BELIEVE IT OR NOT, I am surprised that I am writing a column about the importance of reading. Does anyone doubt that reading is important? I have become convinced that there is a serious problem: Many students do not read with any frequency. They don’t read what are assigned readings in classes, and they don’t read for pleasure or personal enrichment. I have not taken any surveys or read any studies about this problem. My reflections are from my own experience and from anecdotal evidence provided by others.
I am sure I do not have to convince any readers of this column that reading is an important part of education. My friend, the late Msgr. George Higgins, who was the most well-informed priest in the country, claimed that if a person read three hours a day, that person would have the equivalent of a university education.
There has been a breakdown in education prior to college. I don’t think that the college students whom I am currently teaching are less intelligent than students I taught 50 years ago, but they are definitely less well educated. How has that happened? I don’t know. I give reading assignments in all my courses. I don’t believe any of the assignments are unreasonable. Yet I find that students do not do the reading assignments until they have to for an exam. That means that while I am lecturing on the material, few have done the reading, and so it is difficult to have a good discussion on the material.
Some professors have told me that whenever I give a reading assignment, I should always give a quiz on that assignment. I have resisted doing that because I don’t want to turn a college course into a high school course. Perhaps I am wrong. I might almost be forced to give quizzes.
Reflecting back on my own education, I can see clearly that reading has played a very important role. I would never describe myself as a voracious reader. My sister was. She devoured books and was able to master the content of a book that she had read. One time a priest friend called my sister on a Saturday afternoon to ask her to pinch hit as the speaker at a communion breakfast the next morning. My sister borrowed a theology book from me, went through it and gave a magnificent talk on theology the next morning. As she spoke at the communion breakfast, she sounded like a theologian.
I am not claiming that reading can lead to a solution to all the problems in the Church. However, I do believe that some reading, for example in Church history or theology or spirituality, might help in solving some of the problems in the Church. Let me offer an example of how reading has helped me. When I was a student in college and in the seminary, there were no courses in counseling in the curriculum. Shortly after I was ordained, I became aware that many people who needed help needed a counselor as much as they needed a priest. Many of my priest friends went for counseling degrees after ordination. I didn’t, but I probably should have. What I did do was read many excellent books on psychology that helped me a great deal and I hope helped me to help others. That was not as good as getting a degree in counseling, but it did help to fill a serious lack in my education.
I have a habit of starting a conversation by asking a people if they are reading anything interesting. One of my friends, who reads a great deal, often responds by saying “Just junk!” I immediately try to think of some book that I have read or am reading that I can recommend to her. Often, after she has finished reading the book I recommended, she tells me how much she enjoyed it. I am not suggesting that we should never engage in what might be described as “light reading” or that we should only read books as deep and as demanding as novels such as Dostoyevsky’s “Brothers Karamazov,” but I am suggesting that if we are reading, we should not waste our time on “junk”.
I have a plan that I will continue to ask people what they are reading and perhaps pursue my question with comments about what I am reading. I do not plan to embarrass anyone or put anyone on the spot, but I am guessing that I might benefit from any conversation that develops about books.