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Goodbye, book learnin’

Darryl Campbell | Sunday, November 16, 2008

When I received my B.A. in 2006, I was told by the president of my university that my degree was a ticket to “the fellowship of educated men and women,” and similar sentiments are replicated in commencement ceremonies across the country.Yet these celebrations of learning and educational accomplishment also mark an end for many of these newly-minted bachelors of arts and sciences. After they earn their degrees, nearly half of all college graduates in the United States – 42 percent, according to the National Endowment for the Arts – never read another book in their lifetime. And even such a dismal rate pales in comparison to the American population as a whole, in which 70 percent of adults have never been in a bookstore in the last five years, 80 percent of families have not read or purchased a book in the last year and about 60 percent of adults never read a book after high school. Such rates are probably lower among Notre Dame graduates, but still, there are probably those among you who, once you finish up that last paper for your last class of your undergraduate career, will do the same.Such a bookless existence is almost unthinkable to me. As a graduate student, of course, my intended career depends in large part on constant reading and books play such a central role in my life that I cannot imagine doing without them. But the part of me that is an aspiring teacher feels something much more visceral: confusion, outrage and fear that the problem is nearly insurmountable – the same feelings, in fact, that the last two years of Irish football, or the last two months of economic news, have inspired. Unless you are in the fields of publishing or library science, the big problem is not that people are reading no books at all. Instead, these dismal reading habits indicate something deeper: that, despite the completion of their undergraduate programs and despite a bachelor’s degree ostensibly being the entrance requirement to the “fellowship of educated men and women,” just under half of those educated men and women will knowingly and willfully shut themselves off from the single best (but, admittedly, most demanding of thought and effort) source of information, entertainment and intellectual expansion – or, put another way, the communication medium with the best signal-to-noise ratio (take that, Internet).So is it the students’ fault for being so apathetic to books? Is it the teachers’ fault for failing to make students appreciate reading, let alone learning in general? Or is it that undergraduate education is so muddled and inconsistent that students don’t know what to do when goals and philosophies – if at all stated – vary from department to department, class to class, instructor to instructor? The answer probably lies somewhere between these three extremes; yes, there are uninterested students and bad teachers and vague pedagogical goals, but neither one accounts for the staggering failure of a college education to reach nearly half of its recipients. Without a clear way forward, in the face of apparently overwhelming indifference, and with an apparently disappointing return on the investment of time, energy and passion, teaching can sometimes feel as futile and self-defeating as trying to fill a shot glass with a fire hose. After all, between trying to teach critical and abstract thought, drawing up lesson plans, grading, ensuring that students are prepared for exams, making sure that everyone has done the week’s reading and generally competing with all the other demands on students’ time and energy, my job as a teaching assistant leaves little time to instill a love of reading books for the sake of intellectual – not merely academic – reward; I assume this is true of more than just history TAs. But without a concerted effort by everyone – students, teachers, and full-time pedagogues – there is probably not much to do except beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly not into past but into an indifference towards reading and the sustained, nuanced intellectual exertion that it demands.But what do you, dear reader, think about this? There is, after all, nothing worse than being nothing but a critic and offering no constructive suggestions, but in this case I can think of no solution except a profound shift in everyone’s attitude toward reading, books and learning in general, which one sole teaching assistant/Observer columnist simply cannot do. Do you think that this rejection of books is a symptom of a larger rejection of complex thought and mental engagement? Or has my own academic upbringing made me oblivious to the ability of television, radio and the Internet to do exactly the same thing as books while being cheaper, more efficient and more accessible? And for those who are already looking forward to never reading another book for as long as you live – where did we, the teachers, go wrong?

Darryl Campbell is a second-year Ph.D. student in History. He can be contacted at [email protected] views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necesarily those of The Observer.