Tag Archives: books

Why Is It So Hard Now to Read a Book?

I was thinking about the issue of time this past week, while doing what I call cross-reading:  reading items online and pausing every few minutes to look something up on a web browser and then returning to the original reading.  This is a high-stimulation way of reading, producing an ultrathin layer of information about many different things, but not the intense experience of being deeply immersed in a book or other demanding piece of reading, which takes real time, not just internet time, to absorb and digest.

Almost thirty years ago, Roger Ebert wrote an enthusiastic review of Woody Allen’s film Radio Days, set in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn in the 1940s. It began:

I can remember what happened to the Lone Ranger in 1949 better than I can remember what happened to me. His adventures struck deeply into my imagination in a way that my own did not, and as I write these words there is almost a physical intensity to my memories of listening to the radio. Television was never the same. Television shows happened in the TV set, but radio shows happened in my head.

It’s this “happening in my head” that seems to be declining, replaced by constant and superficial connectivity, on the one hand, and exacerbated sensitivity to real or imagined slights on the other.  Though teaching my courses continues to interest me, I often doubt that they interest most of the undergraduate students who enroll in them.  A few, yes, but most sit passively with little or nothing to say.  When I first enter the room, they’re all sitting silently, absorbed in their iPhones.  Some continue playing with their iPhones during class, as if they think I can’t tell from the movements of their fingers, even if I can’t see the device itself.  And in the lobby of my building, I’ve noticed that almost all the students who come and go are on iPhones as they walk, alone but not alone.  Constant, instant, communication has colonized their time and minds.  Does this matter?

Related: Summer Reading for Freshmen, Unchallenging, Mediocre

Long experience has taught me that students often don’t do the assigned readings, or do only part of them, or in all likelihood read on-line summaries of novels (which can be very thorough and detailed, but also rapidly forgettable).  What is the difference between reading something at length and giving it a quick once-over?

There are two main ones:  time and imagination.  Two very dissimilar things: imagination, as Ebert noted, is internal. Time is external, and there are only 24 hours of it in a day.  It takes perhaps 8 or 10 hours to read a 250 or 300-page novel.  I know because I once spent a month at the British Library reading dozens of obscure dystopian novels that weren’t available in this country (this was long before the Internet, of course).

I used to reread each of the novels I taught in class, but this became discouraging:  my knowledge and understanding of the works increased with each reading, while my students’ reading habits were moving in the other direction, spending ever less time on assignments.  Like other professors, I’ve adapted to this reality to a large extent – using more short stories and essays, and feature films, in my courses. When I started teaching utopian and dystopian literature decades ago, I would typically include eight or nine novels in one semester. But then the semesters grew shorter (they are now at 13 weeks each at my university), and the habit of reading rarer.

Related: What Should Kids Be Reading

Years ago, some of my students told me that even between their experience and that of their younger siblings, there was an enormous gap: the younger kids were less likely to be interested in reading, whereas many of my students, in those days before the Internet, still loved books.  These shifts are not due entirely to technology, though it plays a large role, and text messaging certainly made this problem worse, as everyone knows.  The inevitable result is that more and more communication is going on about less and less:  sheer trivia constantly conveyed to all one’s “friends.”  Time is at a premium, apparently, and patience is short.

Universities have made many accommodations to this, as well.  Not that long ago I served on a committee dealing with a proposal to change many three-credit General Education courses to four credits. The problem was how to do this without increasing the professors’ workload or contact hours, guarded by the contracts our faculty union negotiates with the administration.

A lengthy discussion ensued about what that extra one credit might entail:  additional work for the students, yes, but without correspondingly increasing the professors’ work time.  All kinds of ideas were floated.  At one point I asked: “How about actually requiring the students to do all the work that’s already on our syllabus?”  No one was amused.  We pretended that the additional credit meant students would intensify and deepen their studies.

Since then, what we expect of our students has only decreased, even as many three-credit courses have indeed been transformed into four-credit ones, so that fewer courses are necessary to complete a bachelor’s degree.  And colleagues have grown bored with complaining about how difficult it is to get students to do reading, and how they must take ever greater pains to keep students amused and engaged.

But it’s not only these practical considerations (on our part and our students’) that are worth noting. An equally important component is the reduction of so much of our teaching to political bottom lines, usually resting on identity issues. Why bother reading anything in detail if one can readily enough spot its politics and praise or blame it on that score alone?

By encouraging or capitulating to this perspective, professors in many humanities departments have in effect taught their students that the humanities do not  matter, that attentiveness to reading is irrelevant, that the life of the mind (does anyone use that phrase these days?) has nothing to offer.  Instead, what counts are attitudes – in particular attitudes toward race, class, gender, heterosexuality, etc. – and if we can discern these quickly, so much the better. Why shouldn’t this far more economical, and self-righteous, path not appeal to our students?

The well-known scholar and former MLA president Elaine Marks, whose work was instrumental in promoting feminist literary theory, in the years before her death in 2001 turned against the practice of reading guided by identity politics and the tireless insistence on “differences.”  In 2000, she published an essay entitled “Feminism’s Perverse Effects,” in which she expressed her growing concern about the directions in which literary, cultural, ethnic and women’s studies had all been moving for some years.

Disillusioned with the practice of trolling literature and culture for signs of the ubiquitous -isms, Marks acknowledged her new-found sympathy with the arguments set forth by Harold Bloom in his much-maligned 1994 book The Western Canon.  Like Bloom, she had come to lament students’ failure to respond to literature imaginatively, their habit of replacing knowledge of western culture with a ceaseless pursuit of signs of its villainy, and their inability to experience surprise and delight in a text.  She was astonished, she wrote, to discover herself applauding Bloom’s words, “To read in the service of any ideology is not, in my judgment, to read at all.”  But merely expressing such concerns, Marks complained, would stigmatize a scholar as a closet conservative and traitor.

The Suicide of the Humanities

And that was in 2000. Since then things have only gotten worse, as higher education increasingly and openly pledges itself to politics before all else, whether in the name of  those elusive absolutes “diversity, inclusion, and  social justice” – words constantly promoted by university administrators (and accompanied by an ever-expanding corpus of administrators tasked with overseeing these agendas) – or to protect the fragility of  college students who claim to be unable to withstand the horrific offenses to their sensibilities that they manage to ferret out on America’s campuses.

Though some scholars may worry when they see the university diverting more and more resources to non-humanistic subjects, the fact remains that the suicide of the humanities is not occurring against but rather with the willing participation of many professors, who have long given up defending their own fields as worthy of study except as ersatz politics. But if that’s all the humanities are about, why not just abandon them and go straight for the real thing?

Summer Reading for Freshmen: Unchallenging, Mediocre

“Beach Books 2014-2016,” released yesterday by the National Association of Scholars (NAS), is a study of mostly summer reading assigned by colleges and universities to their incoming freshman.

NAS reports:

Our study of common readings during the academic years 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 covers 377 assignments at 366 colleges and universities for the first year and 361 assignments at 350 colleges and universities for the second year. Our data includes common readings for every college and university we could find—including readings for honor colleges, but not for sub-units of the university such as departments of education. We included books assigned as summer readings, whether to freshmen or to all students.

Although in the past we did not include books tied to readings assigned in a core curriculum, this year we have included Columbia University’s assignment of an English translation of the first six books of Homer’s The Iliad to its incoming undergraduate class, since it is specifically designated as a summer reading.68 Columbia’s decision does make The Iliad the common reading for its incoming class, and this wonderful effect should not be removed from our charts simply because it is not formally labeled as a Common Reading. We hope that Columbia’s choice will prove a model to its peers.

Download the report (pdf): Beach Books 2014-2016: What Do Colleges and Universities Want Students to Read Outside Class?

The findings, in brief, follow.

College common reading programs are:

Meant to Build Community. Colleges see their common readings more as exercises in community-building than as means to prepare students for academic life.

Civically Engaged: Common readings are overwhelmingly chosen to foster civic engagement; they scarcely mention the complementary and equally valuable virtues of the disengaged life of the mind. They give no sense of why or how college differs from the world outside, and why those differences are valuable.

Recent: More than half of common reading assignments (58% in 2014, 60% in 2015) were published between 2010 and the present. Only 12 assignments out of 738 (1.6%) were published before 1900, and another 5 (0.7%) between 1900 and 1945.

Nonfiction: 71% of assignments in 2014 and 75% of assignments in 2015 were memoirs, biographies, essays, and other non-fiction.

Dominated by mediocre new books: Most common readings are recent, trendy, and intellectually unchallenging.

A Narrow, Predictable Genre: The common reading genre is parochial, contemporary, commercial, optimistic, juvenile, and obsessed with suffering.

Almost No Classics: Only a scattering of colleges assigned works that could be considered classics. With few exceptions, the hundreds of common reading programs across the country ignored books of lasting merit.

No Modern Classics: Even in confining themselves to living authors, common reading programs neglect some of the best ones, such as Martin Amis, Wendell Berry, J. M. Coetzee, Annie Dillard, Alice Munro, V. S. Naipaul, Philip Roth, Wole Soyinka, and Tom Wolfe.

Author Speaking: In 2014, 53% of colleges with common reading programs hosted personal appearances by the authors, and in 2015, 54% of colleges with common reading programs had author appearances.

Nothing Foreign: Classics in translation were nearly absent—and so was anything modern in translation. Even common readings about foreigners generally were written in English, not translated from a foreign language.

Predominantly Progressive. The assigned books frequently emphasize progressive political themes—illegal immigrants contribute positively to America, the natural environment must be saved immediately—and almost never possess subject matter disfavored by progressives.

The desire to appeal to incoming students who have rarely if ever read an adult book on their own also leads selection committees to choose low-grade “accessible” works. Common reading programs aim to familiarize new students with how college students think, read, discuss, and write. They are meant to establish academic standards—and to establish a sense of community among students, both with other students and with the faculty. How well they do either of these things is open to question. Common reading programs are also meant to inculcate institutional identity and institutional goals—under which cover progressive tenets such as diversity and sustainability often creep in.

Books are selected to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, both to satisfy the varieties of student taste and disciplinary interest and so as to get as broad an institutional “buy-in” as possible from the administration and the faculty. The basic rationale, however, is that if students can be brought to care enough about a book to read it, and even think it’s interesting enough to talk about with their friends, they might also care enough about college to make a real go at their education.

Common reading programs state their goals with words that make a leftward skew in the book selections just about a sure thing. Keywords telegraph the content of those goals: all save academic expectations are the euphemistic jargon of the left.

For instance, Salem State University (Massachusetts) desires “thoughtful discussion of ideas”; in 2015, it chose Joshua Davis’ soft sell for amnestying illegal immigrants, Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle for the American Dream (2014).  These basic programmatic goals have been elaborated by a constellation of other words and phrases that largely partakes of progressive jargon as well: active citizenship, awareness, biodiversity, civic engagement, community service, critical thinking, diversity, engaged, equity, ethics, inclusion, injustice, intercultural understanding, local talent, meaningful, multiple disciplinary application, perspectives, powerful, readability, relevant, responsibility, sensitivity, shared experience, social justice, social responsibility, timely, and tolerance.

(Critical thinking, ethics, and tolerance are not monopolies of any political party, and they should be part of a college education. What we note and critique here is the use of this hijacked vocabulary to forward progressive political projects.)

These programmatic keywords reinforce other skews. The calls for civic engagement, community service, relevance, and responsibility filter out books concerned with the disinterested life of the mind. The demand for a reading that is about something in the world leads to endless memoirs and works of popular nonfiction concerned with life beyond the college walls. Even a memoir such as Liz Murray’s Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard, whose point is the value of going to college, is entirely about the struggle to get to Harvard, and not the character of her life once she has arrived.

Common reading choices continue to reflect the issues of the day. The sharp rise of selections on African American themes in 2015-16 coincides with the Ferguson protests and the ensuing Black Lives Matter campaign; and it is doubtful that, absent Ferguson, Augustana College (Illinois), Hampshire College (Massachusetts), and Norfolk State University (Virginia) all would have decided in 2015 to assign James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.

The campaign to amnesty illegal immigrants likewise has produced a sharp uptick of books on themes of immigration, particularly illegal immigration. The popularity of Sonia Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with His Mother (6 selections in 201415 and 5 in 2015-16) evidently derives from this campaign. The rise of the transgender movement, with its insistence on contingent sexuality, probably inspired a faint echo in Bluffton University’s (Ohio) choice of Marge Piercy’s He, She, and It, a 1991 novel on a woman who falls in love with a cyborg.

The common readings are homogeneous and bland. The desire to appeal to incoming students who have rarely if ever read an adult book on their own also leads selection committees to choose low-grade “accessible” works that are presumed to appeal to “book virgins.” Since common reading programs are generally either voluntary or mandatory without an enforcement mechanism, such “book virgins” have to be wooed with simple, unchallenging works.

A significant number of books are chosen by the academy’s diversity offices. The sustainability programs are not yet institutional sponsors of common readings, but their influence can be seen in the uptick of sustainability themes for common reading programs. The University

of Tennessee’s student-led fossil fuel divestment campaign began in January 2013,9 but surged in popularity after incoming students read the 201314 common reading, Bill McKibben’s Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, and heard McKibben speak on campus.10

Wes Moore’s The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates (2010) is by far the most frequently assigned book of the last two years, with 17 assignments in 2014-15 and 16 in 2015-16. This is a memoir of the contrasting fates of two Wes Moores— both born African American and poor in Baltimore, one grew up to be a Rhodes Scholar, decorated veteran, White House Fellow, and business leader, while the other ended up a convicted murderer serving a life sentence.

The most common college selections were in these categories: civil rights/racism/slavery, crime and punishment, drugs and poverty, family dysfunction and immigration.

Obama’s Win Is An Indictment of Higher Education

This morning in the Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes summed
one condition of the Republican Party:

“What’s their problem? In Senate races, it’s bad candidates:
old hacks (Wisconsin), young hacks (Florida), youngsters (Ohio), Tea Party
types who can’t talk about abortion sensibly (Missouri, Indiana), retreads
(Virginia), lousy campaigners (North Dakota) and Washington veterans
(Michigan). Losers all.

“And those are just the Senate contests decided
yesterday.  In 2010, it was similar.  Republicans threw away two of
their best chances to gain seats, choosing pathetically incapable candidates in
Nevada and Delaware.” 

Indeed, conservative and libertarian teachers, writers, and
intellectuals have to wonder why the candidates they have to choose from are
precisely that, “pathetically incapable” mouthpieces who can’t talk about
controversial issues such as abortion sensibly. 

Here’s one reason why: those politicians didn’t study any
conservative thinkers in college.  When they talk, they say nothing that
suggests they have read much serious discourse on the right side of the
spectrum from Burke to Charles Murray.  Leftists have their nostrums down
pat (against racism, sexism, imperialism, economic inequality . . .), and
however dated and predictable those utterances are, liberal politicians stick
to the point and press it again and again.  Again, one reason is that they
received ample helpings of liberalism in freshman English, history, any
“studies course,” sociology, etc., reading some Marx, Foucault, Dewey, Malcolm
X, a bit of feminism here and multiculturalism there.  In school, those
future conservative politicians likely rejected those texts, but they didn’t
plunge into the other side’s corpus

It shows in the absence of depth in so many Republican
candidates.  When you hear them speak, nothing in the tradition comes
through–no Franklin on work ethic, Madison-Hamilton-Jay on power, Emerson on
self-reliance, Hawthorne on Federal employment, Thoreau on Big Government,
Booker T. Washington on individual responsibility, Willa Cather on the pioneer
spirit, and Hayek on social engineering.  This is a fatal deficiency, and
it neglects one of the strengths of conservatism (superiority in the battle of
ideas).  Worse, when conservatives don’t have the tradition in their
background, when they lose elections, they tend to look forward by examining
their relationship to the electorate instead of their relationship to first
principles and values.  Conservative candidates don’t need more political
calculation that competes with liberalism, but rather more intellectual heft
that presents a better alternative to liberalism.

It won’t happen in college, so maybe organizations such as
the Manhattan Institute should run two-week seminars for office-seekers. 
Not policy-making or campaign strategy sessions, but short courses in
conservative words and ideas.  Have them read Franklin‘s Autobiography, Washington’s
Up from Slavery, and Cather’s O Pioneers!  Let them know,
too, that while we all await the Second Coming of Ronald Reagan, one way Reagan
thrived in politics is by withdrawing for a time and reading Hayek and Friedman
carefully, soberly, far from the madding crowd.

Incredible Vanishing Humanities Doctorates

There may be something to demand-side economics: According to the most recent annual report from the National Science Foundation, the number of Ph.D. degrees awarded in the humanities dropped by almost 5 percent from 2006 to 2007. As Inside Higher Education reported, the decline—steepest for doctorates in literary studies such as English, foreign languages, and the classics, where the number of new Ph.D.-holders fell by 6.9 percent—occurred even as doctorate production overall in American universities increased for the sixth straight year in a row and by 5.4 percent from 2006 to 2007. The most impressive increases were in science and engineering: 14.4 percent more doctoral degrees in computer science, 13.5 percent more in physics, and 7.8 percent more in various fields of engineering. Only two scientific fields, chemistry and mechanical engineering, saw slight declines of 1.5 percent in the number of doctorates awarded (and as Insider Higher Ed noted), chemistry saw an overall increase of 5.1 percent from 1998). Even the social sciences (sociology, anthropology, political science, and the like) did not fare too badly, their number of doctorates growing by 3.3 percent from 2006 to 2007, while the number of Ph.D. degrees in psychology inched up by 1.1 percent.
That leaves the humanities, whose number of doctorates decreased by 4.6 percent, as the sick man of postgraduate academia. The decline dovetails nicely with the steadily evaporating academic employment opportunities, especially on the tenure track, for literature scholars, historians, philosophers, and other credentialed humanists. On Dec. 4, Inside Higher Ed published what might be called the companion piece to its Nov. 24 report on doctorate production: an article titled “The Tightening Humanities Job Market.” The article reported that “there will be significantly fewer searches this year.” At the annual meeting of the American Historical Association this coming January, only 126 history departments across the country plan to conduct recruiting interviews, a 14 percent drop from the 185 who scheduled hiring interviews in January 2007. The American Philosophical Association also predicted a sharp downturn in hiring interviews for its upcoming meeting later this month, as did the American Philological Association, the leading scholarly organization for classicists and classical archaeologists, whose annual meeting takes place in January. The Modern Language Association, representing academics in English and foreign-language departments and scheduled to hold its annual meeting late this month, reported no decline in job postings, but a representative for the MLA told Inside Higher Ed that “a downturn” in full-time positions (in contrast to the wretchedly paying part-time jobs that are the chief growth sector in academic literature departments) was highly likely.

Continue reading Incredible Vanishing Humanities Doctorates

Robert George and Cornel West: Partners.

Robert George and Cornel West have teamed up in an unlikely enterprise – co-teaching a Freshmen Seminar, “Great Books and Arguments” at Princeton. You can find the full story in the June issue of the Princeton Alumni magazine.

George and West seem to radiate enthusiasm about the collaboration, and, particularly, about the challenges to their ideas that it posed. It’s a fascinating example of genuine intellectual diversity at work. Here’s a piquant excerpt:

After alluding to certain groups that feel alienated on the Princeton campus, West finally identifies one such group as African-Americans.

“Ahhh,” says George, as if finally seeing the light. “I thought you were talking about conservatives.” Everyone laughs.

“We had a wonderful dialogue about it,” recalls West later. “And we began to see that actually there was significant overlap [in our views]. Robby wanted colorblindness precisely because he wanted to affirm humanity.”

Do read the whole piece.