Thursday, February 23, 2006

Why They Don't Read

Looking at that last post, I think I may have misrepresented my students, who I would like to stress, I am not criticizing here. I'm taking their non-reading as a fact that we have to deal with, not as a flaw in their character. I should basically explain them a bit better. They do not read for a number of reasons.

The most popular, of course, was that "reading is just not interesting." Of course, you have to remember that teenagers are essentially bored by everything. But again, reading has become a fairly vestigial part of modern life. And this is not just true of American life, if my encounters in Ontario libraries are indicative of Canadian reading trends. So, reading is more of an off-beat hobby- like fly fishing or stamp collecting. This naturally makes it difficult to convince students that reading can actually be an exciting, intensely transformative experience.

But, another reason students, and adults, also don't read is that reading takes time, and most people today seem convinced that they have no time for anything. A Reuters story headline reads "Americans work more, seem to accomplish less". The text:

"'Technology has sped everything up and, by speeding everything up, it's slowed everything down, paradoxically,' said John Challenger, chief executive of Chicago-based outplacement consultants Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

"We never concentrate on one task anymore. You take a little chip out of it, and then you're on to the next thing," Challenger said on Wednesday. "It's harder to feel like you're accomplishing something.'"

Increasingly, it has become obvious to me that we desperately need to de-technologize our lives and physical spaces. However, most people work jobs that dictate to them that they cannot un-wire, or have time to themselves for that matter. Many students work full-time as well, and it's hard to tell them that they should take up a habit that future life will deny them.

Then, of course, many of them have a general inability to read well. The factory process that has been applied in High Schools simply has not prepared them to read books. And, I suspect that they tend to have the sort of generally-distant, but highly indulgent "cool parents" that aren't able or willing to get them reading at a young age. So, it's up to the schools. Clearly, both schools and parents are failing, and I'm not at all convinced that standardized testing is helping. When we get so many students who are not able to get the meaning out of even the most brief texts, and by my estimation, %50 cannot, something has failed dramatically. One might ask how they got into college, and I'm guessing the administration might say: "Their money is green."

So, reading is boring, takes too much time, and is entirely too difficult to do, according to my students. Naturally, I have to ignore these claims entirely in order to do my job well. And, I'm sure that I have some students who read, but it's not hyperbolic to suggest that they're %5-10 at best. Of course, we will keep assigning them readings and failing them on tests when we see no knowledge of the readings.

But, again I ask, where should we go from here?


Hiromi said...

According to AC Nielsen, the average American watches almost 4 hours of TV DAILY. Daily!!! So it seems to me that Americans, at least, *do* have free time to spare, on average.

There's an increasing variety of media competing for our attention, and it seems to me that reading is losing out. I don't know the reason for it, but I do know that it depresses the hell out of me.

Rufus said...

Yeah, I think we need to realize that the media environment has left this generation cut off from much of the older culture and overwhelmed by all sorts of shiny new things. I think the Internet reduces patience for one thing. But, then you have cell phones, blackberries and God knows what else vying for people's attentions, and it becomes more obvious why slower mediums like newspapers or books are dying out.