- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 28, 2003

In September, I will begin my 35th year as a member of the faculty at American University. And during the past 31/2 decades, I have witnessed many changes in higher education, most notably the rise of women in every imaginable aspect of academic life and the growing racial, regional and cultural diversity of our student population. Both these changes represent immense improvements over the conditions that prevailed before.

However, there are many troubling areas of campus culture that have surfaced over time and need to be aired and addressed, such as the enormous expansion of student freedoms (only 11 percent of their time is spent in the classroom), their social immaturity (the nearly complete erasure of the concept of “wait to the weekend” in terms of partying), their severe emotional fragility, and perhaps most importantly — and certainly most alarming to me — their rapidly declining interest in reading books.

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This year my freshman class was born in 1985, and their generation has never known an America without computers, cellular phones, compact discs, climatically controlled shopping malls, and a vast array of other amenities — technological and otherwise — that have come to define our current culture.

Most of my students (many of whom are from very privileged households) do not know how to really read, and therefore they don’t like to read. Their world is a world dominated by “screens” (television, internet, and movies) instead of “pages.”

Additionally, a significant number of my students no longer see themselves as “students” and see themselves as “customers” instead and they are likely to view me and my colleagues not as professors but as “providers” of a particular type of service. Consequently, they feel that for the amount of money they and their parents pay (particularly at expensive private schools like my own) they are entitled to receive good grades whether they earned them or not. This, of course, is made worse as a consequence of the rampant spread of plagiarism (mostly through internet access) and grade inflation (which is a lethal disincentive for a student to work hard) on campuses throughout the country.

In our litigious society it is hardly unusual any more for students to vehemently complain about faculty members assessment of their performance, and some even sue their professors because they earned a “low” grade, usually defined by them as anything below a “B+.”

On a recent visit to Arlington National Cemetery, I took a group of my students to the gravesite of Supreme Court Justice, Hugo Black. Before coming to Washington, Black had been a member of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. While serving in the United States Senate, Black evolved into a passionate lover of the Western “classics,” which introduced him to the universality of the human condition and thereby effectively liberated him from the psychic enslavement of racist narrow-mindedness. Thus, he grew so much in learning and stature that he was rightfully proud to administer the oath of office to Thurgood Marshall twice: when Marshall became U.S. solicitor general in 1965 and when he became the first African-American associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967. Marshall and Black are buried very near each other close to the President Kennedy gravesite. Indeed, this year marks the 40th anniversary of the president’s assassination.

When, in 1954, Justice Black joined the 9-0 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling — knowing full well it would ignite a firestorm of social revolution — the vast majority of his fellow Southerners were so disgusted with him that they labeled Black a “traitor to his heritage.” The following year in 1955, the Montgomery Bus boycott began and two years later President Eisenhower sent troops to Little Rock, Ark., to integrate Central High School. The revolution had indeed begun.

In its essence, reading is a profound act of humility. It is an admission an author possibly knows more about a subject than we do and has offered us the opportunity to quietly “listen” — at our own pace — to his thoughts and draw from his well of wisdom.

Also, reading exposes us to points of view that are well-presented and can be completely at variance with our own opinions. This confrontation with ideological opposition (which is rarely seen on politically correct campuses) can contribute immensely to the growing experience. For example, Justice Black was transformed by his readings of the Bible, Homer, Plato, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Tolstoy, and many others, all of whom were writers he could never have met in person but did meet on paper. And their presence in his life remained fruitful and lasting. They became his chosen extended family of “ancestors” by adoption and they were always nearby residing on his shelves.

Reading requires a love of solitude and the quiet life of leisurely contemplation, which is difficult to cultivate and perpetuate in a society satiated with sound and the need for speed. Ralph Waldo Emerson was fond of saying, “The true scholar must embrace silence with the same degree of passion that a groom embraces his bride.”

When watching screens, the viewer is literally the “captive” of the camera operator. We see only what is presented to us by someone else. However, in reading, the imagination — “the mind’s eye” — is awakened and through our powers of individual invention we are free to create expansive images of our own making. Consequently, we often hear people say, “The book was so much better than the movie,” which affirms the statement that a picture is worth a thousand words is only partially true.

In my nearly 35 years of teaching, I have noticed that most of my students today are much more passive in their pursuit of education than those of 20 years ago. I think excessive playing of video games and television watching have given them an “audience” mentality. Therefor, they expect the classroom to be another source of entertainment. Such should not be the case. Intellectual growth requires an enormous investment in time and energy and although the attainment of educational enlightenment can be enjoyable and enriching, rarely is it “fun,” simply because school is not meant to be a place of play but of mental work instead.

Thomas Jefferson frequently said, “I cannot live without books,” and during his lifetime collected nearly 10,000 volumes. After the War of 1812 (which brought fiery ruin to much of the new nation’s capital) Jefferson’s very personal and private library at Monticello (harboring all his eclectic interests) became the very public and popular Library of Congress. Therefore, it is fitting that the oldest building of the world’s largest repository of knowledge should bear the name of its “founder.”

Lastly, Jefferson passionately believed the survival and success of representative democracy was entirely dependent on the existence of a well-educated citizenry committed to sustaining themselves as an expansive community of lifelong learners. Indeed, to this end he founded the public schools of the nation’s capital in 1805, 12 years before he founded the esteemed University of Virginia in 1817.

This year we commemorate the bicentennial of Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, and next year we will commemorate the bicentennial of his launching of the “Corps of Discovery,” better known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition. On July 4, 2026, we will commemorate the bicentennial of Jefferson’s death.

And if we as a nation choose not to become more mindful of the pervasive epidemic of academic permissiveness that reigns throughout higher education, our colleges and universities will soon not be known for their high standards of intellectual rigor and their coveted reputations for being the spawning ground for future national and global leaders. Sadly, they will instead be known more for the “depth” of their self-imposed shallowness, and by Aristotle’s definition of the word, that will be a genuine American “tragedy” of enormous magnitude and cultural consequence.

Edward C. Smith is the director of American Studies at American University.

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