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Is NYTimes Correct That College Students Don't Read Books?

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September 3, 2018
 
 

"A generation that rarely reads books or emails, breathes through social media, feels isolated and stressed but is crazy driven and wants to solve the world’s problems (not just volunteer) is now on campus."

The iGen Shift: Colleges Are Changing to Reach the Next Generation from the NYTimes, 8/2/18.

Is the NYTimes right that today’s college students don’t read books?

This certainly doesn’t track with what I see each day on my campus. My office happens to be located in our main library, which on my campus is also center of all student life. Outside of my office, where the card catalog was once located, are comfortable chairs and couches for the students to study, socialize, and chat. What these students often do is read books.   

Perhaps small liberal arts schools are different. Not representative in terms of student book reading. I have my doubts, however, that today’s college students are really reading less books.

The worry that “today’s young people are reading less books” seems to be a theme for each successive generation. One can imagine a similar adult worry about the decline of college student book reading in the 1980s (when I went to school) or the 1880s.

Each generation of older people seems to be convinced that today’s young folks are succumbing to the latest distraction. Smart phones are the new rock and roll.  Social media is the new comic book.

I suspect that today’s college students are just fine. That they read books today, and will read books in ever greater numbers long into the future.

A quick look at some Pew survey data on book reading (see below) should at least make us question any overarching claims about books and iGen students. According to these data, young people are more likely to have read a book in the past year than other ages, and are reading at least as many books.

How college students may want to read may be different. Pew data also indicate that young adults may prefer digital books at higher rates than other age groups.

I suspect that if there is a book reading issue with today’s college students, the problem is more us than them. Most colleges have not figured out how to integrate or coordinate the curriculum across courses. At only a few institutions are a common set of books read across the range of required courses. Reading is time and energy intensive. If we want students to read more books, we need to set them up for success.

Would our students read more books if we gave them digital book reading options? If we provided them with paper, e-book, and audiobook options of assigned book reading?

I know that I’m much more likely to read a book if given a digital option. Should our students be any different?

We might want to refrain from making any blanket statements about college students today. This is as true with book reading as anything else. Today’s college students are amongst the most diverse of any American populations. There is enormous variation in attitudes and behaviors when it comes to book reading, as with everything else.

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