I ran across a provocative commentary “on stupidity” today by a Hope College English professor. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, he argued that students don’t appear to be quite as sharp as they used to be — at least in respect to things such as independent thinking, following or making extended analytical arguments, and making cogent, fact-based assessments. William Pannapacker’s riff was triggered in part by a flurry of new books. They maintain (in his words) “that Americans, particularly those now entering college, have been rendered ‘stupid’ by a convergence of factors including traditional anti-intellectualism, consumer culture, the entertainment industry, political correctness, religious fundamentalism, and post-modern relativism, just to name some of the usual suspects.”

I want to float another possible factor: illiteracy.

I don’t mean to suggest that today’s collegians can’t read. They just don’t. By choice.

It’s a disturbing trend and one, unfortunately, that I’ve witnessed first-hand.

As journalists, my husband and I read voraciously. Some of it’s for the job, but much of it is just to enjoy parts of the world we haven’t visited, insights of people we haven’t met, and excursions into adventure or drama that novelists have mapped for us. Our home must house several thousand tomes (clearly more than we’ll ever read), and new volumes just keep sneaking in to pile up in bookcases, underneath the nightstand, atop the breakfast-room radiator, and in untold boxes down in the basement. But for all this, our daughter has remained fairly apathetic to the printed word, at least when it comes packaged in volumes holding 10,000 words or more.

It’s not like she wasn’t introduced to books at an early age. Even as a toddler, she had one of the biggest book collections of any child I’ve ever met. And we read to her all the time. She liked that — having someone deliver the stories to her. But once she was able to read, she exhibited little interest in perusing a book on her own.

I learned to write — that is, to become a wordsmith — through encounters with the language I found in books. From the time I learned to read, I zipped through book after book and asked the public library for more. I got special permission to check out novels from outside the children’s collection at our town library when I was in second grade — because I’d convinced them I could read the “adult” books and that I’d already devoured anything of interest in the kids’ wing. But try as I might, I couldn’t get my child to share my enthusiasm for the printed word.

My daughter’s argument: “Mom, books are just so boring.”

The schools tried. But the tail end of Generation Next found ways to subvert the system. They graduated with an appreciation of the IM and texting shorthand that drives us elders crazy.

Recently, I’ve begun an informal survey of academics across the country. The bad news: They’re witnessing the same antipathy to reading.

One WashingtonState marine scientist told me last year that she found her students unwilling to do her assigned readings. They just refuse. This trend started about five years ago, she says, and remains in force. And the leading edge of this brigade has now entered grad school.

“How,” she asked in frustration, “can we produce first-rate scientists in this country when our students won’t read?” As we ruminated on what appeared to have turned a generation off to print, she offered up one speculation: that the fast-paced, multi-media and multi-tasking lifestyle of today’s youth might have essentially rewired their brains in such a way that they now find reading too static and leaden.

A Michigan psychologist told me she had one daughter who loved to read and two sons who eschew books. Indeed, she said, her daughter seems anomalous when compared to students she encounters in her classroom — ones who prefer learning through videos, face-to-face tutorials, and short forays to online sites.

My next-door neighbor is a tenured prof at a very highly ranked university in Washington, D.C. He too, has encountered an antipathy to reading in his undergraduate science students. It so irks him that he’s taken to choosing some 15 to 25 percent of the questions for major tests from assigned readings. This is material that he never covered directly in lectures. Routinely, he says, all but a few students bomb out on these questions. Some petition for a redo, pointing out that he never covered this material. A few have even sought help from their parents, who have put pressure on my neighbor through his department head.

His colleagues have largely caved, he says. They tell students in lectures what to expect on the tests to avoid censure from their school’s administrators and irate parents of students aspiring to one day enter med school. My neighbor shrugs his shoulders and says sadly, it’s an uphill battle. He continues to carry the reputation as “the mean one” — that teacher who forces students to read or risk a C.

I commend him for continuing to fight the good fight.

FOOTNOTE: Wonder of wonders, my daughter recently proclaimed an “epiphany” (leading me to wonder, where did she pick up that word, except from books or actually listening to mom): “There are some science books that are really cool. They have this stuff that you can’t even find online!”


This revelation comes not a minute too soon. She’s just changed her major to biochem. Which means, like it or not, she’s going to have to hit the books big time this year and next. Another optimistic sign, I found she’d packed two novels for our recent trip to Alaska. I’m assuming this mean she’s actually discovered recreational reading.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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