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Book Club

 
 

Over the holidays, an article in the Washington Post cited a report from the National Center for Education Statistics concerning the reading skills of college graduates (Literacy of College Graduates is on Decline by Lois Romano, December 25, 2005, A12).

From time to time, various commentators enage in overwrought hand-wringing about the state of knowledge among today’s students. Many of the so-called “studies” that inform those opinions are little more than the kind of amusing-but-stupid interviews that Jay Leno pops on the willfully clueless denizens of Sunset Boulevard (Who is Christopher Columbus? Um, uh, isn’t he on “Desperate Housewives?” etc.)

But the NCES report is different, first, because it comes from a respectable group of researchers, and, second, because it illuminates an issue that most educators are confronting quite seriously in various ways today. Reading ability is fundamental, absolutely essential to almost all other forms of academic success, from writing to speaking to analysis, even to quantitative abilities. Reading is the bedrock of an advanced democracy. And reading is in critical condition among many citizens today.

The report assessed the reading comprehension abilities of 19,000 adults on everyday reading tasks, like reading labels and analyzing routine data. Fewer than half of the college and graduate students were proficient in these tasks — indeed, the 31% “proficient” score for college students was ten points lower than the 1992 score.

Romano’s article goes on to quote “experts and educators” who describe themselves as “stunned” by the results which one librarian deemed “appalling — really astounding.” Romano goes on, “Experts could not definitively explain the drop” in the scores of college graduates from 40% to 31% on reading proficiency.

At that point, I said to myself, “Oh, come on!” That “Shocked! Shocked!” tone seems like we doth protest too much. Of course we know why reading proficiency is a problem today. Through more than five decades, the video/audio mode of communication and learning has overtaken text as the primary method for knowledge acquisition. Technology has come at us so fast that we are still arguing about text versus video in an age when librarians, themselves, are leading the way through the radical paradigm shift in how human beings acquire information. When we envision new libraries now we talk more about bandwith than bookshelves.

Now, I’m no curmudgeon, being an insatiable devotee of just about every new technology within months of release. I believe deeply in the need for technology-infused education. But I also know that technology has a more troublesome side in the way that the essential skill and habit of reading (and the way in which reading develops the brain’s power of imagination and familiarity with language vocabulary, form and style that is essential for good writing) has been displaced by faster, dazzling, more entertaining visual delights. We are in a free-fall age when it comes to reading and learning; we have not yet found the balance between the dazzling power of technology and the elegant, essential nature of words in text as the ultimate manifestation of human intellect.

Like all boomers, I was educated in the early days of school A/V — I will date myself dreadfully when I admit to remembering hand-turned filmstrips in grade school (but I was a few years past the “magic lantern” years of earlier classroom projection). Today, of course, a filmstrip, a movie on a big reel, even a VCR and tape seem as antiquated in classrooms as quill pens — and even chalk. The modern classroom must haves include Smartboards and significantly advanced projection and audio capacity for cross-platform tools — DVDs, flash media, cable, wifi, and now, HDTV or the next new thing.

Students, of course, “must have” a stash of the latest electronics, and even universities have been known to issue iPods and Blackberries to new students in the hope that these devices would entice learners to pay attention. Yes, the student must be able to read, at the very least to follow instructions to download tunes or upload messages in the new language of instant messaging — btw r u :) or (: or lol about this? imho more like {:

But real reading…. like real writing… requires some additional tools that seem in very short supply in modern life.

First, reading requires time. In modern life, though, the idea of sitting with a book for an hour or two is seen as unproductive, even slothful, something we dream of doing at some leisure moment. We don’t think anything of spending two hours at the keyboard, or watching a movie. But reading in the corner for an hour — how curious, is there something the matter with you?

Second, reading requires quiet, even silence. Where do we teach children to enjoy the kind of quiet solitude that helps them to understand the text in front of them? The calm, the quiet of the reading mode runs counter to the modern fascination with earbuds and itunes.

Third — breaking that silence in a good way — learning to read also requires the spoken word in the best learning context. Reading aloud to children is a long-proven method for promoting good reading abilities and habits later in life. How many adults take the time to read to their children or other children on a consistent basis? (Good heavens, we might miss another episode of CSI!)

At Trinity, the faculty are clearly devoted to ensuring proficient reading, writing, quantitative and analytical skills in students. But the deficiencies of elementary and secondary education sometimes overwhelm even the most earnest student and most devoted teacher. The problem of reading cannot be solved at the collegiate level — reading proficiency must begin in the earliest classrooms.

Trinity’s faculty also knows that even at the collegiate level, the teachers must be good role models for students when it comes to reading. So, the faculty conduct a monthly book club that has become quite popular among faculty and staff — and even students are welcome to participate. The book club has the added benefit of promoting a great deal of interdisciplinary conversation that enlivens thinking about curricula and and course development.

My own devotion to books means that at any given time, I probably have a half dozen books in various stages of completion or re-reading (presently: Alice Hogge’s God’s Secret Agents: Queen Elizabeth’s Secret Priests and the Hatching of the Gunpowder Plot; Candice Millard’s River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey; Joseph Ellis’ Founding Brothers; Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven; Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran). I recommend them all. Whatever isn’t finished by June goes with me to the Adirondacks where, for two glorious weeks, I indulge completely in the stealthy pleasure of sitting for hours …… and just reading. Imagine!

Other blogs on topics in education:

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: president@trinitydc.edu