Students’ choice: Who picks Moby Dick?

Should children pick their own reading? J. Martin Rochester is dubious. He spoke to a young high school principal with new PhD in education about “the difficulty of getting students to summon the patience, stamina, and will to read dense text, particularly book-length writings, in an age of instant gratification, sound-bites, jazzy graphics, and condensed versions of knowledge.”

The principal said, “Today’s students are actually smarter and better than students of yesteryear, since students today get to choose their own readings.”

Really? I immediately wondered whether we should trust the judgment of adolescents, much less pre-adolescents, to decide for themselves what makes educational sense.

Except at a few high school in affluent suburbs, students are studying less, Rochester writes.  ”Most fifteen- through seventeen-year-olds study less than one hour a day,” according to surveys.

A 2011 study by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute found that only 39 percent of incoming college freshmen “report that they studied 6 or more hours a week on average as high school seniors.” . . .  In the 2010 study Academically Adrift, Richard Arum and Josipa Roska found an overall 50-percent decline in the number of hours a student spends studying from previous decades; less than half of the students surveyed had ever written more than twenty pages for any class, and relatively few had been assigned more than forty pages of reading per week.

How many students will choose to work harder than they must? Diane Ravitch once asked: “What child is going to pick up Moby Dick?”

In an Honors English course at Rochester’s local high school, students were told to pick a “great book” to read for a semester project. One student picked Paris Hilton’s autobiography.