Why Johnny Can't Read Now; An Elegy: Week #47 of 52 Mini-Essays Project
On the decline of college literacy and generational dread
This essay originally appeared on 3 Quarks Daily.
About a third of the way through a first-year humanities honors course, one of my more engaged and talkative students pulled me aside after class for a private chat. She waited, clearly anxious, while the rest of her classmates filed out and then turned to me with her eyes already filling up with tears.
“I can’t read,” she said, her voice shaking.
I waited for her to elaborate, but nothing else was coming out. “Do you mean you’re having trouble finding time to do the assigned reading?” I ventured.
“No. I mean, yes, I am, but that’s not what I mean. I’m trying to read Pride and Prejudice, I really am, but I don’t understand it.”
“Yes, well, as I’ve explained the language is antiquated and it takes some time to—”
“No, no!” she cried impatiently. “I know that. I mean I don’t know how to read a novel, a whole book. I can’t concentrate on it; my mind wanders. And then I can’t remember what happened, and I feel lost. It doesn’t make any sense to me. I just … can’t read,” she trailed off.
I clucked sympathetically as I tried to figure out what on earth to say.
“I’ve called my mom a bunch of times and cried on the phone to her. I am just so embarrassed. She said I should talk to you. Also, she suggested I listen to the audiobook. But I mean, is that cheating?”
I seized on the idea like a lifeline. “No, that would be fine,” I reassured her. “I suggest that you do both, though—listen to the audiobook as you’re following along with the text, so that you can eventually get better at comprehension.”
She was grateful; I gave her some tips on dealing with distractions and suggested she work with a tutor; she struggled through Jane Austen; tragedy and disaster were both averted. She got a little better at reading the assigned texts but continued to worry that it didn’t come naturally or easily to her.
This was an honors student.
Around the same time that this conversation took place, a colleague at a mid-range liberal arts college told me about a graduating English major who confessed that he had never read an entire book. Not a single assigned novel, play, or collection of short stories or poetry. Not in college, high school, or middle school. Ever. Dumbfounded, my friend asked how he had managed to get by in school this whole time (again, as an English major) and he explained that he would read on-line summaries from sites like Spark Notes, listen to parts of the texts being read aloud on YouTube, and watch film and TV adaptations of the classics. He would pay attention and take notes in class, which gave him enough information to write plausible papers—and sometimes he paid to have papers written for him. He was confessing right before graduation because the situation had been weighing on him and he needed to come clean.
It might be tempting to dismiss these cases as bizarre anomalies, but in my experience these students now represent the rule rather than the exception. I am not a literacy expert, but I have been teaching literature and writing to college students since I started grad school over 30 years ago. I have had seven full-time faculty jobs, four of them tenure-track and three contingent, and have been tenured in two different departments. I have taught at colleges and universities small and large, public and private, rich and … challenged, in the U.S. and Canada. By my count I have now taught well over a hundred individual classes to thousands of students and graded tens of thousands of undergraduate papers and exams. Furthermore, while I have not designed and implemented any formal studies, I have been relentlessly grilling my colleagues, at many different institutions, about their teaching experiences for the past several years. I have had dozens of in-depth conversations, and hundreds more casual ones, with fellow humanities professors about their impressions of their students’ work. I have polled fellow academics on social media. And most importantly, I’ve had multiple discussions with my own students about the phenomena I am about to report.
The bottom line: the young people are struggling to read.
By “young people” I mean your average undergraduate student enrolled at an institution of higher learning in the past 5 to 10 years. By “struggling” I refer to both self-reported difficulty and objective professorial assessment. And by “read” I mean the ability to run one’s eyes over printed material and absorb, understand, and remember it, without stopping every 15 seconds to look at TikTok.
Of course there are outliers: wonky geniuses obsessed with the juvenilia of the Brontës, graphic novel nerds, budding sonneteers, Society for Creative Anachronism apprentice jousters. There are always outliers—or we wouldn’t have The Secret History and all those hokey movies about charismatic professors set at snow-encrusted liberal arts colleges. If you’re a teacher reading this, you know the kind of student I mean: the ones who pull you aside after class to tell you how much you inspired them and you think, “Kid, you inspired yourself.” And since every phenomenon in the entire universe can be plotted on a bell curve, we must acknowledge that there has always been a fringe of students who are fundamentally unprepared for university and struggle to read difficult texts and to write effective papers. No, what I (and everyone I know) is talking about now is a seismic shift in the preparedness, study skills, attention spans, and reading comprehension of the average college student, across the board.
While most students who make it to college still possess the technical capability to decipher written words and understand their meaning, their ability to process and comprehend longer, complex, dense, and challenging material has severely eroded. Every single humanities and social sciences professor I know—those teaching in disciplines requiring lots of reading—has drastically curtailed the amount of text they ask their students to read over the course of the past decade or so. For a long time I resisted—I specialize in the Victorian novel, and there are only so many ways you can get around asking students in such classes to read gobs of fiction—but I have started cutting back in recent years, too. A lot. Not for pedagogical reasons but rather in self-defense: I have learned the hard way that if I don’t want to have a miserable experience teaching over-taxed, resentful students who will give the course (and me) terrible evaluations at the end of the semester, I will also assign much less reading than I used to (and also grade their writing much more leniently—but that is a topic for another essay).
While all the college professors I know agree that this is a noticeable and dramatic shift, opinion is divided on the question of whether the transformation is due primarily to the pandemic lockdown or is simply part of a larger trend that’s been unrolling for years. The factors making up that larger trend would include the increasing pressure on students to work outside of school in order to pay for their (criminally expensive) educations—I have spoken to multiple students who are holding down full-time jobs while trying to be a full-time student—incentives to take more courses per semester in order to finish faster and get out there earning money, and the fact that college educations are now a necessity for any white-collar job.
But none of those factors explains why students are arriving at colleges and universities unable to read. In a recent New Yorker essay that has made quite a splash (at least in my circle) entitled “The End of the English Major,” Nathan Heller limns the contours of the crisis in humanities enrollments, noting that in the past ten years, “the study of English and history at the collegiate level has fallen by a full third.” He analyzes the trends and spends time talking to students and faculty at his two exemplar institutions, Arizona State and Harvard. But throughout the length of a typical New-Yorker-long essay stuffed with chilling statistics and horrifying anecdotes, there is only one moment—almost a throw-away—that continues to haunt me. Amanda Claybaugh, the dean of undergraduate education at Harvard and an English professor, admits, “The last time I taught The Scarlet Letter, I discovered that my students were really struggling to understand the sentences as sentences—like, having trouble identifying the subject and verb.” Heller spends no time with this tidbit (he breezes right past it to a discussion of canonicity), which to my mind was one of the most crucial moments in the essay. This is a professor at Harvard—home of the crème de la crème de la crème of undergraduates. If students at an institution with a less-than-four percent acceptance rate are struggling to read, what might that imply about the rest of struggling humanity? If students come to college unable to read, of course they are are not going to choose majors in reading.
I am going to resist the temptation to diagnose this problem. Again, I am not a literacy expert, just a representative English professor who’s spent the past couple decades in the trenches. I have no desire to add to the mountain of think pieces denouncing the internet, social media, and smart phones for eroding our attention spans, fraying the social fabric, and rotting our brains.Of course the problem is the internet, social media, and smart phones. But there seems to be very little that we can (or want) to do, as a culture, about those vaunted conveniences. As we Gen Xers—the last generation to grow up without Instagram and texting—age into our 40s, 50s, and beyond, we will eventually be the only ones left to sound the ever-fainter warnings in the unlistening void. We remember…. We remember hours spent lost in Harriet the Spy and the Hardy Boys (along with hours lost idling outside with our friends, bored, and Princess phone cords pulled taut into hall closets) but we are well past the crucial tipping point where we start to sound—not only to everyone younger but even to ourselves—like Grandpa Simpson shaking his cane at the sky.
I suppose the real question to ask here is: What are we even warning about? That young people coming up behind us have different priorities, different interests, different ways of looking at the world? That they aren’t just like us? The problem with being a middle-aged person with a generational complaint is that your grievance, no matter how justified or carefully framed, will always exude a faint whiff of Get Off My Lawn. There is no way to register concerns about the way things are headed without sounding uncool at best or like a bitter crank at worst. In a recent episode of the wonderful new podcast If Books Could Kill, hosts Michael Hobbes and Peter Shamshiri discuss the popularity of “wokeness gone wrong” think pieces among us Gen X types:
MH: As you get into middle age, you get really mad about Elvis shaking his hips on TV or the Beatles’ hair touching their collars. The idea that society is changing around you and it’s terrible—you will read every fucking article about it. There’s no limit.
PS: Yeah, you see young people doing something and deep in your brain you’re being told I’m dying.
Amanda Claybaugh, the Harvard professor and Dean discussing her students’ inability to understand The Scarlet Letter, goes on: “Their capacities are different, and the nineteenth century is a long time ago.” Their capacities are indeed different—radically different—and it’s probably safe to say that this is the most dramatic shift in “capacities” across a single generation … ever? But while the kinds of literacy that our students display might be newfangled, they are still literacies. Maybe they can’t get through a whole chapter of Jane Eyre in a sitting and struggle to understand what Brontë is even saying—but they can build whole worlds together on-line and carry on entire conversations in memes and emojis. They don’t have some of the skills I have, but neither do I have theirs.
And once we cane-shakers are gone, what will it even matter? Maybe no one will read long Victorian novels any more, but no one reads Greek epic any more either and that probably seemed like a huge crisis to the elbow-patched set a couple generations ago. (English departments will very soon be like Classics departments: just a few faculty holding on and a few weirdo students with long scarves who are drawn to the dusty past.) As Gen Z ages into the heart of the generational bell curve, they will have mostly one another to talk to (or text with) and won’t have to worry any more about pleasing their elders with their ability to scan lines of iambic pentameter or whatever.No longer will they be tortured with reminiscences about Bookmobiles and reading under a tree and how great it was to ride bikes until dusk. They will be free.
But. But, but, but. I am still here, and I am not old yet, and I have spent my entire life with this work, and now that it has become irrelevant in the blink of an eye, I just want to say that I am sad. I get that my sadness is generational, and therefore also irrelevant. But that doesn’t make it any less intense. Who will be left to care about the books? Who will be left to appreciate all the writing? What will happen to all the stories? What kind of people will the new people be, who haven’t read Pride and Prejudice or Beloved or Never Let Me Go or even the Hunger Games series? I cannot shake the feeling that the decline of reading is an enormous loss, and while I feel sad for us middle-aged folks witnessing the painful passing of entire worlds, I mostly feel sorry for those who will never know what they have missed.
So thus, to my tiny benighted band of hardy English majors: rock on, you be-scarfèd weirdos. Do not lose heart in the smallness of your numbers. Cling fast to your tattered copy of Moll Flanders or Moby Dickor Giovanni’s Room as if to a slender spar in a roiling sea of TikTok videos. To you belongs the future, or at least part of the future—the good part. The part with big deep thoughts and daydreaming and wonderments and terror and hope. The part with the books.
The title is in reference is to a 1950s book indicting then-current methods of teaching reading; the current essay has nothing to do with phonics, but it makes a catchy title.
All the stories and anecdotes in this essay are true, but some minor details have been changed to protect students’ anonymity.
Of course their professors’ abilities in this regard are eroding as well, if my sample size of me is any indication.
Besides, I can’t hope to add anything to Jonathan Crary’s magisterial screed on this topic, Scorched Earth.
A lot of Gen Zers had similar experiences—current college students are the tail end of the Harry Potter generation, who grew up devouring lengthy tomes for fun. But most of them seem to have lost the capacity after being hit over the head with their smartphones for a decade or so. (One friend sadly reports how her daughter used to be a huge bookworm and then stopped reading, cold, as soon as she got an iPad as a tween.)
I’m probably aging myself even more than I need to here: I’m not sure how many English professors teach scansion in undergraduate classrooms any more.
Moby Dick is actually a pretty substantial spar.
Wow, this is so good. You’ve voiced so many of my thoughts. Reading is dead, but does it matter? It seems like it does because reading matters to me. But maybe it doesn’t.
Excellent article. Shame it's not 240 characters or less... I'm joking - except of course the joke isn't really funny. Unless... you suffer from gallows humour, then it's funny to think how unfunny that is. Oh. What are we to do? Humans are easily lead. We've all been led into a pit of shiny rectangles vying for 5 seconds of attention to distract us until we're replaced by robots. But... couldn't we fight back? Couldn't we make the shiny rectangles into better long-form reading environments?? Here's an irony: I loved your article, but I couldn't help but be distracted by the flotilla of ads surrounding it. I had to be good at reading, and good at ignoring distractions. Can't we gear our tech to be distraction free when it ought to be? All the shiny addictiveness of the phone, but designed for concentration, not skittishness? Maybe...? Anyone...? Anyhow... Thank you for articulating what every deep reader is thinking...