by Jonah Raskin
(Swans - June 6, 2011) The spring of 2011 will go down in the annals of American education as the semester that college students stopped reading books. Not all of them, but huge numbers of them, and while the transformation of this generation from readers to non-readers of books hasn't happened all at once, it has reached critical mass even as the semester comes to a resounding crash. The refusal to read, even when assigned books to read and even when there are quizzes on the reading, is part of a larger rebellion against an older generation of teachers who read because they love to read and because their work requires it. The rebellion against the book is taking place in colleges all across the country, though as teachers report their students are reading online and reading text messages too.
Many students never learned to read in grade school or high school. Others have forgotten what they learned about reading and choose not to relearn the lost art of reading novels, biography, history, and poetry. Increasingly, they learn in college that there are alternatives to reading books, such as watching movies and TV shows. College classes focus on HBO dramas including The Wire and The Sopranos, but even those popular shows are far more for the teachers than for the students. How to read a movie is also increasingly a lost art, especially if the movie is by a European master such as Fellini or Renoir.
There has not been such a profound shift in the human connections to technology and the mass media since the invention of the printing press in the late 15th century that transformed power in Europe, brought news of the New World to the Old World, and spread the ideas of the Protestant Reformation. Most of that history is familiar to college teachers over the age of 30 because of the books they have read. It is largely unknown to college students today, even students at some of the most prestigious universities in the country. It isn't just the 1960s that draws a blank from students today, but the American Civil War, the French Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. All those events happened at some time in the past, students know, but when precisely or even roughly they mostly don't know because they haven't read.
Not surprisingly, this reality in classrooms and on campuses elicits several responses from teachers. Some faculty members are ready to jump ship and embrace the younger generation. They want to be cool, and often they are. Others express a kind of collective anger and frustration -- a sense that the younger generation is dismissive of their values as faculty members and as good citizens. The teachers are right. Their students are dismissive, even though most of them are all too polite about their dismissal of old ways. They say "Yes, sir" and "Yes, please" even when they're in rebellion. Don't get me wrong, I like this generation; they're smart, often well-traveled and with the ability to think critically about social and political issues. In fact, one doesn't have to read books to be informed. Swans itself is a case in point.
Students see the handwriting on the wall, or rather the messages in their in-boxes, and they recognize that the culture of the book that has existed for hundreds of years is drawing to a close. They are not stupid, not unaware of the vast cultural changes taking place before their eyes. They see it in Kindles and in stories in the media about the closing of bookstores and they feel it in their own guts. They know, too, that the future belongs to blogs, the Internet and computers, Facebook, and more, and they want to belong to the future, not to the dead and the dying past. My own generation identified with Elvis Presley, not Frank Sinatra, and with television, not radio or magazines.
Students are riding the wave into the future. They're prepared for the brave new technological world that's unfolding. At the same time, they are missing something that only a book can provide: a sense of self, a sense of identity. The present generation is afraid of being alone and lonely, though they're not the first generation to feel that way. Their escape from loneliness is to embrace what's called "social media" that gives the illusion of contact with other people, but often leaves e-mailers feeling only more isolated.
Books are valuable because they enable a reader to sit by himself or herself, to be alone with thoughts and experiences and yet not feel lonely. Indeed, the book -- whether history, novel, poetry, or biography -- brings human beings into the circle of humanity, connecting them with strangers, outcasts, and outsiders like themselves. Books create communities across time and across space.
Books also require a certain degree of maturity. Reading on one's own, demands self-discipline. Today's generation of students, like many others in the society, has been infantilized. Going to Disneyland is often the most sought after experience in their lives, and they not only go once but again and again. For the most part, they are prisoners of their own childhoods. Moreover, they have not detached from their own parents emotionally and psychologically. Many can't detach financially. They're forced by economic necessity to live at home and to be supported by parents. Reading is part of the generation gap today, and divides people over the age of, say, 40, from people under the age of 40.
The closer one gets to 20 the closer one gets to the world of alliterates -- people who can read, but choose not to. These alliterates especially choose not to read books assigned to them. When they do read fiction it is often in the summer or over holidays and surprisingly they read novels such as Huxley's Brave New World, and Kerouac's On the Road, though they're also partial to the Harry Potter books that keep them in the world of childhood and do not move them ahead into the world of adulthood. Sadly, they do not have a book that speaks to their generation, as books from the past such as On the Road, and The Catcher in the Rye, or Cat's Cradle spoke directly to earlier generations.
Many of them will probably grow up never reading books. Others will read as they mature, as they feel the need to discover who they are and to be alone with their private selves without feeling lonely. Their privacy has largely been taken away from them online; books may well prove to be a way for them to find a road back to privacy and individuality.
[ed. The word "bookstores" in the fifth paragraph was mispelled ("book stores") -- the copy editors missed the error. Sorry! (Correction made on June 6, 2011.)]
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About the Author
Jonah Raskin teaches in the communication studies department at Sonoma State University in California and is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine and The Mythology of Imperialism: A revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age. He lived and taught in Belgium in the 1980s. He also worked in Hollywood in the 1980s and wrote the story for the movie Homegrown. To learn more about Jonah, please read his entry on Wikipedia. (back)