Pomona College’s most historically esteemed dropout, avant-garde visionary John Cage, wrote in a 1991 autobiographical piece that he “was shocked at college to see one hundred of [his] classmates in the library all reading copies of the same book.” Always the iconoclast, Cage responded by opting instead for “the first book written by an author whose name began with Z.” Cage nonetheless excelled at Pomona, an oddity that convinced him “that the institution was not being run correctly” and therefore to leave.
Cage’s criticism is amusing, but clearly obsolete in regard to the Claremont Colleges of today, simply because you will never find 100 students from any one class paying due diligence to their reading obligations. On the contrary, I sense that many of us have caught on to Cage’s discovery and streamlined our reading to the maximum extent feasible. Reading, in most courses and to most students, has become optional, a luxury that falls somewhere between watching our favorite TV shows on Netflix and browsing Facebook in importance.
I often overhear conversations in which the participants competitively brag to one another about just how negligent they have been toward the reading that their classes demand of them. I recall listening to one chatty and apathetic student a few days ago who, gushing with self-satisfaction, regaled her friend with stories of her adventures in not reading and not caring. Later in the week, I encountered a classmate who wore his complete failure to comprehend his textbook as an indifferent college student’s anti-intellectual badge of honor. The more you ignore the reading while still managing to pass the class, the more your fellow Claremont students will respect and congratulate you.
Do not mistake my observations for the smug condescension of someone speaking from an ivory tower. I, too, have mastered the art of cramming three chapters into my working memory minutes before an exam. To be perfectly honest, I find annotating a text for any purpose other than writing an essay to be drudgery. I barely ever have the time to read every page assigned, let alone to underline hundreds of phrases while writing out pithy yet insightful remarks to myself.
It is problematic, however, that we seem to have designed an implicit hierarchy of academic assignments. Other course elements such as essays, problem sets or exams are somehow more pressing and immediate than reading and therefore rank higher. Our low prioritization of course readings does make sense to a degree; in most courses, they are the only assignments that do not put our grades at stake. The key point that I wish to convey, however, is that you are doing a disservice to yourself and to your education if you regard reading as a burden, as menial labor demanded of those less skilled at the academic game than you.
No other element of your courses, besides actual class attendance, better serves the purpose of a holistic and multifaceted liberal arts experience. Exert an effort to locate elements of your readings that, however trivial they may seem, engage your interest and bear relevance to you and your life. Try not to be the person in class who responds to the professor’s questions with a slack-jawed, vacuous expression. Finally, and most importantly, ingest some caffeine if you intend to consume 200 pages in one sitting.