Read 40 pages for a college course? You’ve got to be kidding!

I was dismayed, though not shocked, to see a news item last week that most college students read less than 40 pages in the average course. They write even less – about half that.

I was not shocked because I saw it coming years ago.

Even in my own college days, when I was assigned more reading in my Physical Education classes than in some of today’s classes, I noticed that most American colleges were dropping their required Latin (and sometimes Greek) classes. I’ve always felt under-educated because I cannot read my own college sheepskin – it’s in Latin.

That said, I read plenty in English. A three-hour course often included 75 pages or more in a densely written text book. Literature classes might ask us to read a short novel in a week. We were asked to write papers even in math and science classes.

The thin edge of the wedge came from my activist classmates, who clamored for classes that were “relevant.” It became the watchword for the late 1960s and early ’70s. Coincidentally, classes judged relevant were also lighter academically, the theory apparently being that college students needed more time for community involvement.

The colleges I attended did not buy these arguments, but the activist students eventually graduated. Some of them later assumed the roles of professors and administrators. In positions of power they were able to increase the relevance of their institutions with greater effectiveness. In fact, the battle being largely won, the mantra of relevance passed into history, becoming itself irrelevant.

After graduate school, I spent a few years on the bottom rung of the faculty ladder at Athletic University. This august institution distinguished itself (some faculty members said “extinguished” might be more descriptive) by firing its president when he challenged the head football coach’s power. The school almost lost its accreditation over it. But to give you some idea of how it played out over time, the football field is now named for the coach; few people remember the president was ever there. The current head football coach makes several multiples of what the current president is paid. This president is apparently smart enough to stay on his side of campus except to make occasional statements about how the football team’s success brings prestige to the university.

But even in this academic environment, we managed to keep most students reading and writing at a respectable pace. I had a number of students who objected, of course. They frequently pointed out to me that the true worth of a college education, especially one from Academic University, lay in the social contacts one would make. These contacts would lead to business success far more quickly than anything learned in one of our fancy textbooks.

Being young and naive, I argued that no social contact could help you keep a job if you didn’t actually know much.

The professors in the Business School knew better, of course. While they paid lip service to the campus-wide standards that called for upper level classes to include a term paper, they pursued their own social contacts. Many had lucrative side jobs consulting to businesses across the state. They had little time or interest in rigorously marking term papers. More than one of them performed the almost magical feat of collecting the term papers at the final exams for courses with 50 to 100 students, then handing them back, graded, before the students finished their exams.

As a lowly English instructor, I needed days to read, mark, and investigate sources for 20 to 25 students in my upper level business and technical writing classes. Surprisingly, some of my business students contested my unfair grading when they got a low grade for the same paper they had submitted for an “A” in a business class. A few even challenged their grades on papers they had “borrowed” from their fraternity’s file of successful business term papers – although charging one of the more flagrant cases with plagiarism cut down on that problem. The last time I heard, the plagiarist was working in his father’s business and was worth almost as much as the head football coach.

That, in a nutshell, is why I wasn’t surprised by the news article about reduced reading and writing for college students. A reporter remarked, in fact, that most students would now argue that developing their social contacts is more important to their careers than anything they might learn in a text book.

How do you think she got a job with the TV network?

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