Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Books in College

I estimate that only 1 out of 10 students actually completes the assigned reading in college.  At stupid schools, the number is probably closer to 1 out of 20 (stupid people aren't interested in reading books, and if they do read, it's not on the post-modern analysis of revolutionary France ).  You have to possess an unnatural amount of intellectual curiosity to even attempt  completing the large amount of reading in a typical upper-division humanities course at a respectable university.  The average undergraduate does not have the time nor the patience to do this.  And yet, due to grade inflation, they will still likely leave the class with a C at worst and more likely a B or perhaps even an A.  I've never met anyone who failed a humanities course.

Being an overachiever, I foolishly spent hours upon hours pouring over books while my classmates were out having fun.  I thought assigned reading meant assigned reading, but it really means "suggested", and most people just ignore the reading since it does not interest them nor does the act of reading actually improve grade point average in any significant way.  In one of my history classes last year, I was disheartened to find over 12 books of varying lengths on the syllabus.  Last semester I read over 40 books.  I read one a week for the semester even though half of the books bored me to tears--and I was actually interested in the subject.  My hard work did pay off though--I was able to demonstrate my mastery of the subject on the exam--something that people who did not read struggled with.  If you don't read, you don't have much to write about.

Funny story involving racism.  One my classmates who did not do so well inquired about my grade under the theory that the professor was prejudiced against Orientals and would not award us A's.  Bubble burst.

I think the dearth of reading can be attributed to the economics of grade inflation.  I have the impression that most professors do not expect the students to complete all the reading and issue grades based on this knowledge.  If you can have a shot at an A- without reading, then the marginal cost of reading everything (huge amounts of time) is much higher than the marginal benefit (a small increase in grade point average) and it is simply not worth it for many to do the reading.  Of course professors hope that students are actually passionate about the subject and read to satisfy intellectual curiosity (another benefit), but this is very rare.

A high school honor student I am mentoring recently gloated to me about how she received an A+ on a paper that was about a book she never read.  I laughed and congratulated her on the "accomplishment" but was silently fuming inside.  Maybe it is my Calvinistic sense of compunction, but I would never have considered such a thing, and I often wonder how people could do this.  Of course, if Madoff can be Madoff, then not reading a book is a trifle in comparison.  But the slippery slope is there.  The harsh reality of life is that some of those who cheat will eventually learn their lesson.  But others will go on cheating and prospering until they die a rich death in the expensive coffin.  And then there are those who live their lives honestly but still end up falling on hard times.

I find a poor existence devoid of guilt much preferable to a lavish life built on compounded wrongs.  But I honestly find myself questioning the universality of guilt in the human race.  Are there those who steal without looking over their shoulder?  My heart wants to my say no, but experience tells me, yes, yes and yes.  Is this a progressing trend in human affairs?  With the death of God and the emergence of a chaotic and uncertain world, perhaps it is.  

  This scenario also highlights the pathetic state of the American education system.  America.  Where you can receive and A+ in an AP English course without ever reading.  This was not the first time that a student I mentored did this.  More than a few of the high school dumb jock types would just moan about hating reading and brag about how they never read books, but they were in the stupid classes, so it was to be expected.


  1. I had a TA once who asked on the first day of class how many people were actually going to read, and even recommended alternatives for those who weren't going to read.

    Reminds me of this video:

  2. You shouldn't think that it's unfair for others to cheat while you read your books all the way. There's no such things as fairness. You did your homework, it will pay you off.
    By reading more books and fulfilling your intellectual curiosity (which is never going to be fulfilled), you simply become better than those who don't, even if you both get an A in the final exam.
    Instead, I think you should rather focus on how to get what you want to achieve in the most efficient way with your knowledge and intelligence. Born smart is just the foundation.

  3. It's not fairness that I'm concerned about. It's the principle of the matter. It doesn't make me mad that someone can cheat and make the same grade. I just feel sorry that they didn't take advantage of the opportunity to gain an appreciation of Voltaire. So it is more disappointing than unfair. But of course this predicament also speaks to the disastrous state of the education industry in the United States. It should no surprise that kids without the intellectual capability to read the assignments will either cheat and pass or simply fail. But here in the United States of Equality, everyone can read and appreciate literature and differential equations, as long as we give them the right education and they try hard enough.

    And schoolwork (at least in the humanities) doesn't really have any financial payoffs. In fact, I probably take on an unnecessary financial burden by paying seven grand to take a history course from a renowned professor.