NEWSFLASH: College Students Don’t Read, Can’t Write

Those of us who teach freshman comp know this already. We say it over and over. Now, not only do corporations who do the hiring and the annual college freshman survey confirm this, but so does the National Endowment for the Arts (again).

The findings, via The Washington Post:

The NEA reports that in 2006, 15-to-24-year-olds spent just 7 to 10 minutes a day voluntarily reading anything at all. It also notes that between 1992 and 2003, the percentage of college graduates who tested as “proficient in reading prose” declined from 40 percent to 31 percent.

In addition to presenting data on how much and how well Americans read, Iyengar said, the NEA set out to address the “so what?” question often asked in the wake of its earlier report.

Here is some of what it found:

Thirty-eight percent of employers rate high school graduates as “deficient” in reading comprehension, while 72 percent rate them deficient in writing. Good reading skills correlate strongly with higher earnings and more job opportunities. Reading skills also correlate with increased voting, volunteerism, charity work, attendance at cultural events and even exercising and playing sports.

“This is not a study about literary reading,” Gioia said. It’s a study about reading of any sort and “what the consequences of doing it well or doing it badly are.” In an increasingly competitive world, the consequences of doing it badly include “economic decline.”

Need I remind you, gentle reader, that Gioia made his fortune as a captain of industry? The problem becomes this: How do we, on the front lines, translate this information into terms that blatantly mercenary and simplistically utilitarian (yet criminally underprepared) freshmen bent on CEO-dom can understand?

Here’s the thinking of adultolescents at Average State U., Anytown, U.S.A., in their own words:

“This is completely useless information (in my major).” (No information is useless, even if it does not serve your preconceived and ill-informed notion of utility.)

“Why do I need to know grammar and spelling? I’m gonna have a secretary to do that for me!” (No, son. As the new hire, you are going to bring the secretary her coffee. You are going to learn the hard way that you, not she, are the peon. You are going to depend on her for that first promotion, so don’t treat her like a waitron.)

“Nobody reads (books) anymore.” (So you’re saying that you know no one who reads books? How sad for you.)

“I’m not going to get a job by knowing (Shakespeare, poetry, how to write an essay).” (Perhaps. However, it is almost guaranteed that you will not get the job you want without knowing Shakespeare, poetry, how to write an essay.)

“Why should I bother reading a book when I can look up everything on Wikipedia?” (Why should anyone bother taking the advice of an anonymous herd of amateurs over the knowledge of experts in the field?)

“Why should I bother writing when I can get a paper from (, my sorority/fraternity, my roommate)?” (Why are you in college at all? You’re taking up valuable space.)

By comparison, I dare you to count how many hours these same kids spend on Facebook, chat programs, and similarly advertising-driven products. That would be akin to us old farts from the New Wave era spending 12 hours or more in the clubs and one hour or less on all our undergraduate homework, when computers were for 1) word-processing, if you were lucky enough to have a computer of your own, and 2) speedy searches of the card catalogue, which stood by in all its index-card glory as silent backup.

The difference is that we are still creatures of the book. It’s facile to blame the GUI web and the locker room/high school hallway that is MySpace for this anti-literacy, but I feel these are symptoms, not causes. Instead, I blame larger cultural forces of anti-intellectualism and state-imposed conformity, most particularly dating from Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign and the simultaneous hijacking of local school boards by religious fanatics and right-wing ideologues. Thirty-some years of a culture of fear, of Big Brotherism, is more than enough.

Witness also the simultaneous worship of appearance over substance. It’s more important to look the part than to BE the part. Ostentatious displays of consumerism are mistaken for evidence of wealth and success.

Then there’s the helicopter parent who is what we’d call dysfunctionally enmeshed with the adult child. It’s not pathetic enough that they want to micromanage their adult children’s college coursework; now they go to Johnny’s interview and quiz the HR person about 401(k) plans and vacation time. That inappropriately-overused word “inappropriate” appropriately comes to mind here.

The recent controversy over Bomani’s “Read A Book” parody that ran with animation that poked fun at stereotypes (see a heated discussion, part 1 and part 2, on CNN) is itself an example of how this generation has been deprogrammed to read any text on other than its literal level.

This is the generation of children whose parents were similarly unable to comprehend the irony in Gekko’s “Wall Street” mantra “Greed is good,” and who instead adopted it as their personal creed.

People, wake up. The leaders who actually RUN things know how to read on a deeper level than the voodoo preached by “Hooked on Phonics.” They understand the value of being able to construct a coherent sentence. They have already learned from literature–not merely from its themes or tropes or “morals,” but also from its grace, its forms, its power. If you think that that can’t be measured by a standardized test, try the GRE Subject Exam in Literature in English. Better yet, ask yourself who is writing the test question pool and what his or her qualifications are to do that job. Ask whether you could pass an oral exam on Beowulf, or on Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, or on the meaning of irony.

A nation that cannot–or will not–read is a nation that will be led by tyrants, criminals, and fools. If you have trouble reading between the lines, let me spell it out for you: This is why we are in Iraq, why the stock market is going south on the express train, and why you will be working at McDonald’s with that bachelor’s degree–unless you start aggressively reading something other than MySpace pages, ghostwritten celebrity “auto”biographies, and mispunctuated billboard twaddle.


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