how to build a love of learning

Why don’t Americans like to read?  And they don’t.  You’re reading blogs, so you obviously enjoy reading, but many people don’t.  You think other people ought to like to read.  But books don’t hold much sway anymore.

  • 58% of the US adult population never reads another book after high school.
  • 42% of college graduates never read another book.
  • 80% of US families did not buy or read a book last year.
  • 70% of US adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.

One of my fondest childhood memories is reading “The Hobbit” along with my dad. We had a big illustrated edition – a lot of the cheesy Rankin-Bass stills, where Gollum looks like a frog – and he read it to me in installments. I don’t remember how many times we read it or how old I was, but I do know that I read “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy (on my own) before 3rd grade, so it was probably when I was 5 or 6. But my point is simple: I remember being almost insanely excited with the idea that another chapter was going to unfold. A picture would be painted in my mind – by me – and the next day another picture would be drawn. I would go to sleep in the bunk bed I shared with my brother, my mind filled with trolls and dragons and dwarves.

I try to read to my children frequently, and have done so since they were born. My son likes books better than my daughter.  Every time I start to read to Pumpkin, Little Buddy runs over and insists on sharing (which means reading to HIM). But I think both kids have an early love of reading. I don’t read to them for any other reason than a long-term attempt to inspire a love of books in them. Books have been some of my truest and dearest friends throughout my life, and I think children need to learn early in their lives that a life can revolve around books without TV, video games or the internet.

Books, for me, are a stand-in for intellectual curiosity. That curiosity is different from getting an education; far different.  I argue that for most people, college is a crutch. Their intellectual curiosity is sated by four years in college – they read, they take interesting courses, they graduate and 58% of them never read a book again. Many people don’t even consider college as a place for true learning, but instead a diploma mill used to obtain fruitful employment.  My wife, Bubelah, thinks college is necessary for growth, and that college forces people to expand in ways they never would on their own. I say that college can only assist growth.  If you take advantage of the opportunities in college – or the continuing education available after college such as books, adult courses, or even through TV – then you have intellectual curiosity.  Intellectual curiosity, if someone has it, won’t stop with college. There is no excuse to quit learning, ever.

I’ve gotten glances from my coworkers from time to time when I sit and read a book in the office cafeteria while I eat lunch. I look around and see I am the ONLY person reading (without exaggeration) in the entire cafeteria.  I read history, or graphic novels, or fantasy/sci-fi.  It’s hard for me to imagine how exotic that appears to most people. The idea of reading anything other than a newspaper or magazine seems trivial or immature to them. Worse yet, I might be considered an elitist, or a bookworm.  When did intellectual prowess or a curiosity about life become a characteristic to be mocked? I care about history, space exploration, politics, ethics, literature. I’m a pointy-headed intellectual – and I drink beer and love pro football, too.

So how do you create a love of learning? Read.  After our formal education is done, we may gain knowledge through experience, or discussion, or other avenues – but reading is so freely available and simple that it can only be deemed a great failure of any society that doesn’t encourage it as a core virtue. You should do it whenever you can.  It doesn’t even matter WHAT you read: just read.  I’d like to see America become a place that’s proud of intellectual curiosity, but too often intellectual curiosity is mocked and belittled by people whose idea of culture is determined by TV executives. Knowledge should be a lifelong goal, not something satisfied by four years in college.

(I originally posted this, in slightly different form, in 2008)