Readings are a much bemoaned part of university life. For those beginning university this week it is likely that after a few diligent weeks of adhering to reading schedules, you will soon neglect them. For those returning this week, it is unlikely this semester will involve more readings than did your pleasant summer break. I would say, however, that more of us should do more of our readings, and by readings, I specifically mean scholarly publications.
I borrow my reason for this stance from an article that appeared in Week 6, Semester 1 of last year’s Honi, an article against doing our readings (no one said that the print media was timely). In that article, which I probably read while I should have been doing my readings, the author decried them as “excessive intellectualism”. I think the very point of university should be excessive intellectualism. There are very few other places where we still have the privilege to think about things as long and as hard as we can at university, removed to some extent from the pressures of the marketplace. It is important that we recognise this chance at excessive intellectualism as a privilege. That does not make it elitist — though it might make you a wanker.
As I hope many of you are learning this O-Week, university is a time of excess. After university, it is likely we will never enjoy excess to the same degree, whether we sell our souls to the corporate world, manage to get tenure or remain unemployed with run-of-the-mill commerce degrees. Just as we are less able devote time to the excesses of the bottle, so too do we lose time to devote to excesses of the intellect.
But why should we spend this time while still at university reading scholarly work? Reading the considered writings of others is obviously a good way of coming to a greater understanding of things. For students who have had little to no exposure to academic voices, course readings are a means to accessing important discourses previously inaccessible to them. Reading scholarly works is also the first step in critiquing them. When universities foster articulate and well-read students, students with a critical eye, it makes for a better public discourse. This is especially important in a time when attacks on experts and the academic left are a favourite political weapon of burgeoning populist forces, and when experience alone is often privileged above careful thought.
I do not mean to sound a bore, and the delights of university are much more than merely doing one’s readings, but the excessive intellectualism, its attendant wankery, and the fervid debate that readings foster, are the raisons d’etre of the university as an institution.