We Can't Teach Students to Love Reading
We Can't Teach Students to Love Reading
By Alan Jacobs, Chronicle of Higher Education, 7/31/2011 - original
While virtually anyone who wants to do so can train his or her brain to the habits of long-form reading, in any given culture, few people will want to. And that's to be expected. Serious "deep attention" reading has always been and will always be a minority pursuit, a fact that has been obscured in the past half-century, especially in the United States, by the dramatic increase in the percentage of the population attending college, and by the idea (only about 150 years old) that modern literature in vernacular languages should be taught at the university level.

At the beginning of the 20th century, perhaps 2 percent of Americans attended a university; now the number is closer to 70 percent (though only about 30 percent get bachelor's degrees). A particularly sharp acceleration occurred in the years after 1945, when the GI Bill enabled soldiers returning from World War II to attend college for free, thus leading universities across the country to throw up quonset huts for classrooms, and English professors to figure out how to teach 40 students at a time, rather than 11, how to read sonnets. (And those GI's wanted their children to have the same educational opportunities they had, or better ones.) These changes have had enormous social consequences, but for our purposes here, the one that matters is this: From 1945 to 2000, or thereabouts, far more people than ever before in human history were expected to read, understand, appreciate, and even enjoy books.

In 2005, Wendy Griswold, Terry McDonnell, and Nathan Wright, sociologists from Northwestern University, published a paper concluding that while there was a period in which extraordinarily many Americans practiced long-form reading, whether they liked it or not, that period was indeed extraordinary and not sustainable in the long run. "We are now seeing such reading return to its former social base: a self-perpetuating minority that we shall call the reading class."

I don't think of the distinction between readers and nonreaders—better, those who love reading and those who don't so much—in terms of class, which may be a function of my being a teacher of literature rather than a sociologist, but may also be a function of my knowledge that readers can be found at all social stations. But whatever designations we want to use, it has to be admitted that much of the anxiety about American reading habits, and those in other developed nations to a lesser degree, arises from frustration at not being able to sustain a permanent expansion of "the reading class" beyond what may be its natural limits.

The extreme reader, to coin a phrase, is a rare bird indeed. ("I have done what people do, my life makes a reasonable showing," Lynne Sharon Schwartz writes. "Can I go back to my books now?") Such people are born, not made, I think; or mostly born and only a little made. They take care of themselves; they always do go back to their books. They come out of the woodwork when Clay Shirky says that War and Peace isn't interesting to reply that, to the contrary, it's immensely interesting, fascinating, absorbing, and by the way, Mr. Shirky, have you ever tried reading it or are you speaking out of ignorance?—and then back to their books they go.

Those are my tribe, but they are few. It is more common to come across the person who has known the joys of reading but who can be distracted from them. But even those folks are a small percentage of the population.

American universities are largely populated by people who don't fit either of these categories—often really smart people for whom the prospect of several hours attending to words on pages (pages of a single text) is not attractive. For lovers of books and reading, and especially for those of us who become teachers, this fact can be painful and frustrating. We love reading, we think it's wonderful, and we want other people to think so, too. "What we have loved,/Others will love," wrote Wordsworth, "and we will teach them how." A noble sentiment! Inspiring! But what if, after great labor, we discover—this often happens—that we can't teach them how? Whose fault is that?

Perhaps it isn't anyone's fault. Steven Pinker once said that "Children are wired for sound, but print is an optional accessory that must be painstakingly bolted on." The key here is "painstakingly": There can be many pains, in multiple senses of the word, for all parties involved, and it cannot be surprising that many of the recipients of the bolting aren't overly appreciative, and that even those who are appreciative don't find the procedure notably pleasant. So it's important to dissociate reading from academic life, not just because teachers and professors make reading so much more dutiful and good-for-you than it ought to be, but also because the whole environment of school is simply alien to what long-form reading has been for almost all of its history.

Rarely has education been about teaching children, adolescents, or young adults how to read lengthy and complicated texts with sustained, deep, appreciative attention—at least, not since the invention of the printing press. When books were scarce, the situation was different: The North African boy who later became known to history as St. Augustine spent countless hours of his education poring over, analyzing word by word, and memorizing a handful of books, most of them by Virgil and Cicero; this model was followed largely because no one had many books, so each one was treated as precious. Augustine's biographer Peter Brown has commented that some of Augustine's intellectual eccentricities are the product of "a mind steeped too long in too few books"—something that can be said of almost nobody today.

Even after Gutenberg, this assumption of scarcity persisted, as George Steiner has noted in an anecdote about one of the leading scholars of the Renaissance: "The tale is told of how Erasmus, walking home on a foul night, glimpsed a tiny fragment of print in the mire. He bent down, seized upon it and lifted it to a flickering light with a cry of thankful joy. Here was a miracle."

But as the historian Ann Blair explains in Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age, the printing press ushered in an age of information overload. In the 17th century, one French scholar cried out, "We have reason to fear that the multitude of books which grows every day in a prodigious fashion will make the following centuries fall into a state as barbarous as that of the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire." Such will be our fate "unless we try to prevent this danger by separating those books which we must throw out or leave in oblivion from those which one should save and within the latter between what is useful and what is not."

So what did those poor deluged people do? Well, they adopted several strategies. First, they practiced various ways of marking important passages in books: with special symbols, with slips of paper, and so on. Then they came up with various ways of organizing books: There were now so many that figuring out how to arrange them became quite a puzzle, so the learned began debates on this subject that would culminate in the creation of the great Dewey Decimal Classification.

One of the most widely quoted sentences of Sir Francis Bacon—it comes from his essay "Of Studies"—concerns the reading of books: "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention." This is usually taken as a wise or sententious general comment about the worthiness of various texts, but Ann Blair shows that Bacon was making a very practical recommendation to people who were overwhelmed by the availability of books and couldn't imagine how they were going to read them all. Bacon tells such worried folks that they can't read them all, and so should develop strategies of discernment that enable them to make wise decisions about how to invest their time. I think Bacon would have applauded Clay Shirky's comment that we suffer not from "information overload" but from "filter failure." Bacon's famous sentence is really a strategy for filtering.

Blair also points out that certain enterprising scholars recognized that this information overload created a market for reference works and books that claimed to summarize important texts—We read the books so you don't have to!—or promised to teach techniques for the rapid assimilation of knowledge. But serious scholars like Meric Casaubon denounced the search for "a shorter way" to learning, insisting that "the best method to learning ... is indefatigable (soe farr as the bodie will beare) industrie, and assiduitie, in reading good authors, such as have had the approbation of all learned ages." No shortcuts allowed.

All this should sound familiar: Casaubon might be a professor today warning students against Wikipedia, and it turns out that every era has its intellectual hucksters willing to sell knowledge on the cheap to the panicky or lazy. But perhaps especially noteworthy is Bacon's acknowledgment that there is a place for what Katherine Hayles would call "hyper attention" as well as "deep attention." Some books don't need to be read with patience and care; at times it's OK, even necessary, to skim (merely to "taste" rather than to ruminate). And as Shreeharsh Kelkar, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has pointed out, "To be successful today, it not only becomes necessary to skim, but it becomes essential to skim well."

Except in those cultures in which books have been scarce, like Augustine's Roman North Africa, the aims of education have often focused, though rarely explicitly so, on the skills of skimming well. Peter Norvig says: "When the only information on the topic is a handful of essays or books, the best strategy is to read these works with total concentration. But when you have access to thousands of articles, blogs, videos, and people with expertise on the topic, a good strategy is to skim first to get an overview. Skimming and concentrating can and should coexist." Norvig is research director at Google, so he might be expected to say something like this, but I still think he's right—except, I would argue, concentrating has rarely received equal billing with skimming.

Rarely have young people been expected to have truly deep knowledge of particular texts. Instead, education, especially in its "liberal arts" embodiments, has been devoted to providing students with navigational tools—with enough knowledge to find their way through situations that they might confront later in life. (Even the old English public schools flogged their students through years of Latin and Greek not because Latin and Greek were intrinsically valuable, still less useful, but because the discipline of such study would have a salutary effect on young men's characters. And these are the terms in which survivors of that system typically praise it.) This is one of the ways in which the artes liberales are supposed to be "liberal," that is, "liberating": They free you to make your own way through the challenges of life without requiring external props.

All this is to say that the idea that many teachers hold today, that one of the purposes of education is to teach students to love reading—or at least to appreciate and enjoy whole books—is largely alien to the history of education. And perhaps alien to the history of reading as well. A chief theme of Jonathan Rose's magisterial The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes is that the culture of reading among those classes was more dynamic, more impassioned, before the study of English literature was incorporated into the general curriculum of English schools (in the wake of the Education Act of 1870).

Rose's book is largely a celebration of autodidacticism, of people whose reading—and especially the reading of classic texts, from Homer to Dante to Shakespeare to the great Romantic poets—wasn't imposed on them by anyone, and who often had to overcome significant social obstacles in order to read. "The autodidacts' mission statement," Rose writes, was "to be more than passive consumers of literature, to be active thinkers and writers. Those who proclaimed that 'knowledge is power' meant that the only true education is self-education, and they often regarded the expansion of formal educational opportunities with suspicion."

The academic study of literature is a wonderful thing, and not just because it has paid my salary for most of my adult life, but it is not an unmixed blessing, and teachers will rarely find it possible simply to inculcate the practices of deeply attentive reading.

Over the past 150 years, it has become increasingly difficult to extricate reading from academic expectations; but I believe that such extrication is necessary. Education is and should be primarily about intellectual navigation, about—I scruple not to say it—skimming well, and reading carefully for information in order to upload content. Slow and patient reading, by contrast, properly belongs to our leisure hours.

Yes, I know that the word "school" derives from scholia, meaning leisure. I have tried that one on my students, with no more success than anyone else who has ever tried that one on students. When we say that education is a leisure activity, we simply mean that you can only pursue education if you are temporarily freed from the responsibility of providing yourself with food and shelter. Maybe this freedom comes from your parents; maybe it comes from loans that you're going to devote a good many years to repaying. But somebody is buying you time to read, think, and study. This is not just a legitimate but a vital point, one that every student really should remember. But it can only be misleading and frustrating—trust me, I've learned from experience—to call this leisure, because leisure for us has come to mean "what we do in our spare time simply because we want to." From this kind of leisurely encounter, education, however wonderful, must be distinguished.

There is a kind of attentiveness proper to school, to purposeful learning of all kinds, but in general it is closer to "hyper attention" than to "deep attention." I would argue that even reading for information—reading textbooks and the like—does not require extended unbroken focus. It requires discipline but not raptness, I think: The crammer chains himself to the textbook because of time pressures, not because the book itself requires unbroken concentration. Given world enough and time, the harried student could read for a while, do something else, come back and refresh his memory, take another break ... but the reader of even the most intellectually demanding work of literary art would lose a great deal by following such tactics. No novel or play or long poem will offer its full rewards to someone who consumes it in small chunks and crumbs. The attention it demands is the deep kind.

I am not at all sure that deep attention to anything in particular can be taught in a straightforward way: It may, perhaps, only arise from within, according to some inexplicable internal necessity of being. Some people—many people—most people—will not experience that internal necessity of being in books, in texts. But for people like Erasmus (with his "cry of thankful joy" on spying a fragment of print) or Lynne Sharon Schwartz ("Can I get back to my books now?"), books are the natural and inevitable and permanent means of being absorbed in something other than the self.

But then there are the people Nicholas Carr writes about in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, and Carr himself: people who know what it is like to be lost in a book, who value that experience, but who have misplaced it—who can't get back, as Lucy Pevensie for a time can't get back to Narnia; what was an opening to another world is now the flat planked back of a wardrobe. They're the ones who need help, and want it, and are prepared to receive it.

I had become one of those people myself, or was well on my way to it, when I was rescued through the novelty of reading on a Kindle. My hyper-attentive habits were alienating me further and further from the much older and (one would have thought) more firmly established habits of deep attention. I was rapidly becoming a victim of my own mind's plasticity, until a new technology helped me to remember how to do something that for years had been instinctive, unconscious, natural.

I don't know whether an adult who has never practiced deep attention—who has never seriously read for information or for understanding, or even for delight—can learn how. Some current college students will not have had those experiences, and it would be futile and painful to expect them to read as most of their teachers have read.

But I'm confident that those who have had this facility can recover it: They just have to want that recovery enough to make sacrifices for it, something they will only do if they can vividly recall what that experience was like. And it may be that one of the better services teachers can provide for students today is to awaken those good memories whenever they exist.

Alan Jacobs is a professor of English at Wheaton College. This article is excerpted from his book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Oxford University Press, 2011).