January 25, 2012

Number of Cornellians Reading for Pleasure on Decline

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Mirroring a national decline in readership, students in the Class of 2015 are less likely to read than their older peers, according to a new survey. The “2011 Cornell New Student Survey,” conducted by the University’s Office of Institutional Research and Planning, revealed that 27.4 percent of Cornell freshmen reported never reading for pleasure in their final year of high school.

The survey asks incoming freshmen how long they spent reading for pleasure on average in the second semester of their senior year of high school.

Though recreational reading has been in decline for years, the survey found that there was a significant decrease in the number of students who read for pleasure from just a year ago. Among students in the Class of 2014, 18.8 percent of students “never read for pleasure” — nine percent less than the current freshman class.

Not all members of the Class of 2015, however, are equally uninterested in reading. Engineering students were the least likely to read, with 31.9 percent reporting that they never read for pleasure, while the College of Architecture, Art and Planning had the most avid readers, at 18.2 percent.

Male students are also less likely to read, with 30.6 percent reporting that they never read for pleasure.

Students said their interest in reading for pleasure declined as they grew older and their homework loads increased.

“I used to read a lot for fun in elementary school, but I stopped when I was required to read,” Tess Salvatore ’15 said. “If I have two chapters of bio[logy] reading, I won’t read for pleasure.”

Niki Chimberg ’15 agreed, saying that with her increasingly demanding academics, she no longer has time to read.

“I used to read a lot more for pleasure, now I focus on reading about what I study,” Chimberg said.

Alyssa Browne ’12 said that reading rates among students may also be related to students participating in more rigorous extracurriculars.

“Activities in high school can take over free time that could otherwise be used for reading for pleasure,” Browne said. “When I have time, I constantly have a book in my hand.”

The shrinking number of bookworms has not escaped the attention of professors.

“I do think students now spend less time on their academic work and that probably spills over into their decline in reading,” Daniel Schwarz, the Frederic J. Whiton professor of English, said.

In addition to noting that the syllabi in humanities courses are shorter than they were 35 years ago, Schwarz noted that with resources on the Internet, students research for classes differently.

“Suppose you were writing on Hopkins or Lord Jim — you used to go to the library and spend a lot of time reading around and browsing. But with Wikipedia and the Internet, you target that research much more efficiently,” he said.

Professors also speculated that a cultural shift has contributed to younger generations’ apathy toward books.

“Culturally, there’s probably less value put on being well-read,” Schwarz said. “The real question is, how do people spend their time now? I grew up in a culture where reading the newspaper and being informed were important, not just to get good grades but so you could participate in discussing current affairs, politics and the arts.”

Prof. Isaac Kramnick, government, echoed Schwarz’ thoughts.

“Students are like everyone else in today’s digital culture. Reading for pleasure is left to a brave few who resist the weapons of mass distraction which dominate our lives,” Kramnick said.

Original Author: Erica Augenstein