I originally wrote this as an opinion column for a Journalism class. It works just as well as a blog….
It has come to my attention through speaking with fellow students that many undergraduates no longer have to read. Unless majoring in English, UCCS students, as well as those from other universities, are not required to take any literature courses at all and can fill the humanities requirement with courses that require no reading. It is now possible for a student to get a four-year degree from a respectable university without ever having any creative work placed before them.
Some may say that these students read their textbooks instead. But there is no guarantee that students read the textbooks for their classes. Some students don’t even buy the textbook. Others find there is no need to read the textbook even if they buy it. Those who actually open their textbooks may use them, but that use need not be termed reading. They gloss. They skim. They highlight.
Skimming and mapping texts employ a certain skill set that is useful for college students to quickly get what they need from textbooks and could be useful to quickly understand the gist of a document in the workplace. Skimming is the fastest way to glean necessary information from a text. Skimming is the 99 cent hamburger to the 16 oz. cowboy-cut steak of reading.
Nobody could skim a piece of literature and expect to get anything out of it besides the main points and possibly the character’s names. Personal insights and true comprehension of a text are obtained only by close reading and contemplation. And close reading and contemplation take time.
Students place a high premium on their time. Many students support themselves in school by working full time jobs. Some students also have demanding social lives in conjunction with employment. These demands on student’s time leave little time for study—students are either trying to afford to go to school or trying to relieve the pressure of school, doing as little of the actual “school” as possible.
Reading would be a significant drain on a student’s time. Reading a Shakespeare play could take three or four hours. Reading a novel could burn up an entire weekend. Maybe two. Many of today’s universities have kindly backed off from literature requirements for undergraduates. Unless students seek out reading on their own time, including taking elective literature classes, there is no pressure on them to read anything of literary importance.
But this leniency in literature requirements begs the question of what kind of graduates this sort of dumbing-down will produce. Students who have not sought out opportunities to broaden their literary horizons could find themselves culturally illiterate and unable to feel at home in their among other educated people. They might shun intellectual discourse and fear to read the giants of English literature.
One required literature course may not suddenly create a generation of literary whizzes, but at least they would have a little exposure to literature, a fact which might decrease reluctance to read other works of literature by the same authors.
One underlying problem here is that most Americans hate reading creative works. According to a report released by the US National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), only 47% of American adults read poems, plays or narrative fiction. The NEA also reports a large decline in readers aged 18-24.
Reading is a slow form of entertainment. There are many other things a person could be doing that are more exciting and offer instant gratification. Reading is work; it is an intellectual exercise. Reading works of literature is often harder work than reading a modern novel. The more sophisticated the material, the more reluctant readers seem about reading it.
Changing the tides of social problems is not necessarily the responsibility of universities. But that doesn’t mean universities should be swept away by those tides. Schools may not be able to control what goes on outside their walls, but they can control what tools its graduates gain from getting a four-year-degree.
Universities have a unique challenge and opportunity. Many students feel that they will not be able to compete in a modern job market without possessing a degree. This must be a contributor in the record amounts of college graduate men and women and those seeking degrees. Universities need to keep their standards high to actually give students some benefit from higher education. Students may not like what they have to do to get a degree, but once they have it I’m sure they will not regret that it was difficult. However, they could easily become ashamed that it was too easy.