I expect distracted teenagers to declare that “reading is so boring”, but in recent years I have been taken aback when intelligent undergraduates protest that they should not be expected to read books from cover to cover.
I suppose I should not be too judgmental because this attitude is clearly not their fault. Far too many members of the academic community do not expect students to take reading seriously either. For some time, the unstated assumption that it is pointless to try to get undergraduates to read entire books has influenced the management of degree programmes. Course organisers’ greatest hope now is that they might be prevailed upon to read an assigned chapter – or at least 10 to 15 pages of excerpts provided online.
I recall being told off by a senior university manager in 2007 for pointing this out in a newspaper article. He complained that I had dismissed as “undemanding” any “programme in which students do not read ‘whole books’”. As far as he was concerned, the idea that books should have a privileged status in higher education had become an outdated elitist prejudice.
Others are more ambivalent, but still argue that downgrading reading is the only realistic response to the age of distraction we have entered. Time and again we hear apocryphal stories about how the internet and social media have deprived young adults of the attention span required to read a book.
Shirking the challenge of instilling a love of reading among students is bad enough. Even more worrying is the tendency to claim that the demise of books’ privileged status is, on balance, a healthy development. It is frequently suggested that since we live in an era of rapid change, the ideas and knowledge that books contain are likely to be outdated even before they are published, whereas digital technology offers a more flexible and interactive vehicle for learning.
So it is evident that the term “reading for a degree” may soon become an anachronism. A recent report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development indicates that a substantial proportion of UK graduates fail to achieve “high-level literacy skills”. The decoupling of a culture of reading from higher education must be a factor in this sorry state of affairs.
My research into the history of reading suggests that the real problem confronting intellectual life is not so much the distractions of digital technology as the loss of cultural affirmation for a love of reading. Many influential voices – educators and literary theorists among them – have become deeply ambivalent about its value and cultural status. The continual invention and proliferation of new types of literacies – visual, aural, computer, emotional, sexual, ecological, media, multicultural and financial – implicitly calls into question the singular status and cultural authority of traditional word-literacy.
In universities, computer, information and media literacy are sometimes treated as the functional equivalent of reading. Supporters of the technocratic skills agenda believe that today’s multiple, dynamic communication practices require more sophisticated cognitive skills than those required for old-school reading. Yet word-literacy has laid the cultural foundation on which the new technocratic skills can draw, which is precisely why they present themselves as a new species of literacy.
Reading, however, is much more than literacy. In addition to decoding texts, it involves interpretation and imagination. For readers, what matters is not simply what a book says but also what it means. Reading between the lines allows readers to use their imagination and knowledge to understand and gain meaning. That is a crucial skill for anyone hoping to analyse and interpret the world around them, however advanced its technology. And that is why reading must retain its foundational status in higher education.
Frank Furedi is emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent. His latest book, Power of Reading: From Socrates to Twitter, is published by Bloomsbury this month. He will be discussing it during a session at the Battle of Ideas 2015 festival (17-18 October at the Barbican Centre in London). Times Higher Education is a media partner of the event.