- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 27, 2004

I was born in 1943, during the golden age of radio. Thus, I was 17 years old when the first household in my D.C. neighborhood acquired a television set.

As I recall, it was a large, bulky piece of unattractive furniture with a small screen that provided only grainy, black-and-white images. All its programming (transmitted on but four channels) terminated after 1 a.m.

Now we have 24 hours a day of color and high-definition television broadcasting, with hundreds of channels available to viewers. These are supplemented by Internet Web site connections spanning the globe and providing limitless access to an endless stream of instantaneous information of any kind.

I have taught at American University 35 years. And in the last five years, it has become an increasing challenge for me and my colleagues (at AU and nationally) to evoke in our pupils a love of silence, solitude and reading and the leisurely reflection that should the direct their conversations.

Most college students now communicate with each other via e-mail, cell phones and instant messaging. For the majority, extended, convivial, face-to-face conversations are rare.

A cellular phone is an absolutely amazing piece of technology that allows its users to communicate with others virtually any time and anywhere in the world. And of course some cell phones have additional features such as access to video games, photographic capacity, e-mail and so on, and still fit neatly in the palm of one hand.

As a consequence, I fear a significant number of my students have come to abuse such a convenience by engaging in lengthy and mostly meaningless conversations throughout the day.

By most measurements, college students spend about 11 percent of their time in a classroom (and perhaps no more than 4 percent meeting with professors). Therefore, the remaining 85 percent of their time is quite literally (albeit very expensively paid for) their time. They also seem unnecessarily obsessed with drive for speed in everything they do, which is why many of them find reading so difficult. “Speed reading” is a contradiction in concepts. Good writing is meant to be read slowly so it can be savored.

It is estimated the average college student spends three to five hours a day talking on cell phones. Multiply that figure sevenfold and we are looking at nearly a workweek spent in mostly trivial banter with peers, an absolute waste of time.

In my mind it seems nearly pathological that so many young people feel compelled to be in constant contact with each other. It obviously allows precious little time for individual introspection and communal contemplation. The mind is a sort of “muscle” that must be exercised, lest it atrophy.

For generations, America’s colleges and universities have professed to be centers of “higher” education and the ground for pursuing lifelong intellectual enrichment. It is nearly impossible to encourage such activity where so many young people have such easy access to sex, alcohol, drugs and an expansive array of other escapist activities.

For example, in preparation for this past Valentine’s Day weekend, it was reported that “Every Yale undergraduate received an e-mail heralding ‘Sex Week: A Celebration and Exploration of Sex and Sexuality at Yale University.’ ”

Such an event subverts the very reasons anyone should attend college in the first place. The college experience happens for the most part during four formative years in a student’s young adulthood. These years cannot be recovered if lost to sensual self-indulgence.

This academic year, with the support of my university president, Benjamin Ladner, I founded a campus lyceum consisting of a small group of students who meet — bi-monthly — with me at a downtown D.C. restaurant to discuss issues that arise from their reading assignments. In a way, this is a kind of “catacomb” campus culture consciously created to counter the pervasive anti-intellectualism at so many schools, even in the esteemed “Ivy League.”

Who could have predicted 20 years ago that higher education would be debased to grade-inflated, credentialing career preparation? Or would have believed the pursuit of education for sheer joy and its own sake would be eradicated by many so-called “educators” themselves.

Thomas Jefferson, the founder of the Library of Congress, the public school system of our nation’s capital and later the University of Virginia, was convinced our democratic-republic could not sustain itself absent of an educated citizenry.

I believe he was right. That means I also believe — and I am hardly alone in this — that if we do not reverse our current diluting of intellectual demands on students (which causes them to demand less of themselves), we risk evaporation of Jefferson’s American dream of an ever-expanding “empire of liberty and learning for all.” I, for one, cannot imagine any greater gesture of ingratitude toward him by the nation he helped found.


Mr. Smith is director of American Studies at American University.

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