THR Web Features   /   March 14, 2024

Decline or Oscillation?

What looks like a disastrous collapse in students’ literacy may be simply a reversion to a kind of mean.

Alan Jacobs

( Natalia Yankovets/Shutterstock.)

Recently, Adam Kotsko wrote in Slate:

I have been teaching in small liberal arts colleges for over 15 years now, and in the past five years, it’s as though someone flipped a switch. For most of my career, I assigned around 30 pages of reading per class meeting as a baseline expectation—sometimes scaling up for purely expository readings or pulling back for more difficult texts. (No human being can read 30 pages of Hegel in one sitting, for example.) Now students are intimidated by anything over 10 pages and seem to walk away from readings of as little as 20 pages with no real understanding. Even smart and motivated students struggle to do more with written texts than extract decontextualized take-aways. Considerable class time is taken up simply establishing what happened in a story or the basic steps of an argument—skills I used to be able to take for granted.

Kotsko adds: “Anecdotally, I have literally never met a professor who did not share my experience.”

Here’s one: me. It’s Alan contra mundum, I guess, because I too have heard this lamentation sung frequently and at great length, and I don’t doubt that the lament arises from something real. So how do we account for the difference between (a) my experience and (b) the experience of virtually all other professors of the humanities in this country? Let us note some of the options.

One possibility is that I am simply inattentive; that my recent students are different from their predecessors of twenty or thirty years ago in ways that I haven’t noticed, perhaps because the change in them has been, as Edward Gibbon liked to say, insensible. That’s unlikely, given that I am not any less susceptible to the temptations of griping and moaning than anyone else in my profession, or my species. Also, Kotsko describes not a gradual change but a dramatic plunge. But what’s unlikely is not impossible.

Another option: Because I regularly teach elective courses, people don’t sign up unless they’re ready to read George Eliot’s Middlemarch or Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age or Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (to name three very large books that I have taught several times in the past decade). But some of my classes are not electives, at least not for many of the students, and even those who take classes out of sheer interest are, surely, as prone as young people have ever been to overestimate their abilities.

A third and more complicated explanation: People who note a recent change are seeing what’s there, but are reading as a decline what is in fact one phase of an oscillation. During several periods in my career I have been convinced that my students were not nearly as good as they had been; but those periods have always been succeeded by a resurgence in student quality and interest. So I have come over time to expect a certain degree of variation in student quality and don’t worry too much about apparent decline.

For what it’s worth, I attribute such oscillation largely to network effects: That is, if you have two or three smart and enthusiastic students who happen to like your class, other students are attracted to their intelligence and enthusiasm and then start showing up in your classes. A momentum develops. That momentum can last for two or three or four years before all of those students graduate, and, depending on chance encounters or the lack thereof, they may or may not be replaced by others of equal ability. But if the changes that Kotsko talks about were produced by such network effects, the natural variation in populations would have led at least a few other professors to notice occasional improvement in the quality of their students—and that’s a story I haven’t heard told. Nor do I tell that one myself. My experience is one of relative stability, not of a noticeable long-term increase in student abilities.

The not wholly tangential question, of course, is what counts as “long-term.” The kind of variation in skills and interests that I have described can happen over a handful of years but also over decades and centuries. One might ask not just how American university students today compare to those of twenty or thirty years ago but also how they compare to students from a century ago. That would have been a much smaller population, for one thing, because before the G.I. Bill of 1944 sent millions of former soldiers to university, many of whom otherwise would never have considered it, a university education was not the passport to white-collar employment and a stable middle-class life that it has since become. As Kotsko’s essay indicates, we now expect what in historical perspective is a shockingly large percentage of our young adults to be able to read and write about complex texts in philosophy, literature, and related disciplines. But perhaps those are, over a truly long period of time, not reasonable expectations. What looks like a disastrous collapse in literacy may be simply a reversion to a kind of mean.

But even if so, it’s not a reversion that has been particularly evident to me in my day-to-day life as a teacher. So why is my experience so different? I cannot know, of course, but I think it has a great deal to do with the fact that, since leaving graduate school at a public university, I have taught in Christian colleges and universities, first at Wheaton College in Illinois and now in the honors program at Baylor University in Texas. And what I find is that my students are, to a degree that’s strongly countercultural these days, people of the book. When they were young they were read to, and read to all the time—the Bible, yes, but not just the Bible and maybe not even primarily the Bible. Their parents read them the Narnia books and The Hobbit and Madeleine L’Engle’s novels, and when they got a little older they started reading for themselves more challenging books by the same (and similar) authors. Many of them read the Harry Potter books, not as contrasting those more straightforwardly Christian texts, but as being complementary to them. To a degree not readily found elsewhere in our society, reading was an integral part of the culture of the families and communities within which they were raised.

Later—and this is especially often true of my Baylor honors students—these kids were sent to classical Christian schools, where the reading of long and difficult books is often mandated even for the quite young. I have some relevant experience here. My son was a product of public education until seventh grade, when relentless bullying essentially forced my wife and me to remove him from school. Scrambling for assistance in our new and unexpected career as homeschooling parents, we got in touch with a local classical Christian co-op that offered supplemental education to children like our son. Then we signed him up for a course that did a comparative study of Plato’s Republic and the key documents of the American Founding. That was, needless to say, not what he had been reading in his public school, where Lois Lowry’s The Giver marked the pinnacle of literary ambition for middle-school readers.

There’s no doubt that what Ted Gioia calls “dopamine culture” has come for Christian parents, and parents of other religious traditions as well, but my experience suggests that many parents are putting up a fight. Very few of my students are fundamentalists; most of them listen to the music that Adam Kotsko’s students listen to, watch the same movies, and spend only a little less time on TikTok. But they were raised as people of the book, and that has left a lasting mark on them. It matters to who they are today.

This should be an encouraging story to people who care about books and ideas, about the humanities tout court, even if those people aren’t Christians and indeed aren’t religious at all. A total escape from dopamine culture and surveillance capitalism probably isn’t possible for any but the most radically countercultural of us. Yet, equally, abject submission isn’t inevitable. It turns out that resistance isn’t futile after all.