I came across this depressing post from Daniel A. Kaufman, a professor teaching an introduction to philosophy course to undergraduates at Missouri State University. He says up through the mid- to late-2000s his course put a heavy emphasis on reading primary sources from Western philosophy. Apparently this approach is no longer tenable with the current crop of undergraduates:
For one thing, it has become quite clear that the students, overwhelmingly, are not doing the reading and that in good part, this is because they are no longer capable of reading these texts on their own. Conversations with students about this suggests that it is due to a number of factors: (a) their high school educations no longer prepare them for extended, difficult reading; (b) they lack the most rudimentary historical knowledge required to situate these texts in the ways necessary for them to make sense; (c) they are incapable of reading older forms of English of the sort that one finds in, say, Hobbes or John Locke.
Students also have begun to plagiarize at an alarming rate, and for the most part, their cheating involves copying material from Wikipedia and other online encyclopedias. They are easy to catch, because inevitably the material copied is inapt in some way or is so obviously not written by an introductory level student that it begs for a quick Google search, which inevitably finds the source. Discussions with those whom I’ve caught (and to whom I am inclined to be kind, so long as they are honest and remorseful, which virtually all of them are) indicate that the reason is intimately connected to what we’ve just discussed: students are incapable of reading the material on their own and have almost as much difficulty making anything out of my oral presentation of it. Furthermore, students’ thinking has become shortened and fragmented, so it is very difficult for them to follow extended lines of argument, consisting of multiple parts, and the result of all of this put together is panic, of which the rampant plagiarism is an expression. It is rare if ever in a given semester that I encounter a student who plagiarizes maliciously.
You may want to read his full post for his experimental solution to the problem.
I see an opportunity for the Christian church to step up in two ways. First, to offer an education that is superior to the alternatives. Second, to raise children in a way that instills a lifelong love of learning.
Kaufman notes four main problems and I think we Christians could address them quite well if we wanted to and had wise leaders to follow.
First, he says “their high school educations no longer prepare them for extended, difficult reading.” While I don’t think we need to restrict students to reading Christian philosophers, I think it is worth pointing out we have 2,000 years of Christian philosophical writings our students can work through. We can gradually have them work from beginner texts to more advanced texts. We have the opportunity to make sure any student who graduates from a Christian high school has read extended, difficult texts.
Second, Kaufman says “they lack the most rudimentary historical knowledge required to situate these texts in the ways necessary for them to make sense.” As we teach our children the Bible we should be teaching them the historical context in which the Bible was written. This provides the chance to teach our children not only the history of ancient Israel and the early church but also the history of ancient Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and Rome. That’s a very good start to history.
Third, Kaufman says “they are incapable of reading older forms of English of the sort that one finds in, say, Hobbes or John Locke.” If I recall correctly, C. S. Lewis said something to the effect that we should read frequently from authors who lived in different times and places. Many great books have been produced by Western Civilization. Christian educators should have students read many of these books.
Finally, Kaufman says “students’ thinking has become shortened and fragmented, so it is very difficult for them to follow extended lines of argument, consisting of multiple parts.” This seems related to his first point but I understand him to also be alluding to short attention spans or the like. I wonder if “spiritual practices” (for lack of a better term) like meditation and prayer can assist Christian students in being able to better focus for extended periods of time.
While I think this educational decline is an opportunity for Christians I am pessimistic about us making the most of the opportunity. I think the Christian church is infected with the same anti-intellectualism as the surrounding culture. We are just as addicted to our smartphones as the surrounding culture. Nonetheless, perhaps some intelligent, wise, and gifted Christian educators can lead the way.