I sat in my office chair and reflected on what had just happened. It is not like this does not happen often (because it does) but sometimes you are hit right between the eyes with it. My students had just enlightened me.
Often in my seminar course, where I am seated and sharing equally in the lessons the Great Conversation teaches us all, I learn new things from Plato, Augustine, or Camus. In my literature courses as well, the students find things I have never seen. But this time it was a Freshman!
My course for the Freshmen introduces them into the Intellectual Life and teaches them the basic skills to thrive in high school and college. We play around with such basic skills as reading, writing, speaking, and listening. It is a class where I feel “safe” with the subject material. And yet, on this day, the clouds parted and light poured in.
” I think you are selling something none of us want to buy.”
The student was unblinking and bold as he stated what it seemed to him the majority of his classmates were thinking. We had been discussing reading and why it is so central to the Intellectual Life, and perhaps, all of life. I had poured out my passion for reading, and books, and ideas, and learning, and…and…then this bald statement. The wind kind of came out of the sails.
“What do you mean by that?” I was convinced that if he rethought his statement, he would see the error. But instead, he and his classmates began answering the question in spades.
“Of what real value is reading in today’s world?”
“Who needs to read anything when you can Google it?”
“What job requires reading?”
That is when the light struck me in the eyes. Our modern world makes little of reading. When I was young (and dinosaurs threatened my extinction), there was tremendous guilt for the young person who did not read. He or she would hide or disguise their lack of reading. Now the tables seem to be turned. Reading for any prolonged period of time is mostly seen as either recreational or utilitarian. “Of course I will read if it will bring me some monetary benefit.” But don’t hurt yourself reading more than you have to; keep this to a minimum. Read smart. Those on the cutting edge will let SparkNotes do the heavy reading for them and they get the gist in bulleted points. Most of what we as adults model to young people is how to read as little as possible, not how to read more and better. Far too many of us (and I hope you note I am including myself here) read a title or half a sentence and then click on to the next thing.
So did this moment destroy my passion for teaching students to read? No. But it sure helped me see more clearly that such instruction is more and more a counter-cultural activity, not something to be assumed. I had answers to the questions they raised, but the fact that they are now being raised when they really were not even questions in my youth helped me learn a lesson I hope I never forget: learning is as much about what we love as what we know. We are what we love.