Monday, November 9, 2009

Impoverished Reading Culture

The first of several articles on reading culture, books, libraries, literacy, cultural knowledge, indigenous knowledge system, folklore, education, media literacy and technology, film documentaries, writing, and publishing in Papua New Guinea by Steven Edmund Winduo, published in The National newspaper of Papua New Guinea under the column Steven's Window.

People are having a lot of problems with reading. I observed that students at the University of Papua New Guinea are not carrying textbooks around to read. Students walk in and out of lecture rooms without any textbooks. I see them carrying a rolled up writing pad, a folded exercise book, or their bilums, baskets, and bags. Most of them don’t seem to care whether they carry a textbook. They are happy without textbooks. I see them gather in small groups talking and laughing. I see them sitting around the forum, but without reading any books. I see them walking around holding hands or talking on their cell phones. It is odd for university students to fill the campus without having texts books in their possession.

I have traveled and lived in many international university campuses where students are seen buried in their textbooks, or rushing off to their classes with textbooks under their arms, in their bags, or next to them in coffee shops, cafeterias, and even under a shady tree. Students walk in and out of libraries with many books. Bookshops are filled with students buying textbooks, supplementary texts, and even books of general interest. The busiest places on a campus are the library, the bookshop, and the cafeterias. Books are everywhere. They are the inseparable gear of a student on campus.

I decided to take it on myself to tell my class one day about my observation. I was teaching a course on literature ad politics. I had about 60 students registered for the course. I began my course with some theoretical and conceptual frameworks influenced largely from the Marxist school of thought. In my first lecture I noticed the students were not with me. The key thinkers such as Karl Marx, Hegel, Emmanuel Kant, Theodore Adorno, Antonio Gramsci, Jean Paul Sartre, Ferdinand Saussure, Frederic Jameson, Stuart Hall, or Raymond Williams were not their cup of tea. For two weeks I talked to students attending my class without textbooks or any supplementary texts.

I am convinced photocopying lecture notes costs a lot of money. I believe lecturers should not photocopy lecture notes, books, or journal chapters to give to their students. Students should not be spoon-fed or have their tuition subsidized by the university. Students should pay for their lecture notes, readings, and textbooks. Every year staff at in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, for example, run down the poor photocopy machine several times a year because of heavy photocopying load, let alone running high the bills for photocopying. Students must buy their photocopies whether lecture notes, journal chapters, or textbook chapters. Students are led into believing that they can attend lectures without buying their own textbooks because lecturers will give free handouts, lecture notes, and readings. This is a false sense of responsible learning.

I raised the awareness of this poor learning attitude in class one day. Soon after that lecture three quarters of the students dropped out of my course. How could students understand theoretical and abstract ideas only from a lecturer’s notes? A lecturer is not the gospel truth of the subject he or she teaches. A lecturer guides the young raw minds inexperienced in the path of knowledge to achieve a competence sufficient enough for national duty after graduation. Students are expected to read beyond the readings set by a lecturer. Lectures are only understood when students have read the required readings and other relevant texts before they attend class. Instead, students attend classes expecting a lecturer to spoon-feed them everything. Such learning expectations do nothing more than making a class of lazy students pontificating a lecturer as the only source of knowledge.

Somewhere along the line something went wrong. I know that the curriculum and syllabuses are carefully designed and published to effectively develop the reading and learning skills of students. If these are taught and delivered properly students should be properly equipped with reading and writing skills by the time they get to the university. With teachers who are good at teaching reading and writing skills their students too benefit from the skills and confidence of the teacher. With teachers struggling to deliver the right skills of reading and writing students too fumble and stumble.

The problems of reading among university students are like a cancerous growth within our young society. We should not allow it to grow or gain footing in our education system and learning environment. Our goal should be to end such poor attitudes among university students. It should not only be the responsibility of university lecturers. It should be everyone’s responsibility to encourage and instill in our young people’s minds the values of reading and making books become an important part of growing up and developing successful foundations to reach one’s dreams.

I shared this observation with the Governor General of Papua New Guinea Grand Chief Sir Paulias Matane at the Government House one day. He was shocked to hear that our university students are not reading or buying textbooks and carrying them around in traditional scholastic fashion. Shock it was to him because His Excellency is both an avid reader and writer in his own right. He had come from a very oral society to one that is dependent on written texts and electronic material cultures.

A nation is strong if its foundations are build on a well read and literate population. Good leaders and wise man can lead their people, but their people can fall behind and be a burden, when they cannot understand what is happening around them. Policies on improvement of quality of life and national development have been made and shelved because then no one reads them or implement policies The implementers do not understand them owing to their inability to read such documents in the first place. The language of some of these policies is written in difficult technical languages that people have different kinds of interpretations and takes on a policy.

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