – I was hooked on reading. By the time I was 10, I had convinced my mother to let me walk to our tiny village library on school nights, and often I whipped through a book in 24 hours. Between the covers of Jane Eyre and Little Women I took refuge, comforted by the fact that all childhoods, happy or unhappy, eventually resolve themselves. Later, in high school, Southern writers like Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams and Flannery O’Connor introduced me to a gothic world not that unlike my rural Yankee background. The works of John Steinbeck, Eugene O’Neill, Henry Miller, and Erica Jong peeled back the layers of adulthood in ways both disturbing and magical.
Most of the students I teach today in my Literature & Composition course have never heard of these writers, let alone read them. Nor are they reading contemporary greats, like Zadie Smith, Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth, or Elizabeth Strout. The literary world, to them, is a closed book.
You don’t need a Ph.D. in education to realize this is a bad thing. Yet today we are spending millions of dollars to boost the so-called STEM subjects – science, technology, and math – while an intellectual malaise of crisis proportions is emerging under our noses and no one seems to care.
The experience of reading is about more than entertainment. The act of decoding words exercises both imaginative and intellectual faculties, and its benefits are educational and moral. Indeed, it is not too much of a stretch to connect this loss of narrative to the political polarization in this country. When you cannot enter a narrator’s world – walk in his shoes – you cannot empathize with others or see their points of view.
As an adjunct instructor teaching undergraduates, I do the best I can to ignite an appreciation for literature in my students. Last semester a young man told me that, for the first time in years, he had read a book out of the simple desire to do so. Sadly, he is the exception, not the rule. While anecdotes like that keep us teachers going, they do not amount to a strategy. Our students have stopped reading. It’s time we figured out why and did something about it.

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