01/07/2015 03:19 pm ET Updated Mar 09, 2015

When Students Won't Read

Sometimes when I am trying to make a point to my class I remember that Shakespeare, or Voltaire, or Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., for instance, has already made it much more eloquently. So I ask how many have read Othello, or Candide, or Slaughterhouse Five. There follows an awkward silence. People look around sheepishly and finally three or four out of a class of 25 raise their hands. Mind you, these are humanities students.

For years I have heard my colleagues pose the agonized rhetorical question "Don't people read anymore?" The answer, as far as I can tell, is "No, not many." Based on the evidence of 30-plus years teaching at the collegiate level, it appears to me that cultural literacy -- which is achieved by reading -- is low and in a state of steady decline. Nobody can read everything. I once tried reading War and Peace, but after plowing through 70 or 80 pages of Russian names, and with 1200 pages left to go, I gave up. In fact, there is no single absolutely indispensable book that everybody must read. But... if Facebook is your favorite book, you have a problem.

A few years ago I saw a clip in which someone asked some ninny, I think she was an American Idol winner,"Which European country has Budapest as its capital?" She replied that she thought that Europe was a country (Country? Continent? What-ev-er.). When told that the country was Hungary, she seemed to think that somebody was asking who was hungry. Somebody should have tossed her a plate of goulash. Well, maybe she doesn't need to know Budapest from Rid-a-Pest. After all, she's going on to fame and fortune as a singer, right? We're not that ignorant, are we? According to Susan Jacoby, author of the book The Age of American Unreason, many college students cannot locate Israel, Iraq, or Syria on a world map. What is true of geography holds for almost every other subject. Items of "common knowledge" in science, literature, and history are no longer common knowledge. Even more amazing to me is how little is known about the Bible, even in the so-called "Bible belt."

Right off the top of my head, here are five questions that, I think, every college student should be able to answer:

1. Who were the two legendary founders of ancient Rome?

2. Which Polish astronomer of the 16th Century proposed that the sun, not the earth, is at the center of the universe?

3. What year did William the Conqueror invade Britain and defeat the Saxons at the Battle of Hastings?

4. Which U.S. president offered Americans a "New Deal" to combat the woes of the Great Depression?

5. Which literary character said "To be, or not to be? That is the question."?

Well, suppose you never heard of Romulus and Remus (1st question), or have forgotten all about Copernicus (2nd question), and the year 1066 (3rd question) just never stuck in your head. So what? After all, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (4th question) died a long time before you were born and Hamlet (5th question) is only a fictional character. Why does it matter if a college student cannot answer these questions? It matters because we cannot communicate if we don't share some basic cultural landmarks. When I try to explain a difficult point to students, I can only explain the unknown by building on the basis of what I presume that they already know. But if my presumption is wrong, and the students are not familiar with the very terms of my explanation, then my explanation is worthless to them. By the time you get to college you have to already know something or you cannot be taught anything else.

Not only do students not read much, some actually express an active hostility towards reading. But being able to read is half the benefit of being human. As far as I am concerned, if I couldn't read, I'd just as soon be running around the Serengeti with the hyenas and wildebeest. Without reading, life would be like Thomas Hobbes' description of the state of nature: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Why should you read? Not because some snooty egghead professor is telling you to, but because you owe it to yourself. Aristotle observed long ago that humans by nature want to know. Curiosity is a natural human trait that, with proper nurture, can grow and flourish throughout life. It sprouts vigorously in young children, but in many adults it is in a sadly withered state. The way to keep your natural curiosity alive is by indulging it. Further, unlike indulgence in pizza, ice cream, or beer, you never reach a point where it is bad for you. The more you learn, the better it is. There is no such thing as too much knowledge. Of course, you still have to make a living, drive your kids to the doctor, cut the grass, etc., but your life will be better if you sometimes put down your smart phone and read a good book.

What is a "good book?" A list would be long, boring, and inevitably somewhat biased. Really, any serious fiction or nonfiction will do fine. Read a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., or Toni Morrison, or John Updike. Read a good history of World War Two or the civil rights movement. Read a book about an ancient civilization, like Egypt, Greece, or Rome. Read a book about someone else's religion, written by someone who practices that religion. Read a biography of Albert Einstein, or Abraham Lincoln, or Queen Elizabeth (I or II). Read a book on the big bang, or dinosaurs, or the brain. Basically, just read a book. The life you improve will be your own.