My students don’t take the time to read books any­more

The Morning Call - - TOWN SQUARE - By Jeremy Adams Jeremy Adams is a high school and col­lege po­lit­i­cal sci­ence teacher in Bak­ers­field, Cal­i­for­nia.

Most of us who grew up in the United States be­fore the ad­vent of smart­phones and so­cial me­dia can re­mem­ber adults us­ing phrases like “se­ri­ous read­ing” or can name peo­ple in our or­bit who claimed cer­tain books changed their lives. I can still vividly recall teach­ers, friends and fam­ily mem­bers in­sist­ing I read this book or that poem, usu­ally for rea­sons I had yet to un­der­stand.

Early on, we were im­bued with the no­tion that read­ing mat­tered. Not be­cause it em­pow­ered us to ef­fec­tively ab­sorb in­for­ma­tion or po­si­tioned us to do well on a fu­ture stan­dard­ized exam. It mat­tered be­cause the books we read of­ten had a last­ing and pow­er­ful im­pact on the peo­ple we would be­come.

In mid­dle school, I greatly dis­ap­pointed my English teacher father by telling him I had no love for the writ­ten word. But in high school I dis­cov­ered the pop­u­lar fic­tion of Stephen King, Dean Koontz and Tom Clancy. In col­lege, what I read and, more im­por­tantly, why I read, be­came cen­tral themes in my search for knowl­edge. I found my­self hyp­no­tized by the grandeur of Tol­stoy, the long­ing of Wordsworth and the time­less wis­dom of writ­ers whose names are of­ten as­so­ci­ated with the clas­sics.

I dis­cov­ered when I took the time to read deeply, life brimmed with pos­si­bil­i­ties and surged with ur­gency in a way it never had. It is one of the rea­sons I be­came a teacher, to share this ex­hil­a­ra­tion with young minds.

Yet in my two decades of teach­ing high school in Cal­i­for­nia’s Cen­tral Val­ley, per­haps the big­gest change I have no­ticed is that the be­lief that read­ing both en­larges and en­livens life it­self has largely van­ished from the lives of my young students.

To­day’s teenagers cer­tainly read all day — memes, posts, tweets — but it is all of a tran­si­tory, ca­sual na­ture. Read­ing books has been sac­ri­ficed to the tyranny of tex­ting and the dizzy­ing ar­ray of so­cial me­dia plat­forms.

In the 1970s, teens read three times as many books as to­day. In 1980, 60% of high school se­niors re­ported that they read a news­pa­per, mag­a­zine or book on a daily ba­sis for plea­sure; by 2016 that num­ber had dropped to 16%. Teenagers are more likely to read books at 13 than 17.

None of this would sur­prise mod­ern class­room teach­ers, who can at­test that the ubiq­ui­tous pres­ence of cell­phones and other de­vices in the lives of students is a zeit­geist-defin­ing de­vel­op­ment that has fun­da­men­tally al­tered the Amer­i­can class­room. Students are per­pet­u­ally, al­most man­i­cally, dis­tracted in class and at home.

For al­most two decades I loved rec­om­mend­ing books to students de­pend­ing on their par­tic­u­lar in­ter­ests or the prob­lems they shared with me. Ex­pe­ri­enc­ing teenage angst? Read Vik­tor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Mean­ing.” Hav­ing trou­ble fig­ur­ing out what to do with your life? Read Tol­stoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych.”

In fall 1998, I be­gan my teach­ing ca­reer with five classes of fresh­man English. After one class, a stu­dent asked me two sim­ple questions: “Why are we re­quired to read th­ese sto­ries? What’s the point?” I no longer re­mem­ber my re­sponse, but I have never for­got­ten his words to me. “I never re­ally thought of read­ing like that be­fore,” he said. “It re­ally gives me some­thing to think about.”

In that mo­ment, I fell in love with teach­ing. From then on, spread­ing the gospel about the trans­for­ma­tive power of read­ing found its way into most of my classes on most days.

Then the era of the smart­phone in­vaded the class­room, and ev­ery­thing changed.

Sud­denly I was in a des­per­ate strug­gle for my students’ at­ten­tion. Phones be­gan ap­pear­ing on desks in the mid­dle of class. When students were told to put their phones away, bath­room re­quests shot through the roof. The time they re­ported it took to com­plete their home­work was much longer than it used to be.

Con­sider all of the ben­e­fits the habit of read­ing ush­ers into the lives of those who prac­tice it — and then take them away. A gen­er­a­tion that has filled its time with the end­less fri­vol­ity of pix­e­lated screens will live in a world that is smaller. They will lose em­pa­thy. Their imag­i­na­tions will be stunted. Their dreams will be­come pro­saic. They will be­come es­tranged from many of the trea­sures that only read­ers can com­pre­hend.

Some of my more re­flec­tive students are aware of what is hap­pen­ing to them.

Two years ago, dur­ing the last week of school, I asked a class of high school se­niors what ad­vice they would give their fresh­man selves. The class vale­dic­to­rian raised his hand and mat­ter-of­factly in­toned, “I would find a cliff and throw my phone off of it.”

This young man knew there was a gap be­tween who he was and what he could be. He rec­og­nized he had to do some­thing drastic.

Do the rest of us?


In 1980, 60% of high school se­niors re­ported that they read a news­pa­per, mag­a­zine or book on a daily ba­sis for plea­sure; by 2016, that num­ber had dropped to 16%.

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