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If that title sounds like a fishy e-mail subject line, you might be in the wrong business. Mark Bauerlein over at the Chronicle of Higher Education blog posts some highlights from the just-released 2011 American Freshman Survey, and that’s essentially the thrust of the document: today’s college entrants are spending less time actually doing work (or, at least, doing the work that traditionally constituted an education), yet their “achievements” continue to pile up.

While many of the survey’s results are unsurprising (young people spend ever-more time patrolling social networking sites) there’s a larger drift to the report which reflects poorly on adults and “experts” as much, if not more so, than it does on the students. Essentially, as expectations have changed, everyone has become a virtuoso. The vast majority of grade point averages from high school, for example, were in the “B” range or higher, and every year more and more students take Advanced Placement courses. As someone skeptical of the notion of collective moral progress, it’s difficult to believe that young people today are simply smarter than they ever were before. Yet there’s no reason to darkly assume that the reverse is happening, either—that students are getting “dumber,”  or even that they’re innately lazier.

A more probable explanation is that the system itself has changed, and students with it. They’ve learned shortcuts and pathways to avoid time-consuming tasks like actually thinking about a book because they’re receiving signals (subtly or not-so-subtly) that other results are expected of them. They’ve internalized a mentality of utilitarian efficiency and have become really, really good at meeting the adult world’s new expectations (witness the 85.9% who say “getting a job” is the primary purpose of learning and the huge weight assigned to that prospect as criteria for choosing a school).

I would suggest that one major root of the problem, as a commenter at the Chronicle ’s site perceptively points out, can really be traced to a single figure: 54.2%. That percentage represents the number of incoming freshman who claim (admit?) they spend “less than one hour per week” reading for pleasure. The problem with this statistic isn’t necessarily that it means this group is missing out on great literature or important ideas (they are). Rather, it’s indicative of an entire approach to education: it’s a chore, not something to be internalized. Yet it’s a cycle: When reading is sidelined by professors and administrators pushing gadgetry, careerism, or unrealistically high levels of achievement, it’s no surprise students turn to “shortcuts” like Sparknotes or even outright cheating, and that they’d rather spend time on (dare it be said) more practical and humane things like social networking.

The loss, of course, is immense. Simone Weil famously analogized reading to prayer for the slow, focused attention that both undertakings demand, and so it’s no surprise that today’s students are also markedly less religious and more harried. If only there were a way to re-incentivize “useless” pursuits.

See more statistics (and find a link to the complete report) here .

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