My post “Betrayed by Higher Ed” has occasioned so many comments and emails that I want to offer a group response. Readers here and abroad expressed incredulity and dismay that a student of mine had reached college sophomore level without reading a single book. My evidence is anecdotal, but while book-free students may not be the norm, neither are they the exception. Unfortunately, even when students have read books in school, those books were usually politically-correct, multiculturalist drivel. This is not news, as the academy has now devolved into third generation dumbing down. A high school teacher emailed that
There is a pervasive attitude that `the kids can't do it.’ Bullshit. Teachers won't let them because it's `easier’ to just read it all aloud in class (since it takes up more time) or just read some of it. In a meeting today . . . two of my colleagues brought up dropping [Fahrenheit 451] since their students `couldn't handle it.’ An AP teacher shared an assignment for Of Mice and Men. She passed around journal books where the students summarize each chapter on the left side of the page and then draw a picture on the right to represent a 'theme' of the chapter.
This is what passes for reading and for writing, and it’s not just in high school. Electronica’s erosion of reading ability means that reading books is no longerexpected at any level. In a presentation last year, the Columbia University Core Curriculum directors sheepishly admitted that even their celebrated and historic program now finds it must resort to having students read excerpts rather than entire books.
Impoverished reading begets impoverished writing. I also heard from Will Fitzhugh of The Concord Review who struggles to preserve the meaningfully-researched high school history essay, a Herculean task when the previously mentioned AP teacher also “doesn't assign an essay anymore because they are `too painful’ for her to read.
So if teachers don’t have students read and don’t have students write, what do they do? In The Intercollegiate Review (print only), R. V. Young writes about the decay of Freshman Comp., using as his example Jonathan Alexander’s composition class at U.C. Irvine devoted to developing “sexual literacy.” According to his U.C.I. listing, Dr. Alexander “works at the intersection of the fields of writing studies and sexuality studies, where he explores what discursive theories of sexuality have to teach us about literacy and literate practice in pluralistic democracies.” Dr. Young understandably despairs of reforming what he finds to be not an educational system at all but “a curious and uneven amalgam of job training, indoctrination, and custodial care.” Amen, brother.