The view from the front of the classroom is consistent across American colleges and universities. The students are armed with laptops, iPads or one of its competitor versions, smart phones, smart watches, earplugs (unusual, but the most distracting), and just about every other electronic device imaginable. Some of this gear has even been given to the students as part of the perks for having been admitted and matriculated into a university program. The sense by many, including the students themselves, is that these are the most well-informed and connected young people we have ever had. Some believe that they are the most informed generation our country has ever witnessed. And, this perspective is not limited to students — we perceive as much about our use of the same equipment and possess similar attitudes in other sectors of our society. In other words, the students believe what the advertisers and the faculty have been telling them.
This perspective is valid if we believe that information equals knowledge, and that, of course, is not true. It seems right because we are surrounded by advertisements — on billboards, in magazines, on television, and even in movie theaters — declaring it to be so. The latest buzzword, in both the corporate sector and academe, is Big Data. We have moved from worrying about being overwhelmed by information to believing that in all this data is the secret to solving all of the world’s problems (as I discussed in my previous post). That is, we think this until the next trendy, fundable concept comes along in the next few years, maybe sooner. Big Data, no! Big Knowledge, now that would be something.
The weak foundation of all this becomes apparent when we start interacting with students. Mention a current news item that you think is relevant to the topic of the day, and you may be met with blank stares. How, you might ask, with all this mobile technology, is it that they often seem unaware of important news events, even complacent about their lack of knowledge of such events? They are confident they are connected and aware of what is going on in our world because of all their social media; posting on FaceBook, reading tweets, and browsing blogs seems to sustain their confidence, although a little probing reveals significant gaps in their knowledge (after all, they are students). I once mentioned an event that was directly relevant to a class, reported on in newspapers, television news, and news blogs in the previous week; of course, only to discover that a few had heard anything about it. Of course, one of the pleasures of being a teacher is that you can learn from the students as well, their perspective on the world that will almost certainly differ from yours.
Assigning students a book or multiple books for a course often raises their ire. In fact, a very small portion in any class seems to have read closely the majority of assigned books; some even look at books as if they are something new. They struggle with the thesis or describing any specifics of the assigned books when asked. They often have no idea who the author is, and they skip over footnotes or endnotes without understanding how this represents the authority for authorial statements; these are merely diversions, in their minds. They search for information. It is also, perhaps, a reflection of problems being discussed about the changing nature of undergraduate education, where some have lamented the transition away from knowledge and the support of making informed citizens to that of much more narrow vocational goals focusing on skills for employment largely in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) areas. Graduate students often lack holistic knowledge enabling them to tackle challenging ethical, historical, policy, societal, and other problems.
It also seems to me that many students are not book readers. They are readers – but of Web sites, blogs, Twitter, graphic novels, and an interesting assortment of other such materials. But we can ask what that kind of “reading” does for their preparation to be graduate students or to go out into the world to deal with challenging social, political, and economic issues. It is also relevant to wonder whether what they seem inclined to read to be more than really browsing, sampling, and, even, just looking for entertainment. How is this reading educating and informing people to be better citizens and professionals? But the problem of reading is evident in the university in many ways apart from that of students.
Is anybody else worried that reading – reading journals, books, poetry, and magazines like Harper’s or Atlantic – is on the decline in the university? How can that be, one asks, with all those professors and courses and libraries? And, yet, there is evidence all around those ivy-covered walls that that is exactly what is happening. Students seem uneasy, or hostile, when assigned a book, in toto, as required reading for a course. Faculty sit huddled over their laptops and smart phones during meetings, trying to act as if what they were staring at is relevant for the meeting (sometimes it is). Every field now swears that their main contributions will come through brief research articles, packaged as if the findings of experiments; article quantity and/or citation counts are the chief measures of one’s worth. Short-term projects become the normative, and long-term projects sit on the sidelines. The expectation of reading longer, more detailed or complicated texts, has been diminishing. What has caused this? More importantly, what are the implications for education, knowledge creation, and society?
There is something even more substantive about reading and its (potential) importance. We are immersed in an age when we are shifting from an analog to a digital world. I hear, regularly, at my school and elsewhere, that the printed book is dead, libraries are obsolete, and librarians are dinosaurs. Really? We are seeing increased numbers of e-books, but we are also seeing growing numbers of print books. In fact, the universe of books, print and digital, has long represented the real Big Data. The book is far from antiquated, but remains a significant purveyor of knowledge (note, not just information) for scholars, citizens, policymakers, community groups, and others.
We can reflect back on the role books have played in the past. Think of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the Bible and other seminal religious texts, and, well, you will have your own examples and favorites. What recent books can we add to this list? Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering, a study about the identity and handling of those killed in the Civil War, is one of my suggestions, as it wisely connects to our current world of never-ending war and its mounting human and economic costs. Likewise Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, her last book published before her death in 2004, would be another good addition as she astutely considers the impact of our incessant viewing of war everyday on television, computer screens, in the cinema, and via our computer games. Books are also essential stepping-stones in the development of our own memories. Roger Grenier notes, “If our books aren’t destined for immortality, at least they can become the enduring passwords, the precious relics in lover’s memories” (Roger Grenier, Palace of Books, trans. Alice Kaplan [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014], p. 83).
Anyway, go read a book and see what you are missing. And, yes, I am a book person. I believe in their potential utility, and I even teach a course about books in an iSchool. I think of that course as a small oasis in the vast wilderness of information technologies. Michael Dirda provides an explanation for the importance of books: “Books don’t just furnish a room. A personal library is a reflection of who you are and who you want to be, of what you value and what you desire, of how much you know and how much you’d like to know. . . . Digital texts are all well and good, but books on shelves are a presence in your life. As such, they become a part of your day-to-day existence, remind you, chastising you, calling to you. Plus, book collecting is, hands down, the greatest pastime in the world” (Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books [New York: Pegasus,Books, 2015], p. 233). To that, I say amen.