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Op Eds

The Reading, Of Course

By Dhruv A. Pillai

The newest freshman class of Harvard College—the Class of 2018—has finally been selected. Those lucky slightly-less-than-six percent of applicants offered admission will soon stride through Johnston Gate into Harvard Yard, where they will gape and marvel at the spire of Memorial Church, the colorful chairs casually relaxing on our less-than-green lawns, and the dozens of tourists that they will come to know too well. For the seven days after they set foot on campus in the fall, the class will be in the hands of the Freshman Dean’s Office, whose Opening Days program strives to bring new Harvard undergraduates up to speed on all things Veritas.

The burning question: Are students more prepared for success at Harvard after Opening Days? Though the FDO prepares some great programming, it would better prepare Harvard students for college by making the Bureau of Study Counsel’s “The Reading Course”—a four-week class dedicated to improving reading comprehension and speed—mandatory for incoming freshmen.

Incoming undergraduates, hailing from all across the world and all walks of life, display varying levels of proficiency in various disciplines, including the sciences, math, and reading and writing. Nationwide trends have shown dissatisfaction among college professors in regards to their freshman students’ writing abilities. Indeed, the quality of high-school science curricula nationwide is highly variable. Paul G. Bamberg ’63, the course head for the Math 23 series, has gone so far as to create a month-long “crash course” to combat inconsistencies in students’ mathematics education. In response to the problem, Harvard has instituted multiple versions of science classes to cater to all levels of preparedness, the aforementioned crash course, and Expository Writing to elevate freshman-writing abilities to an acceptable baseline. Reading, however, is curiously left out.

Reading is arguably one of the most important life skills. Experts attest to reading’s importance in obtaining knowledge and gaining command of material, and Bill Gates famously touts reading as what allows him to “understand more about the world”. Many have cited reading as a necessary activity to fully understand the human experience.

Unfortunately, as necessary as reading is, Harvard students don’t seem to do it very well. Amanpreet S. Kandola ’17 said that he has “trouble keeping up with the readings” for his classes.  He said he tries “to do as much of the readings as [he] can, but when there’s a midterm coming up or a paper due, [he’s] got no choice but to skip around a little bit.” Kandola ’17, who took Bamberg’s crash course in the fall, says that “the College should at least try to raise the baseline reading level of students.”

Indeed, Kandola’s sentiment about keeping up with readings is fairly common, and it illustrates the lack of a strong reading culture on our campus. Even at Harvard, one of the most intellectual institutions in the world, few students read as much as they should. Overwhelmed with problem sets, midterms, and obligations to extracurricular activities, few Harvardians find time for leisure reading. When did you or a friend last finish a book outside of class? Forget outside of class—students even find keeping up with course-assigned readings to be a tall order. The result is a compromised education: Even if students are able to regurgitate the main points of Nietzsche’s A Book for All onto a midterm, the actual knowledge those students have gained may pale in comparison with the deeper and more nuanced understanding that might follow a thorough reading of the work. Additionally, by not reading outside of class, Harvard student limit themselves to the literature that one discipline, or even just one academic, might find relevant.

The biggest problem with the lack of reading culture at Harvard is time. I believe that given a free afternoon and interesting literature, the typical Harvard student would gladly peruse a book. The situation as it stands, however, offers students no such luxury, and I cannot imagine that graduation, after which students must balance careers and possibly families, brings more leisure time. Additionally, the reading load might not even be significantly less post-graduation, with students-cum-professionals replacing class readings with relevant magazine articles, research articles, and the like, all of which studies estimate take up about two hours of reading per day.

There is a simple solution to limited reading time: speed-reading. Though the average college student reads at about 450 words per minute, higher than the American average of 300, speed-readers average 1,500 with acceptable levels of comprehension—and the speed-reading champion can read as quickly as 4,700 words per minute. Could you imagine improving your reading speed by three-fold, if not an order of magnitude? You could complete your assigned readings for class, supplement knowledge in areas of interest by pursuing reference lists and linked articles, and maybe even have time for a fun novel over the weekend.

In a world where time is money and knowledge is power, being able to read quickly can contribute to a more successful life. Where scientific or mathematical acumen require months to develop, reading speed, which the BSC purports is doubled after its relatively short four-week course, would be a comparatively easy and crucial skill to equalize amongst new students. The FDO should mandate that all future classes take The Reading Course in their first few weeks of college so that Harvard graduates of the future can take full advantage of the wide world of knowledge available to them, if only they had the time. For the rest of us, the BSC’s course is only $25 for Harvard College and GSAS students.

Dhruv A. Pillai ’17, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Hollis Hall.

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