Fostering Stubborn Readers

Peter W. Schramm

November 1, 2010

A lot of criticism has lately been directed at students. Much of it is prompted by recent books warning that the internet is ruining young minds. Nicholas Carr’s best-seller, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, argues that today’s students are less able to concentrate than those of a generation ago, who did not have their study constantly interrupted by instant messaging, Facebook updates, and Twitter.

Recently I talked with a colleague about the intellectual capacity of current students. That we talk among ourselves about students—their capacities, their virtues and vices—shouldn’t really surprise you. That’s what old students who now get paid for being teachers do. They talk about their work, and the work of a teacher, despite what we say about needing to publish or perish, primarily involves cultivating younger minds.

My colleague claimed that students are less capable than they were a generation ago, and, like Carr, he attributed this decline to the internet. They no longer remember anything, because in three clicks of a mouse they can find any needed fact on the web. They can no longer sustain prolonged periods of concentration, think deeply or see subtleties. They don’t read anymore; they just scan the internet. They also can’t write, since instead of composing letters, they send text messages, which are short bursts of words only vaguely resembling writing or thinking. My colleague was even nostalgic for a more recent era, when people communicated through e-mails. Compared to text messages, emails now seem like antiquated and elongated compositions.

He went on to argue that the equipment used by people to read and write—the medium, as we now say—has not only distracted us from deep reading and careful writing; it now molds the very form of our thoughts. In other words, he claimed that the how has created the what of our minds. The human mind is becoming something less than it has been.

If we thought things were bad in the age of television, consider the age of the internet, when everything becomes quick and slippery. The world revolves so rapidly that we can find no still point in which to complete a thought. Contemplation becomes impossible.

I disagree.

I don’t find students less capable than they were a generation ago. In fact, I think that in many ways they arrive at college better prepared than they were in the age of television, because they know that the world is slipping and sliding around too fast, and they are irritated by it, and are naturally looking for a still point in their universe. This allows education to enter.

Confident of this, we introduce the incoming Ashbrook Scholars (while they are still in high school) to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice; then, the summer before they enter, ask them to read Churchill’s My Early Life; and during the first weeks of freshman year, introduce them to Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus. When I laid this out to my skeptical colleague, he had to stifle a laugh. You are asking them to read a 2,500 year old book about a Persian king? You have to be kidding, he said. It is completely alien to them. It’s really hard—it’s like asking a newly literate person to read War and Peace as his first book. Exactly, and it fulfills the same purpose. It envelopes them in something deeply interesting to them, and something they have some experience with, despite their youth. The young Cyrus was much like them: he was ambitious to improve himself and enlarge his influence in the world, and he was jostling against others who had similar ambitions.

Of course, the book is not simply about a Persian King. Xenophon says that he is writing the book to discover why human beings are so hard to govern—unlike sheep or cattle, for example, who allow themselves to be herded. He then tries to understand why human beings consented to being ruled by Cyrus. It turns out that Cyrus succeeded because he knew something other would-be rulers did not.

One of the great pleasures of my life is watching students become stubborn readers. It takes them a few weeks, of course. But as soon as they begin to see—as a result of reading and of the classroom reflections based on the reading—that the words on the old-fashioned printed page actually mean something and are meant to be thought about, they begin to love it. They love the way the words stay put, so that they may return to the same intriguing passage and re-read it. They also learn that writing provides access to the same experience reading allows. When we write we help an idea to come into being, to attain a stillness that renders it knowable. It’s a kind of magic. And it is beautiful. It is easy to love something beautiful.

The internet may be amusing and quite useful, but it is almost never beautiful. And it is never still. Fortunately, the human mind is much more capable than the instruments it invents, and once that mind begins to reveal itself to the student, he is smitten for life. The student will never forget that moment of insight that followed his struggle through a densely worded paragraph, or that feeling of discovery that she felt after rendering an idea in a clear and graceful sentence. From then on the student will recognize the difference between mere information and actual wisdom. The pursuit of wisdom will become the student’s lifelong goal.

Peter W. Schramm is Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center and a professor of political science at Ashland University.