Students only cheat themselves when they don’t read

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A recent feature in a college newspaper was illuminating, disappointing, but ultimately not surprising. It contained photos of students who were asked if they read their textbooks. The typical response was either “no, I don’t” or, “I read only what is fun.” My immediate response was, “I hope that I never need you as a surgeon (physical health), psychologist (mental health) or minister (spiritual health), and I certainly hope that my children never have you as a teacher.”

After overcoming my emotional reaction, I reflected: students are usually smart but they are severely misguided when they refuse to read their textbooks, especially when they are proud of it. This insistence on disengagement has eight implications.

First, students rob others of the benefits of fully prepared colleagues. One of the most important things that colleges do is gather people who remain committed to learning. What happens outside of the classroom is just as important as what happens within.

Students have a significant role to play in educating each other. I found this to be as true when I was a student at my undergraduate college as it was at Princeton Theological Seminary and Emory University, where I completed graduate degrees. When students are slackers they deprive others of informed conversation partners. Some students notice that others are not committed to reading and learning, and in quiet moments they admit that their non-studying colleagues harm their development.

Second, students steal from their own future. A colleague quotes someone describing the purchase of books as a “down payment on a future virtue.” The virtues students lose are the analytical abilities, improvement in reading and written comprehension, exposure to a broad swath of cultural, literary and scientific literature, and the capacity to understand from a variety of perspectives. Students, however, should not kid themselves into thinking they have defeated the system. They have only harmed themselves.

Third, we live in a global marketplace, and increasingly we are competing not amongst ourselves as Americans but among the rest of the world. While American students sunbathe, play Frisbee out in the campus green and devote themselves to their social lives, university students in Germany, Korea and Ghana are studying. If I am the head of a chemistry company, where do I want to locate my factory, office or research institute? Comparative studies suggest that American society is dumbing down. If students maintain this attitude toward their studies, then they participate in the dumbing down generation.

Fourth, students imply that we faculty waste their time by assigning readings they find boring. I know my colleagues across the nation. They are neither sadistic nor cavalier, but care deeply about their academic disciplines and care even more about students. Many have decided to make less money by working in higher education. Students need to trust that we are not assigning senseless or frivolous books. Still, the function of school, if not the function of life, is ultimately not entertainment.

Fifth, students deny themselves the full wealth of intellectual conviction when they avoid their assignments. Informed decisions require critical thought.

Sixth, we all understand that the exigencies of life intrude on study. Illness, familial issues and the need to earn money to pay for life’s necessities take time away from academics. When we hear students complaining about these things but then see the whiners on the campus green sunbathing for hours every day, we begin to wonder.

Seventh, students who don’t do their assignments steal from taxpayers, parents, foundations and all others donating money to offset the cost of a college education. We wouldn’t countenance our students holding up the corner convenience store, nor should we coddle them when they steal from us by loafing instead of working.

Finally, faculty must assume some responsibility for the problem. If we don’t require students to read, do not pin them to the readings, fail to reinforce the significance of texts as they interface with lectures and conversations, then we aid and abet.

No easy solution exists, but I would be disingenuous if I told students I thought the key to success was to only do what was fun and to discard the rest. The solution is either to work hard, trust in your professors, college and classmates, or trust that a professional league for Frisbee or video games will emerge that will pay for the lifestyle to which some students are already becoming accustomed.

Richard Rawls is the director of Hiebert Library at Fresno Pacific University and a member of the history and philosophy faculty.

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