Faith & Thought

Motivating Contemporary College Students to Read

by Father Robert Lauder

I cannot guess how many hours I have delayed before writing this week’s column. Actually it has been not only a matter of hours but a matter of days. Three or four times I sat down to start the column but gave up rather quickly. 

Was this because I really was not clear about what I wanted to say in the column? Was it because what I wanted to say seemed so obvious to me that someone reading the finished product might find what I was saying did not deserve a column? 

I really am not certain. I decided to be as clear as I can be and hope readers can take something of value from my words. I have decided to be guided by G.K. Chesterton’s statement: “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing poorly.” 

I will begin by stating in one sentence what I want to convey in this column: I want to encourage readers of the column to create and embrace a program of reading regularly that will broaden their horizons and so help them to lead more productive and fulfilling lives. 

I offer this encouragement not as someone who has achieved this but as someone who has tried and is trying and has found the program very beneficial. 

I can recall two teachers who greatly influenced my habit of reading. One was Father Vincent Taylor, SJ, who taught me English in my senior year at Xavier High School in Manhattan. 

Every time I recall Father Taylor’s classes I am amazed at the impact they had on my life. When I was in Xavier I was relatively unaware of what was happening to me, but years later I saw the enormous gift those classes were in my experience as a student. 

I am not exaggerating when I claim that those classes changed my life. The other teacher was Father Eugene Molloy who taught me English in my first two years at Cathedral College, which at that time was on Atlantic Avenue in downtown Brooklyn. 

Father Molloy was my idol. When I became a teacher of college seminarians and of other college students, I wanted to be as good a teacher as Gene Molloy. That was a vain hope. 

The immediate motivation to write this column about the importance of reading was an experience I had during COVID-19. During the pandemic I had more free time than usual. 

I had long felt that my knowledge of history was poor, so I decided to use what spare time I had reading history. I made a special effort to discover books on history that would help me to fill some of the gaps in my education. Two of my friends helped me in selecting some of the great history books they had read. 

The experience of reading several history books was amazing. It was like filling a vacuum, my mind, with poorly remembered names and events. It was a wonderful experience of self-education. 

Msgr. George Higgins, who I think was the most informed priest in the United States, claimed that if a person read for three hours every day that person would have the equivalent of a university education. My reading project convinced me that George was correct. 

I have a habit of starting a conversation by asking someone, “Are you reading anything good?” I don’t do that to be nosy or to embarrass a person, but I guess I think it is a good way of starting a conversation. 

I had a friend, a very intelligent woman, who would almost always answer, “Just junk.” What I am encouraging in this column is that we should read what will, in one way or another, enrich our lives. The thought has just occurred to me that in the future it might be better if I tried to start the conversation by mentioning what I am reading. 

Teaching college students today presents an enormous challenge. Every professor I speak with points out how difficult it is to get contemporary college students to read. This may be the most serious problem among college students roday. 

Cellphones seem to have made the problem worse. I have come up with a special plan to motivate students to read, but it is too early in the semester to tell if it is working. 

I am continuing my own program of special reading but I have added to history the subject of psychology. I almost cannot believe what I am learning from reading contemporary books on psychology. Of course insights into history and psychology can help in understanding philosophy and theology. 

Ultimately all meaning deals with the mystery of the human person and ultimately the mystery of the human person points toward God. There is a religious dimension to all learning. 

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.