Whatever Happened to Reading?

A recent article on the decline of reading by Steven Johnson for The Chronicle of Higher Education has drawn a good deal of attention. The article opens with David Joliffe, an English professor at the of the University of Arkansas, depicting his students’ inability to tell the difference between fiction and non-fiction. Johnson tells us this isn’t just another version of a “kids these days lament.”

Students these days explains Professor Joliffe, “are not as capable as students were in previous generations as critical readers.” A study by Colin M. Burchfield and John Sappington compared 910 psychology students’ self-reports and performance on pop quizzes over time.

“They found that just 20 percent of students normally did the readings in 1997, down from about 80 percent 16 years earlier.” During a normal week, “…Whether in two-year or four-year colleges, in the humanities or STEM, about 20 to 40 percent of students do the reading. “

But after rolling out the grim story replicated by my friends and former colleagues, Johnson backtracks. He trots out a selection of saddle-worn stories to suggest that things aren’t as bad as they seem. Students today, even the full-time ones, it seems, are pressed for time. And they can’t afford the expensive textbooks, and, and…. The solution, he suggests, is to treat college students like grade schoolers by imposing frequent graded quizzes.

Maybe the “higher” needs to be removed from “higher education.”

[The Campaign to Indoctrinate Students Against the West]

The troubles it seems started with the full onset of the digital age. “You don’t have to go back far,” Johnson notes, referring to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “to find a culprit for reading’s apparent decline: the digital age.” In 1997, a professor in The Chronicle bemoaned his children’s entrance into “a grand experiment in which the computer, the internet, and the World-Wide Web are redefining literacy.” He might better have said “replacing.” Studies found that beginning in the 1980s, the percentage of teenagers who said they “never or hardly ever” read for fun — which correlates with reading ability By 2008 it had tripled, from 8 to 24 percent.

My experience teaching at a highly competitive college with top tier students suggests that quizzes are at best a mild palliative for history classes. I barred cell phones — going so far as to confiscate them occasionally – and I outlawed computers in class and gave frequent quizzes and changed the readings to make them shorter and easier – but none of this helped very much.

These measures might work in psych or sociology, or possibly even in a lit class, but making sense of history requires the students to stretch their breadth of learning and think in terms of a horizon. They both require the students to immerse themselves in a richly textured, extended narrative. But because they never read novels or extended narratives before entering college, bright though they were, it didn’t help.

[How Diversity Hijacked History 101]

The once creeping, now trotting illiteracy has real-world consequences. Recently Rashida Tlaib, the Congresswomen from Ramallah, engaged in Holocaust revisionism. She said she was proud of the way Palestinians tried to protect the Jews from the Holocaust. Unfortunately, an occasional crocodile tear aside, they didn’t. Their leader Haj Amin al-Husseini made a career of assassinating Palestinian moderates. He was a close ally of Hitler and did everything he could to advance the Holocaust.

But how do you explain this to the historically and geographically bereft millennials and those who follow them who can’t find the Middle East on a map and for whom WWII is ancient history? The despicable Democrat from Dearborn will get away with her lies while K-16 sinks into historical illiteracy.

[Get Ready for the Coming War Against Merit]

I was falling behind the descending curve. The best that most could do was to bring in the free handout newspapers, with their five-paragraph (at best) articles. The free handouts were readily available to subway riders.

One day, while giving my annual talk in 2005 about the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1856 at a respected East Coast college made famous by Lincoln, I had a eureka moment of sorts. I was trying to explain the deep differences between Northern and Southern Illinois, which reaches well below the Mason-Dixon line.

I expected these sterling students – based on their SAT performances – to know about this famous dividing line which was important for Senator Stephen A. Douglas’ support. But I was mistaken. I saw the puzzled look in their eyes, and I realized that these college sophomores had never heard of the Mason-Dixon line. I pressed on. I asked. Where is Illinois?

One answered, “near Philadelphia,” most just shrugged their shoulders, with the best of the lot explaining that it was “in Chicago.” In what followed I gave the supposed college students an 8th-grade geography lesson.

I had loved teaching history. But it was from that moment on that I began to plan my escape into retirement.


  • Fred Siegel

    Fred Siegel is a senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute's Center for State and Local Leadership, a City Journal contributing editor, and an expert on public policy solutions for urban governance. A former fellow at The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, he is currently scholar-in-residence at Saint Francis College in Brooklyn.

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4 thoughts on “Whatever Happened to Reading?

  1. I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised at all that in response to an article about the sorry lack of reading (as in skills, abilities and perhaps I can go so far to say – inspiration, aspiration and sheer native curiosity) in contemporary denizens of academic pursuits, no-one actually commented on the subject at hand: which happens to be reading.
    I recall as a child, when reading was a separate subject (in early grades) and taken deadly seriously. As well it should have been.
    That was long ago, and since those times, I have enjoyed the fruits of that labor immensely.
    For reading, of course, and especially reading well – opens up a very precious and profound world that is otherwise and forever banished from the sensibilities of those who do not, will not, and even (sadly) can not – read.
    Reading, quite simply put, is always and forever at the seat of real education.
    Many things can be learned without reading.
    But nothing adding up to a competent education can be accomplished without it.

    A book, blessedly – will indeed, give Galileo’s middle finger to all that incessant noise and vulgarity that within other mediums passes as knowledge.
    Because it is that private conversation between oneself and an author that allows a reader to think, hear their own thoughts, come to their own conclusions, without the distraction of what is now a massive and mass dystopia.
    We have even arrived at a state wherein a 140 character text constitutes one’s solemn duty as an active reader. Bosh.

    You know, although I was taught the basic rudiments of language, grammar and spelling – I was never really taught “how” to read.
    That is a personal relationship with the page, and what one finds therein.
    It is a wonderfully intimate relationship, as well it should be.

    Long ago the printing press endowed humankind with a priceless opportunity to rise above the moribund and the crass, cruel and crude existence of ignorant and wasted lives.
    In order to not endlessly repeat historical mistakes over and over again, one must know the history in the first place.
    But the thing that puzzles me most is a simple thing, really.
    Curiosity. To find out what’s between the covers.
    Where has that gone?
    And more importantly, why?

  2. Don’t do quizzes… make them write paragraphs. 100-200 words. Or paragraphs and quizzes, of course.

    Downside is that paragraphs are more work for you to review than quizzes. And they don’t really scale… 200 words on one chapter is a lot better than 200 words on three or a whole book or whatever.

    You could always try communal marking. Everyone writes a paragraph and has to mark three of their peer paragraphs. Participation marks for doing it.

  3. ” In what followed I gave the supposed college students an 8th-grade geography lesson.”

    Geography isn’t taught much anymore — Social Studies largely consists of “Social Justice” in the larger context of an emphasis on social/behavioral learning. My guess is that most teachers couldn’t find Illinois on a map — I’m amazed at the number of Massachusetts teachers who can’t find Massachusetts on a map, and Cape Cod is a rather distinctive feature…

    It also doesn’t help that the most common name of a Social Studies teacher is “Coach” — the school district wishes to hire a coach or athletic trainer (and with Title IX, they have to hire a second one for the girls) but one can’t live on the $5K-$10K coaching stipend, so they hire the person as a teacher as well — for the salary and benefits necessary to get the person as a coach.

    And anyone can teach Social Studies — not well, but anyone with the teacher’s edition to the textbook (which contains the purported answers) can do it. And as to textbooks, one once printed that “FDR ended the Korean war by dropping the atomic bomb.” Yes, wrong POTUS, wrong war, wrong decade, and wrong part of the world….

    Even worse, most states allow teachers to teach one course out of certification — outside the area(s) they are qualified to teach. Many districts get waivers to go way beyond this. Hence you have teachers who know nothing about Social Studies (let alone geography or history) teaching it — a school which wishes to offer one class in Mandarin (Chinese language) could make it a full-time position by having her teaching Social Studies as well…

    And in most states, Grades 7 & 8 overlap — one can teach them with either an Elementary or Secondary certification. (Mine, a Secondary certification, is for Grades 7-12.) While Secondary certificates are endorsed for specific subject areas (e.g. Social Studies), Elementary certificates are for all subject areas and are good up to 8th Grade.

    So your 8th Grade Social Studies teacher can be an Elementary Ed major whose knowledge of geography is limited to what she wasn’t herself taught in 8th Grade…..

    1. Yeah.

      I’m a certified History, Business, and Science teacher (highly qualified in Physics and Chemistry). Because of the drastic shortage of qualified physical science teachers, I seldom taught history.

      But, that was my major. And, I loved it. I am heartbroken about the situation with really basic history, geography, and civics. Kids are pig-ignorant about ALL of those. Even the ones taking AP US History are dumber than dirt. They know NOTHING.

      The course is – to be straightforward – SHIT. Loaded with factoids, short on reality, and superficial as hell.

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