Today I finished Fahrenheit 451, having just read it for the first time. It paints a frightening picture of a future world obsessed with cheap entertainment and where firemen burn books in order to keep society “happy” on the surface. The firehouse’s mechanical hound sniffs out and kills people who try to hide books. Those who escape live as refugees and hobos, and they recite portions they remember from The Republic, Walden, Ecclesiastes. Fahrenheit 451 is a testimony to the preciousness of books and an author’s delight in them.
How did Ray Bradbury cultivate such an earnest love of books? He traded a college education for a 10-year stint in the library. The audio-book I had borrowed (from, well, the library) included an interview with the author, in which Bradbury recounted his transition from high school into the world. He said he had enrolled in the local university and was preparing to start classes, despite lacking the money for college, but then he reconsidered:
I was going to start being educated in drama and writing, and then I thought to myself, “Why am I doing this?” And the answer was girls of course. And I thought to myself, “well, that’s very nice, but what has that got to do with writing? Nothing, huh? And if you’re not careful, you’re gonna ruin your life.
"So I made the big decision. I stayed on the street corner [selling newspapers]. I made $10 a week. And I went to the library and educated myself. I spent two or three days a week in the library for the next ten years and graduated from the library when I was 28.
Well, they had at the university up north in California heard about this a couple years ago and during my lecture they came up on the stage and handed me a diploma graduating me from the library. Isn’t that beautiful?
If you’re not careful, you’re gonna ruin your life. How many high school students today need to hear this? No, college doesn’t necessarily lead to ruin. But most freshmen in college aren’t being careful either. They enroll in college because they believe it’s their only respectable option. Few take the time to pause, like Bradbury, and ask, “Why am I doing this?” Without asking questions like that, it’s all too easy for new college students to fall into academic complacency, social vices, major debt, and vocational aimlessness. And many are forgoing viable alternatives to college, such as apprenticeships and vocational training.
Colleges and universities ought to instill in students a lifelong love of learning and good books. Unfortunately, this is less and less what happens in reality. One reader on the NAS blog wrote, “None of my college teachers ever asked me to read a whole book.” Lisa, a student at Monterey Peninsula College, told her professor David Clemens, “Before last semester I had never even read a book entirely.” And a star basketball player who will walk in commencement next month at the University of Connecticut confirmed to Sports Illustrated that he had only recently read his first book.
Rather than asking students to read whole books, many colleges are offering bite-sized portions and shallow entertainment – much like in the world of Fahrenheit 451.