Thursday, September 22, 2011


One of the questions I was asked at the NEH Institute for high school teachers over the summer was what high schools could do better to prepare their students for college. I couldn't think of anything, but Brie Gertler suggested that students seemed not to know how to read properly, and that maybe something could be done about this. I was skeptical at the time, thinking that students might know perfectly well how to read carefully but might not bother to do so when they believed they could get away with it. Now I'm not so sure.

This essay at Inside Higher Ed might be of interest to anyone who reads this blog. It talks about Hadji Murat (one of Wittgenstein's favorites), Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals, and disappointing works of contemporary, popular non-fiction. The author, Brendan Boyle, says that his students read Eating Animals but not only found it unmoving, they also failed to understand it. J. M. Coetzee has said of this book:
The everyday horrors of factory farming are evoked so vividly, and the case against the people who run the system is presented so convincingly, that anyone who, after reading Foer’s book, continues to consume the industry’s products must be without a heart, or impervious to reason, or both.
Boyle's students are at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, considered one of the best universities in the country. He believes that they read the book, but reports sadly that:
None of the 20 who came to the seminar became a vegetarian. The best I got were vague professions about more ethical eating. "I’ll only eat free-range," said one student. "I’m only eating chicken from now on," said another. These sound like good outcomes, consistent with the aims of a program designed to get students to "think more deeply" about the topic at hand. But they are incoherent things to say after reading Safran Foer’s book, which memorably demolishes the meaningless moniker "free range." And if there were one animal you would not want to eat after reading the book, it is the chicken.
From this he concludes that his students did not understand the book, which I think might be the wrong conclusion to draw. Knowing that meat comes from a "free range" animal is not knowing very much about its life, but the book is mostly against factory farming, so that if you knew that the meat came from an animal that had lived outside without significant confinement or crowding then you might agree with the book and still think it was OK to eat this meat. But to only eat chicken would be a very strange reaction, as Boyle points out. So I think he is probably right that his students really are not very good at reading with comprehension. Those who came away thinking they would only eat free-range might have understood it. The rest might lack a heart, be impervious to reason, or simply be incapable of reading properly.

In conclusion: Brie seems to have been right, you should read Boyle's essay, and even some very good students still seem to need to learn how to read. I hope we can teach them.


  1. It might be, of course, that JM was wrong. Maybe it's more a matter of will than comprehension.

    To be honest, the idea that any book - no matter how vividly written - could make all normal readers restructure their lives seems a bit daft to me.

    Most readers will simply acknowledge to themselves that it's "a bad thing" and add the issue to an ever-growing list of things to sort out when their lives are otherwise perfect.

    Some will feel guilty about their inaction and so, if asked, will dream up a few half-baked suggestions on the spot to try and save face.

  2. Yes, he's certainly exaggerating. And the idea that a book might change all its readers' lives does seem daft.

    But if the book makes a strong argument and none out of twenty readers is much affected by it, then... I don't know. Perhaps human beings generally are more impervious to reason than we (or I, anyway) sometimes like to think.

    Or, of course, maybe the argument didn't seem that strong to them. But he writes as if they didn't have objections so much as failures to understand. Perhaps that just reflects his bias.

    In short: you're probably right.

  3. if i were a student beset on all sides by teachers that wanted me to change my life, i would be hesitant to just go ahead and start jumping at everything they put in front of me.

  4. '... when their lives are otherwise perfect' - that sounds about right.

  5. I have a sort of viewpoint on this that is somehow vaguely reminiscent of Parfit's Reasons and Persons.

    I find myself enthusiastically applauding the general moral progress of mankind - which I think is a quite real phenomenon, for roughly the kind of reasons given by Steven Pinker in his new book (just out), The Better Angels of Our Nature. In his paper The Paradoxical Relationship Between Morality and Moral Worth, Saul Smilansky puts the same thing in a slightly different way when he writes that "mainstream Western social morality today seems to be approaching the prospect for a morality that is not taxing".

    And precisely because I think that progress has been made and continues to be made, I find myself lamenting the fact that I myself was simply born too early to live in a culture evolved enough for it to make it appear natural - and therefore psychologically undemanding - to me to be even more progressive morally than the current Western culture is and I along with it.

    I count myself lucky to live in a time when a large number of different things such as slavery, war between nation-states, (unabashed) racism, capital punishment, impunity of marital rape, corporal punishment of children, etc., were either already extinct before my birth or have died out or look set largely to die out during my lifetime in ever-larger parts of the world. At the same time, I lament the fact that I was born too early for this process to have reached its climax, because this would have immunised me against the Socratic akrasia about many of the currently remaining evils that I find myself time and again to be suffering from.

    The former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl spoke of the "mercy of late birth" which he and his generation had been accorded, by which he meant that they were not adults in Germany during the Nazi era and did not therefore have to take a moral stand on it while it was a live proposition. In roughly this sense, I attribute to myself the mercy of late birth, but simultaneously also the curse of early birth.

    This is the way I personally experience this particular issue (quite intensely at times) in my own life. This probably sounds perfectly odd though, as Parfitian stuff about earlier and later selves often does. (The long New Yorker profile on Parfit himself, which recently did the rounds in the philosophical blogosphere, was very illuminating on this, and made it fascinatingly clear how personal his philosophy is in a quite exceptionally intense way.)

  6. if i were a student beset on all sides by teachers that wanted me to change my life, i would be hesitant to just go ahead and start jumping at everything they put in front of me.

    Which is good. And, indeed, it does seem that a lot of teachers want to change their students' lives in rather predictable ways, as the books often chosen for these summer reading programs indicate. But where is the youthful idealism? I flirted with vegetarianism for a couple of weeks when I was an undergraduate. It didn't take because I realized that I didn't really believe in it, but isn't this the kind of thing we expect and want students to try out? Maybe they're reacting against too much teacher propaganda. But it seems like a shame to me, and not just because my older self (I don't think that sounds too odd) sympathizes a lot with the argument in Eating Animals.

    '... when their lives are otherwise perfect' - that sounds about right.

    I don't know. How hard is it to go vegetarian, or just eat less meat? Of course, if you don't buy the argument for vegetarianism that's another matter. Or if you do but consider the issue trivial. But I don't really see how someone could agree with Foer and yet regard the issue as trivial.

    The Parfit profile is great. I don't think the whole thing is available online, but I wish it were.

  7. no, i was just saying, holding off on 'becoming moral' until one otherwise feels that everything is perfect sounds all too familiar to me.

    i have seen the spark of idealism in the process of catching with some students, i.e. as it's happening, but it seems to me more common that the idealistic ones already thought of themselves as having quite different lives before they got to college.

    a friend running an independent study on food ethics related to me a conversation he had with his student about whether or not her conversion to vegetarianism, for moral reasons, meant that she should hold her boyfriend to be immoral for still eating meat. it sounded to me like a pretty involved conversation (MY end of it, second-hand, was certainly pretty involved) - about the relation of vegetarianism to abortion ethics, for example, and questions about the force of moral reasoning generally. after lots of talk about what this student's vegetarianism meant to her, i'm finally told: she had been a vegetarian for… about a week.

    i don't know what that's apropos of, or what it means exactly. but oh, how i laughed.