I find students today quite remarkably incurious, if that’s a word, and that attitude is displayed most promiscuously in a phenomenon I witness every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning. I'll ask my students to open their books, and most of them will respond; but a quarter of them, sometimes more, won't have one.
A student’s not taking a book to class is something new in teaching at the college level. That didn’t happen 35 years ago, even five years ago. And it happens elsewhere. I just read a syllabus from another prof at a state school in Colorado, a syllabus that makes it clear that students will get extra credit for taking a book to class. I’m not kidding.
What’s going on? The astronomical cost of higher education isn’t new, but it is increasingly astronomical. I remember paying $700 for my last college semester—room and board. That’s not a joke, but today it is.
They're saving money by sharing books—I get it. The text for my class isn't more than $30 or so, and I've been using it for five semesters, so most students can buy it from some kid who's already highlighted all the salient passages. No matter. They figure one book works for three or four students.
So somewhere along the line, some students decide they can get by in Schaap's class by sharing an anthology, thereby keeping some bucks in their pockets. Since they have no books, they generally count on someone—not always them—to take notes; when a test is coming, they somehow apportion time with the shared text. I think that’s the way it works.
The decision not to buy a book is probably a sound economic decision, but it’s not—or so it seems to me-- educational. And while I sympathize with their huge educational bills, I can't tell you how awful it is to say, "Let's read from page 137 here," and look out at a room half-full of empty desks.
“Big deal,” they say. “Big frickin' deal. I got to take this class to get through.” As a good student said to me not three weeks ago, "Can you tell me how reading this stuff is going to help me with my business degree?"
If my students' reading levels hover somewhere approximate to middle school age (which I don’t doubt), it's because they've decided some time ago that they really don't need to read much, or to know about a Danish King murdered by his brother long ago, nor the prince who found it hard to take revenge. They just got to pass the test, all right? AND, keep their scholarships.
Their incurious nature—and I have no research to back up my claim but my own experience--arises, as it has to, at least in their English class, from the likely conclusion that what happens in Schaap’s class—the study of literature—is pretty much irrelevant to their lives. I don’t know that any of them ever thought that all the way through; it simply is assumed in their bookless behavior.
Neuroscience may well be the hottest thing going in research today, and I’m nowhere near a disciple, nor even a well-read follower. But an article in yesterday NY Times on Sunday makes it perfectly clear that reading stories means brain fitness. That fact alone may argue for lit’s relevancy.
No matter. Lots of them don’t have a clue about literature, nor other courses in the humanities or liberal arts. What they’d really like—some of them—is a how-to store college where they can graduate with a handy, marketable skill set.
And in a way, I can’t blame them. A kid told me yesterday that his sister graduated from another Christian liberal arts college three years ago and still has an $80,000 debt.
Not all of them, of course, but to many of them, CORE 180, an intro to lit course, is occasionally interesting but largely irrelevant.
But really, is all of this any different from 1968, when I was their age? That’s a good, good question, and I hope these aren’t the ramblings of a crochety old Jeremiah limping off into the sunset.
The truth? Once upon a time I remember thinking that a whole lot of college education was entirely irrelevant too.
Tomorrow, I’d like to think a little about “irrelevancy.”
(to be continued)