Moral: adj. Concerning or relating to what is right and wrong in human behavior.

Many of my 10th grade students don’t know the meaning of this word, or at least they didn’t until I told them. How can it be that many, perhaps even most, 15 year olds don’t know the meaning of “moral?” Has the question of morality never come up in their upbringing, in their lives?

A report from The Independent further illuminates the problem. Even though it’s from England, the issues are the same. I’ll explain shortly.

University academics caused a furore this week by claiming many students found the thought of reading books all the way to the end ‘daunting’, due to shorter attention spans and an inability to focus on complex philosophies.

Jenny Pickerill, a professor in environmental geography at the University of Sheffield, told Times Higher Education magazine: ‘Students struggle with set texts, saying the language or concepts are too hard’.

‘I recently had a student suggest an alternative book for a module I am teaching which they found easier to engage with. It was a good book, but it was not really academic enough and I am still unsure if that matters or whether I should be recommending more readable books. There is currently a disjuncture between the types of reading we want students to engage with and the types students feel able or willing to do.

Perhaps the trends I have been seeing for years have been developing more slowly in England than in America, but the English are coming to similar conclusions:

credit: the odyssey

credit: the odyssey

Jo Brewis, professor of organisation and consumption at Leicester University, weighed in saying ‘graduates and postgraduate students seem mainly not to be avid readers’. Recommending whole books would overwhelm them, she added, and she tended not to do so.

Students have been quick to reject the claims, insisting the reason they struggle to read is because they don’t have enough time.

This academic is hitting closer to the mark:

Minesh Parekh, Education Officer at University of Sheffield Students’ Union said: ‘It’s just not true that students find reading whole books too challenging. The reason some students don’t read whole books isn’t because they struggle to, but because of problems with how we’re assessed, and the over-emphasis universities place on assessment.

This over-emphasis on assessment—as opposed to genuine learning—means that when writing an essay or preparing for exams it makes more sense to read a journal article or a chapter of a book because we’re not given the time or thinking space.

Some academics and students suggest the problem is a matter of time management:

Chantelle Francis, Academic and Inclusions Officer for the Sheffield University English Society, said: ‘I would argue that it is the time constraints that students struggle with as opposed to the actual material in most cases. I’m sure that if students had longer to read a text, they’d likely understand it better, because they’ve had more time to engage with it and appreciate it. But to suggest that students’ attention spans are low or that we are of insufficient ability is unfair.’

An undergraduate course such as English Literature – arguably a subject which requires intensive reading – has a typical reading list of between 20 and 30 books per term according to the University of Sheffield English Department.

The majority of students who spoke to The Independent admitted that they would rarely finish a course book within deadlines required.

‘I would say that it is simply a case of needing to prioritise,’ said Ms Francis, ‘do you finish a book that you probably won’t write your essay on, or do you complete the seminar work that’s due in for the next day? I know what I’d rather choose.

Then again, some academics seem to have rather unrealistic understandings of their students:

I think most students do thoroughly enjoy the challenge of reading,’ said Ms Francis. ‘I remember having to read Derrida and thinking I’d lost the plot – but these materials are supposed to be engaging and difficult.

It is not at all difficult to find similar complaints from American college teachers. A significant contributor to the general lack of academic acumen they find in their students is the fact that contemporary universities tend to accept anyone whose checks clear.

Maintaining enormous diversity and inclusion staffs is an expensive proposition.

The other primary contributor was alluded to by our English cousins: the testing—assessment–culture. Such tests are driven in large part by the costs of grading them. For English tests particularly, which can employ multiple choice items on only some sections, grading costs are high. They require substantial numbers of human beings. One would think such graders would have to be highly educated and qualified people. Not so.

In recent years in Texas, graders have been solicited through Craig’s List and similar sources. By their very nature, these people have to be essentially unemployed, able to drop everything–or more likely, take a temporary job over unemployment–for a one or two week job. They are given minimum “training,” which consists of “calibrating” them, and turned loose on hundreds, even thousands of short answers and essays.

To keep answers as short as possible, which keeps grading costs as low as possible, students read only brief stories or excerpts from articles. They are focused only on quickly discovering a plausible theme and a few quick quotes to support their views. Their essays are, at least in Texas, only a page long, spanning only perhaps three to four paragraphs. In many cases, their grades on the essay portions depend almost entirely on the test prompt. Some are confusing and poorly written, which unsurprisingly produces poor essays.

Students quickly learn, year after year, from the earliest grades, this is the point of reading. It’s not pleasant, it’s teaches nothing, and it’s a means to an end. By the time they have passed all of their mandatory tests in their junior years, the testing mandates have driven all idea of reading for pleasure, entertainment, and for the attainment of higher knowledge out of them.

This is why, when we study Antigone, the classic play by Sophocles, I have to repeatedly explain the concept of morality. We’ve developed an educational system that prepares kids only for fulfilling the political and financial ends of politicians and test publishers. There is no morality, only test scores, data points. Human beings must be taught to think in moral terms. It takes practice, correct practice, and reinforcement over years. They must build the neural connections, the ability to think in abstractions.

Testing does none of this.



I often, in decrying the testing culture and the destructive effect it has had on education, think myself a hollow voice crying in the wilderness. But consider our current culture, our political disarray, our retreat from the rule of law and the embracing of unrestrained emotion over reason. Then think about a generation, a non-reading generation, that can’t identify, or even define, morality.