Two autumns ago, in my son Jake’s junior year of high school, he took an AP English course. Junior year was bad for him and me — we never seemed to have anything nice to say to one another. But Jake did like to read, and it occurred to me at some point that perhaps I could use his AP English course to connect with him. Surely I’d read the same books he was reading, since the high-school reading list was carved in stone sometime in the early 1950s. So I asked him: What are you reading in AP English?
“The Great Gatsby,” he said.
“Do you … like it?” I asked delicately, thrilled to be having what was almost a conversation with my teenage son.
“I don’t really like the actor who plays Gatsby,” he said. “He’s got these weird bumps on his face that keep distracting me.”
“We’re not actually reading the book,” Jake informed me. “We haven’t read a book all semester. We watch the movies instead.”
It sort of made sense, once I calmed down and thought about it. It was hard to get kids to read back when I was in high school; what must it be like now, when there are iPods and iPhones and Internet and cable TV? Better to have seen Robert Redford pretend to be Gatsby than never to have known Gatsby at all.
Just the same, I was glad when, for his senior year, Jake proposed taking an English course at the local community college. Come September, he and a buddy drove to the college every Monday night and sat for three hours in English 101 — where they never once read a book. They watched movies instead.
Jake got an A- in the course.
We live in interesting times. In the past decade, the number of college grads who can interpret a food label has fallen from 40 percent to 30 percent. An American child is six times more likely to know who won American Idol than the name of the Speaker of the House. (For more bad news, see the sidebar on page 59.) Reading and writing scores both fell on the 2008 SATs. Not long ago, a high-school teacher in California handed out an assignment that required students to use a ruler — and discovered not a single one of them knew how.
What in the world is going on with our kids?
Bring the subject up in any group of parents around Philadelphia, and you’ll hear the same thing: Children today seem, well, dumber than they used to. They don’t know the most basic stuff: who fought against whom in World War II, how many pints are in a quart, and in Jake’s case, the days of the week. (He’s shaky on the months, too.) They may be taking every AP and Honors course their schools offer, but they can’t tell you who invented pasteurization. (They do know who invented Facebook, because they saw the movie The Social Network.) They spend an average of eight and a half hours a day in front of screens — computer screens, TV screens, iPhone screens. Add in eight hours of sleep and seven of school, and that leaves half an hour when their senses aren’t under siege — just enough time for a shower.