Give them a little textual pleasure

October 21, 2005

Forget course guides and handouts, Frank Furedi says students need to embrace the book

I have to confess that I have a thing about books. My heart starts throbbing when I go into a library I have not explored before. I get excited when I am given the opportunity to spend time in the great university libraries. Every volume holds the promise of taking me into uncharted territory. Is it any surprise that I suffer from what I am informed is a prejudice, the belief that the reading of books - from cover to cover - is an essential part of university education? I know scientific papers are important, but I would be happier if even natural science students were encouraged to embrace the book.

Quality assurance gurus assure me that the book is only one among many teaching "resources". But I remain unconvinced. I find it difficult to conceptualise the book as a "resource". Maybe the Yellow Pages is a resource, but real books are not. I have been informed that I am old-fashioned and inflexible. I have been accused of elitism for valuing the book above resources such as handouts. An agitated higher education entrepreneur once declared that my attitude discriminated against dyslexics, poor readers and "non-traditional" students who may have been brought up in a book-free environment. According to advocates of Template University, such practices are exclusive. Handouts, on the other hand, are inclusive. When I point out that in the 19th century working-class people regarded books as a source of empowerment, I am dismissed as an incorrigible reactionary who is nostalgic for a mythical golden age. My technologically oriented friends are tired of pointing out that we live in a digital age and that the demise of the book is inevitable.

It is not just the purveyors of the culture of inclusion who cannot comprehend the significance of reading books. Every year some of my undergraduates complain that I am unreasonable for forcing them to review an entire volume. One asked whether he could review a journal article or a chapter instead. I never thought the day would come when I had to self-consciously justify book reading to my students.

Of course it is not the students' fault that they regard the text as a non-essential indulgence. In school, reading is treated as a skill, and the emphasis of the national curriculum is on developing this and not on appreciating literature. The promotion of the skills agenda means that we do not educate children to value books.

By the time they arrive at university, many students have become alienated from the world of literature. Undergraduates learnquickly that a handout or a dozen pages of a book is considered adequate preparation for a seminar.

When testing soundbites instead of knowledge becomes the norm, the book will always assume a supplementary role.

Schools are only part of the problem. Academics, too, must share the blame.

Lecturers have gone along with the idea that a course outline should resemble an idiot's guide rather than a reading list. Indeed, we treat it as a teaching resource. And the more this outline breaks everything down into small bits, the more likely it is to win an award for its contribution to innovative teaching. And those of us who spare students the trouble of writing notes stand a good chance of gaining recognition for "best practice".

My suggestion is straightforward. We need to uphold the reading of books.

Let us subvert Template University by providing our students with book lists instead of course guides. This will not do much for their skills portfolio, but it might help them to get a university education.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology, Kent University.

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