Learning to Read in College and Beyond

This morning, Thomas L. Friedman had a truly insightful piece in The New York Times asking Where Did ‘We the People’ Go? In it, Friedman quotes his former teacher and friend, Dov Seidman, who states that “What makes us Americans is that we signed up to have a relationship with ideals that are greater than us and with truths that we agreed were so self-evident they would be the foundation of our shared journey toward a more perfect union – and of respectful disagreement along the way. We also agreed that the source of legitimate authority to govern would come from ‘We the People.”

We have had a breakdown, Seidman argues, because we no longer share basic truths, and this is being exacerbated at an alarming rate by the advent of social media. Where once news organizations served as the sole gatekeepers of information, for both good and ill, the internet has removed the gates, expanding our ability to not only circumvent news outlets, but to actively contradict them. We have entered a world where we can peer into the windows of our institutions and disseminate what we see with unfiltered abandon.
This only works though, as Seidman points out, when our leaders – from coaches to the President – have moral authority. Moral authority, Seidman claims, is different from formal authority, or that authority vested in the office itself. Formal authority can be depleted or conscripted, but moral authority is something that leaders earn every day by their actions in leading us with morality.

It is this turpitude of morality that brings us to our current situation, led by a President who unashamedly lies repeatedly, which is then explained away as unimportant by aides and the controlling political party as an acceptable standard. Social media then allows people to cling to ideology rather than truth, as fake news and the oxymoron of “alternative facts” becomes viral because it fits the world view of those who can disseminate at the touch of a mouse, and where it reverberates in an echo chamber of like-minded “friends.” When we begin to accept the argument that facts are merely interpretations of opinion, we have strayed from our moral authority in a way that is dangerous and unsustainable.

While I wholeheartedly agree with Seidman and Friedman, the question then becomes why? Why has social media had the ability to achieve the fracturing of American democracy when no other government on earth has been able to do that in over 240 years?

As an adjunct professor in the English Department of a top five business university, I have come to the conclusion that it’s simply because we don’t, as a nation, know how to read. When combined with a failure of morality authority, this is deadly to democracy.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that we are technically illiterate. My students know the basic phonics of letters. They understand that letters make words and that words convey meaning. What they cannot do, however, is take that meaning and sufficiently analyze it. They cannot process the inference of meaning. They cannot contemplate the motivations of characters, the often seemingly contrasting state of emotions that the average human experiences. They can read the words in a novel, but they cannot articulate what an author is trying to say with those words, or, more importantly, why. They can read the black and white symbols of a page, but they cannot analyze the meaning behind those symbols.

Because most of my students are business majors, and a significant number are foreign students, I spend a lot of my time at the beginning of each semester explaining the value of reading. I start the term by asking my class how many enjoy reading novels. I am astounded when, occasionally, more than one or two hands go up. My students consider my class a box they must check off in order to graduate. A class to be endured, even while my foreign students openly challenge me about why they have to complete this box when they are engineering students, or in computer related fields, or marketing. What possible use could a novel be to them? Even my American students consider an English Literature class to be nonsensical fluff, but they are at least used to the fact that such fluff is just part of the system.

I spend a lot of my time explaining to my students that my class, if they actively participate, will become the most valuable class they will ever take in college. Not because I am a remarkable teacher, but because there is no skill more valuable than the ability to analyze for oneself. To understand the motivations behind a person or group’s actions and to compare that effectively to one’s own self interest, as well as to the greater good, is an essential skill to cultivate democracy

We have lost, through our standardized education system where novels are often prohibited from the elementary classroom, the ability to conceptualize meaning from text. We can understand facts and formulas and numbers, but we cannot distill them into coherent meaning for ourselves or our fellow humans.

As a result, when our faith in an institution such as the mainstream media is weakened, we no longer trust The New York Times or The Washington Post when they tell us that the GOP’s attempts to roll back the regulatory protections put into effect after the 2007 recession will harm us. A simple analysis (and a review of recent history) would tell us that such deregulation will result in more bad behavior that will lead to more bailouts at taxpayer expense. But the majority of Americans no longer read or even listen to mainstream media. They scroll their social media feeds and live on headlines and incomplete analysis. Julius Caesar performed as Trump? An outrage. Never mind that the moral of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is that democracy can only thrive when justice is meted out democratically. That would require reading. That would require analysis.

We have an unprecedented polarization in this country because people are not taught to read, not in any analytical sense. They are not taught to think for themselves, to dive headfirst into the deep waters where darkness rules and only contemplation can bring light. The vast majority of voters (which is only a fraction of Americans entitled to vote) don’t even understand their own best interests. They continue to elect people who move our democracy toward oligarchy while they lambaste others for being unpatriotic. Our current congress has shown its willingness, again and again, to vote against the best interests of the poor and middle classes. Our current Congress is tolerating, even protecting, a president who is actively making money off of his governmental business, from having his cabinet members rent meeting space at his hotels to hosting state functions at his resorts. And these are the items that are clearly on the surface. Some may accuse me here of being partisan, but I fully recognize that there are democrats like Joe Manchin of West Virginia who will fall in line with what is best for the wealthiest Americans because his own constituency supports it, despite the fact that his votes are routinely against their own best interests. But he is funded by dark money that supports oligarchical thinking, and voted in by an electorate that is threatened with losing their jobs if they don’t fall into the ideological line. The politics of coal are a perfect example of the inability of people to understand their own best interests, to be able to think beyond anything they have already known to something better. The coal companies could have, years ago, moved to the future of renewable energy. They could have transitioned workers to this new industry and they could now, today, be global leaders in what is clearly the future. They could even start this today. Instead they use scare tactics and false patriotism, combined with a failed education system, to keep the status quo for themselves and the world. America is the only country in the world that still “debates” climate change or the role of fossil fuels in climate change. We did this through years of complacency and complicity by the main stream media. Now that the Washington establishment has turned on the main stream media, suddenly they have found the moral authority to fight back. But it may well be too late, because people no longer digest news. Whether handed to them over a screen or on a printed page, the analytical skills that reading develops are no longer a common denominator for the American electorate.

I am increasingly astonished at the lack of analytical capacity in my students and at how difficult it is to teach this skill by the time that someone is in college. Even very bright students struggle with the interpretation of quotes where there is a need for inference, or a need to consider a quote in context to a large portion of text or the full text. When an author offers contradictory passages, many students are not only stymied by the meaning, they are afraid to contradict what surely must be the “one true meaning.” They are both unwilling and unable to possibly fail in front of their peers, in an educational setting, to work toward any kind of analytical dialogue.

We have become a society that doesn’t read, but, more importantly, that doesn’t think analytically. We rely on pundits not to give us varying opinions, but to tell us what we want to hear or to inflame our moral indignation at the unrighteousness of their opinions. The lack of civil discourse, not only in social media but in the very halls of Congress, shows us the inability of people to analyze, digest, and espouse meaningful and useful dialogue. We have become a country where an ever-growing number of citizens are incapable of rational thought and analytical insight, let alone the moral dignity to consider the greater good. We need only to look to the current Congress to see a governing party that is gleefully using an unethical, incompetent, and hypocritical president to surge forward an agenda that hurts the very people who drive around in beat-up trucks bearing his campaign signs to know that the rule of law only exists when there is a moral authority in our government to protect it, backed by an educated, analytical populace that will hold them accountable if they don’t.

Reading fiction is an essential component to being a fully analytical person because reading fiction, in particular, teaches both empathy and analytical reasoning. Until we return our educational system to a culture where literature is celebrated, we will continue to create ideologies instead of analysis and independent thinking. It is only when an informed and analytical electorate begins to hold their elected officials responsible, at the ballot box, that we will change the course we are currently on toward oligarchy.

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