Monday, 2 May 2016

“University students are struggling to read entire books”


George Reisman argues that to truly grasp their chosen discipline, by the time they graduate they should have read, mastered and integrated the context of at least one-hundred books representing the pith, core and related flora of their subject area.

Properly, by the time a student has completed a college education, his brain should hold the essential content of well over a hundred major books on mathematics, science, history, literature, and philosophy, and do so in a form that is well organised and integrated, so that he can apply this internalised body of knowledge to his perception of everything in the world around him. He should be in a position to enlarge his knowledge of any subject and to express his thoughts on any subject clearly and logically, both verbally and in writing. Yet, as the result of the miseducation provided today, it is now much more often the case that college graduates fulfill the Romantic ideal of being “simple, uneducated men.”

Did he say one-hundred books? Students today are struggling to read even one book,  say the university academics who teach them.

University academics caused a furore this week by claiming many students found the thought of reading books all the way to the end “daunting”, due to shorter attention spans and an inability to focus on complex philosophies.
    Jenny Pickerill, a professor in environmental geography at the University of Sheffield, told Times Higher Education magazine: “Students struggle with set texts, saying the language or concepts are too hard.”
    "I recently had a student suggest an alternative book for a module I am teaching which they found easier to engage with. It was a good book, but it was not really academic enough and I am still unsure if that matters or whether I should be recommending more readable books. There is currently a disjuncture between the types of reading we want students to engage with and the types students feel able or willing to do.”
    Jo Brewis, professor of organisation and consumption at Leicester University, weighed in saying "graduates and postgraduate students seem mainly not to be avid readers”. Recommending whole books would overwhelm them, she added, and she tended not to do so.

The irony is that it is precisely what university acadeamics have been teaching themselves, filtered down to youngsters through the teachers colleges and curricula, that is them simple, uneducated and functionally illiterate.

Now, properly [outlines Reisman], education is a process by means of which students internalise knowledge: they mentally absorb it through observation and proof, and repeated application. Memorization, deduction, and problem solving must constantly be involved. The purpose is to develop the student’s mind – to provide him with an instantaneously available storehouse of knowledge and thus an increasingly powerful mental apparatus that he will be able to use and further expand throughout his life. Such education, of course, requires hard work from the student. Seen from a physiological perspective, it may be that what the process of education requires of the student through his exercises is an actual imprinting of his brain.
    Yet, under the influence of the philosophy of Romanticism, contemporary education is fundamentally opposed to these essentials of education...
     With little exaggeration, the whole of contemporary education can be described as a process of encumbering the student’s mind with as little knowledge as possible. The place for knowledge, it seems to believe, is in external sources – books and libraries – which the student knows how to use when necessary. Its job, its proponents believe, is not to teach the students knowledge but “how to acquire knowledge” – not to teach them facts and principles, which, it holds, quickly become “obsolete,” but to teach them “how to learn.” Its job, its proponents openly declare, is not to teach geography, history, mathematics, science, or any other subject, including reading and writing, but to teach “Johnny” – to teach Johnny how he can allegedly go about learning the facts and principles it declares are not important enough to teach and which it thus gives no incentive to learn and provides the student with no means of learning.

No wonder so many students are unable, or unwilling, to read one. One student however had what she considered a telling rejoinder.

Lizzy Kelly, a history student at Sheffield added: “Students might be more inclined to read what academics want them to if our curricula weren’t overwhelmingly white, male and indicative of a society and structures we fundamentally disagree with because they don't work for us.”

Lizzy clearly hasn’t been encumbered with learning, She is right there with the programme.

In a few years time, she willl probably be an academic herslf.



  1. Since the programme is 'his story' as per the monologue of the conqueror, to say it does not work for the conquered and enslaved is trite merely because the viewpoint is irrelevant to personal experience. Not that the terms of the Battle of Hastings in 1066 are properly emphasized as still relevant today, with centuries of distraction covering up the fact that real property and currency is controlled/registered by the crown.

  2. Part of the problem is that students aren't taught HOW to read books. Reading a textbook is vastly different from reading a novel. Textbooks are not generally intended to be read cover-to-cover in the way a novel is; rather, the author expects you to jump around a fair bit. For example, on my desk right now is a copy of "Quaternary Non-glacial Geology: Conterminous U.S." It's a classic text in Quaternary stratigraphy, one a university student would be expected to have. There are three chapters in this book that are relevant to me, and I need to focus on those chapters. And that's how the authors set the book up--the structure of the book is such that it provides not a coherent idea, but rather a single reference of uniform quality that everyone can use.

    Journal articles are similar. I was taught to write with the expectation that the reader will read the abstract, then the conclusion, then the discussion, then the methods, and then--maybe--the background. You can't publish a paper in that order, though.

    My point isn't that students should be excused from reading books. Rather, my point is that reading these types of books requires a different skillset, one that is simply not taught in schools. I think folks unfamiliar with the expectations of scientific literature won't understand that, as it is so unique.

  3. Another note to remember is how many students don't end up reading the prescribed material as they don't own the relevant text.

    Many students complain about the $100+ cost after all.


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