The importance of reading has always been axiomatic for educators. Most parents, too, seem to value reading as a healthy pastime for their kids. The shared influence of these very important people likely explains why the young are now the most readerly age group in the United States.
And yet, for much of the adult population, reading is not a priority. In fact, those who follow the discourse surrounding higher education in the US could be forgiven for believing that books lose their worth as soon as the reader turns eighteen. When they pack their things and leave for the university, many young bibliophiles are advised to grow up, put the novels aside, and declare a major in business.
In light of these circumstances and without taking anything for granted, the question is exigent: Does reading matter?
These days mattering is largely a function of earning, when few things count except for those that can be counted in dollars and cents. Because tuition is expensive, state funds are stagnant, and students often accept their education along with several decades of debt, there is a strong incentive to land a profitable job—and the sooner the better. Try as they might, the humanities—where most reading is done most often—struggle to compete in this fast-paced, high-stakes environment.
But they do try. This much is evidenced by the recent emergence of a new genre of magazine writing – what you might call the “liberal arts apologia.” In these essays, the importance of a traditional liberal education is defended on the grounds that it is useful in the marketplace, directly countering the most common—and most successful—criticism.
Writing in the New Republic, Brown University president Christina Paxson makes “the economic case for saving the humanities.” At the Huffington Post, Oregon State University president Edward Ray touts “the value of a liberal arts education in today’s global marketplace.” And in the Atlantic, Yoni Appelbaum writes that reading is requisite for effective CEOs.
In a related attempt to make literacy useful, Ceridwen Dovey endorses the practice of “bibliotherapy,” whereby a custom reading list is developed to help people achieve greater happiness.
While the strategy of these arguments is clear and the effort admirable, there is something about them that fails to satisfy. It’s as though they are operating a few removes away from—or beneath—the better claims that could and should be made. You seem like the kind of guy who can make them.
People who think that mattering is a function of earning are – at best – only partially right. There’s way more to life than surviving economically; this becomes obvious when we ask, “What else matters?” A partial answer: love, empathy, self-understanding, curiosity, critical thinking, joy, honesty, kindness, emotional intelligence, political savvy, compassion, clarity.
Most kids won’t fully develop all of these capacities on their own. In many of these areas – all of them? – they need help and guidance.
If this is right so far, then we can ask about methods. How do we go about inculcating / drawing out / helping kids discover their own capacities for this stuff?
For centuries, educators have seen reading as part of the answer. My experience – as a teacher and a general dude – tells me that that they’re right. Reading isn’t the only way to learn about yourself or others or the world, but it’s an important one.
One of the biggest reasons might be the intimacy of reading: I’m not sure there’s any other art form that provides such a profound and detailed view into other people’s minds, that helps us see how they (and we) operate on a moment-to-moment level.
Of course, conversation might be even better, and some of us are lucky enough to have a few friends or family members who’ll share this kind of stuff with us. But even if they’re willing, they’re not always able. It’s hard to see yourself clearly, much less to talk about what you notice.
That’s the paradoxical intimacy of reading (at least with fiction): it’s based on distance, and sometimes even disinterest. You get to see and love and root for people who don’t exist. You get to try out your capacities for imaginative empathy – but then you get to put the book down and play XBox. The stakes are lower than they might be in real, flesh-and-blood relationships.
This is all just a gloss, of course – way smarter people than me have been touting the character-forming benefits of reading for a long time.
Of course, becoming a mature person capable of living a rich, rewarding life usually involves a lot more than reading books. (There’s also parenting, friendship, mentorship, self-reflection, genes, luck…) But if we want our kids to be mature, thoughtful, introspective, compassionate, and everything else I listed above, does anyone think we can do without reading? (I’m curious: is anyone even making this argument?) If so, what do they propose?
We are going to be preaching to each other’s choirs here, no doubt, but I also consider reading to be a central, vital part of mental and emotional and spiritual growth and I remind my students of that often. I’m not sure they disagree, exactly, it’s just that circumstances have pushed them down a few floors on the hierarchy of needs.
Because they are young and financially insecure and because many or most of them are in college to get careers and make higher incomes, they tend not to invest much of their energy in the vita contemplativa. They are much more focused on practical concerns like car and home ownership. To them college is essentially just “the next step” after high school, and a liberal arts education is indistinguishable from vocational school.
Additionally, because they view a Bachelor’s Degree primarily as work certification, they usually buy into the corporate model of the university. They view themselves as customers paying for a product – a diploma – and therefore they should be free to pick and choose their classes rather than being bound by general education requirements and formal curricula.
They are the customers, and the customer is always right.
In many cases their parents are customers, too, and they reinforce the corporate model via their concerns about finances. If we are going into debt to get you this degree, then you had better make it count for something, and fast. On the one hand, you can hardly blame them. On the other, that impulse is vaporizing the humanities.
For several decades now the question of usefulness in the liberal arts has been supplemented and inflamed by skepticism about the sorts of uselessness the liberal arts are perceived to embrace. There is widespread concern – and not a little indignation – leveled squarely at the excesses and absurdities of the so-called “political correctness,” the bulk of which are based in departments of English, history, philosophy, etc.
In many cases, those who doubt the utility of liberal education are further repelled by the liberalism. If you want to make a case for the liberal arts these days, you may find yourself defending a host of overtly political approaches to criticism.
It’s a complicated situation, and I find myself agreeing by turns with various defenses and critiques.
Still, I maintain through it all that human beings are more than worker drones, and that my primary concern as a liberal art-isan is to cultivate those parts of the mind and the soul that are not directly bound to employability. I am in the business of pushing students to become better, more thoughtful human beings. If that makes them better workers, then so be it. But it would be a sharp turn for the worse if our culture became so anxious about money that we found ourselves unable to commit to anything higher.
I just read an old Irving Kristol essay called “Republican Virtue and Servile Institutions,” and I think it gets at some of what you’re talking about. Right now, lots of college students treat their schools like work-cert vending machines: I pay my tuition, and you help me get a job.
I get it: college is expensive, and universities aren’t always sources of wisdom and human betterment. But for students to treat college this way also suggests that they don’t think they have much to learn. It’s about picking up a few skills, polishing your PowerPoint game, and leaping off into the job market.
That’s an extremely thin view of education. Students have a ton to learn about being critical, emotionally intelligent, politically astute, etc. And in order to learn those things, it helps to acknowledge that someone else might have something to teach you. It helps to have respect for something other than your own whims.
It also helps to have professors who have something to offer – something students need, something that will actually make their lives better, whether they know it or not. Reading is a part of that.
You can’t force kids to attend your school, of course, and I don’t think you’d want to. But if they’re in the room with you, well – they may see themselves as customers, but that doesn’t make you a salesman.
Very true, and that’s fortunate because most of us are not well-suited for sales. But we can read and talk about reading and write about reading, and in the process hopefully we make some in-roads with students and their parents and the general public about why these things are important even if they don’t get “used” every day in the performance of a job.
(Side note, it can be surprisingly difficult to persuade people in these contexts that adult life is about something more than work.)
That’s also why we have talked about doing a book blog – to hash out these questions together in public and with reference to the books that have been important to our culture and to ourselves as individuals.
And here we are – reading matters because it makes us better people, better citizens, and maybe even better bosses, managers, and employees. It matters for all the reasons you’ve stated above and for a host of reasons that remain forthcoming. It is, in some cases probably, useful.
So what’s your sales pitch for reading? For liberal education? For a blog about these sorts of questions?
I think I’d feel silly making much of a sales pitch for reading; it feels like making a sales pitch for sex. (Though, come to think of it, both can be scary and confusing and not all that satisfying at the beginning. But then…)
As for a blog, though, that sounds like more my speed. Let’s talk about what we’re reading – what it’s doing to our brains, and what our brains are doing back. And when these larger cultural or institutional questions come up, let’s dig into those too.