I came across this article, written in May of 2016, today and thought it might, once again, be worth your time. In this week’s forum, we’re discussing whether it is possible for America to be united again. Unfortunately, much of the public school system is controlled by Progressives. This means the little reading kids do these days studiously ignores classic authors. Kids no longer learn about courage, self-sacrifice, the great men–and women–that made America and changed the world. Too much of the little they read is socio-political indoctrination. Even in schools like mine not progressive controlled, there is a serious problem.
And how little do they read? When I began teaching many years ago, our classes were just under an hour in length. Now, largely in deference to mandatory, high stakes testing, they’re down to 42 minutes. This is so even for age levels that no longer have to take the tests, because it’s virtually impossible to run multiple schedules in the same building. Reading works of any length and maintaining interest and intellectual continuity is difficult, at best.
And so the struggle goes on. Let’s return to May.
I regularly despair about the state of my students. With relatively few exceptions–fewer seemingly each year–they are not readers. Oh, they can read. Some of them are able to read aloud quite well. But fewer and fewer of my students show the benefits of the avid reader.
What might those benefits be? Before I explain, consider this from Stephanie Cohen at acculturated.com:
I recently spent time with a class of fourteen-year-olds, talking about words, specifically words strung together to form speech. I started out by asking them whether they thought words could make people act in a particular way. ‘Can words lead to action?’ I asked. There was some thinking and mulling over.
We spent several weeks discussing, reading, and studying many of the greatest (and infamous) words read aloud: the Gettysburg Address, Ronald Reagan’s ‘Tear Down This Wall’ speech in Germany, John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, a host of Winston Churchill speeches from World War II, Eleanor Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Pearl Harbor speeches, and some of the best contemporary commencement addresses given in the US in recent years. Many of these speeches were written in reaction to events, and most of them called on their respective audiences to do something (be calm, have fortitude, ensure victory, reach for success). Whether or not the words we read actually shaped (or changed) history can be debated, but the more important question is whether words can shape conscience, which affects not just one action but a lifetime of actions. This is something teachers have long relied on the power of literature to do.
Cohen touches on but a few of the benefits of reading. Words not only form our thoughts, they express them. They not only cause action and shape conscience, they make action and conscience possible.
In the late 1890s, American high school English curricula regularly listed works by Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Alexander Pope, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, William Shakespeare, Daniel Webster, John Milton, William Bryant and Geoffrey Chaucer. Such authors were not just for those headed off to college. Students destined for workrooms—such as those who attended a manual training high school in Denver, Colorado—were still tasked with a similar English curriculum.
And yet, as an educator recently told me, referring to new standards that stress the importance of nonfiction and autobiography, ‘The trend right now is a movement away from literature,’ and it begins in middle school. Imagine your children gradually being fed a leaner and leaner diet of literature beginning in sixth grade. They are done with Beverly Clearly and Ramona. They devoured The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, then maybe they plowed through a few Kate DiCamillo books, ticked through Roald Dahl and topped it off with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. Layer on a handful of modern literary choices or a Newbery Award winner or two and it’s off to high school. What happens to the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, The Odyssey and The Iliad, The Wizard of Oz, Little Women, Call of the Wild, and (at least) a hundred others?
Actually, it begins earlier. In the last three years, I’ve been experiencing–educators across America have been experiencing–the first fruits of the tested generation. These are kids who, for the first time in American history, have been exposed to an education system whose primary purpose is the production of data via high stakes testing. From the first day they set foot in classrooms, kids are told, in ways subtle and gross, the purpose of education is not building bigger, better brains, but producing data that supposedly reveals what they are learning.
The fact that kids lose many months of curriculum–of actual learning and brain development– each and every year in favor of drilling for very specific tests, is not well known, nor apparently well understood. Take away that kind of time–actual years in a K-12 education–take away those books, that reading, that writing, the building of neural connections that cannot be made in any other way, and the damage is permanent, and cannot be reversed without concerted, dedicated, self-motivated effort over a lifetime. Yet how do kids know what they don’t know? How can they realize how much they lack and how much they’ve been cheated?
There are, however, forces opposed to this movement, especially the move away from exposing kids to challenging literature. Writer David Denby spent time at three high schools (two in New York, one in Connecticut), where teachers are trying to figure out how to successfully (continue to) teach challenging literature to the current generation. The teachers describe reaching today’s teens with literature as a tough assignment. As Denby, who spent time studying alongside classes of tenth and eleventh graders, says in his new book, Lit Up:
When they were very young, teens may have read Harry Potter and later they may have read dystopian and science fiction novels, vampire romance, graphic novels (some very good), young adult fiction (ditto), convulsively exciting street lit. By the time they are fifteen or sixteen, however, reading anything more demanding and time consuming threatens to cut off their smartphone sense of being in touch with everyone and everything at once. . . As they get older, many don’t see why reading seriously should be important at all.
What Denby is missing is the very nature of reading to which kids are exposed. The reading required for high stakes tests consists of brief sections of longer works, virtually all of contemporary authors. Kids are conditioned to search for, and to parrot back, only narrow, single themes or points of data. There is no depth in what they read, no lessons important to understanding human nature, to building understanding of life.
Kids do understand the difference between texting language and formal, academic writing. They’re able to do both. What I find frustrating, and horrifying, is when kids have to read–if they do; many won’t–a longer work, an entire book, and they’re stuck. They don’t know what to make of a book with a subplot, with multiple plot threads, with multiple themes. It’s confusing, because it’s foreign. It requires neural connections they’ve never made.
And it all comes back to time. Understanding good literature–the literature of the traditional canon–takes time. Cut months out of the curriculum in pursuit of single data points, and that time vanishes. There is also a significant movement away from the traditional canon to contemporary memoirs and stories, particularly written by anyone other than white, western males. Some actually believe that reading literature written by people of the same race, gender, sexual orientation, is somehow more “authentic,” and will somehow magically stimulate interest in literature in teenagers. Unfortunately, much of this contemporary “literature” wallows in shallow grievances and even racist agitprop.
If schools back off from literature, they back off from philosophy; they remove the opportunity for students to be lit up (as Denby titled his book) by the ideas of life. ‘If you don’t read books, and if you don’t get consumed by the physical and moral life of men and women in fiction and history, too many facets of yourself may never come into being,’ Denby writes. ‘That kind of reading is a special good.’ [skip]
As Denby’s book shows, and as our best teachers know, literature isn’t merely a school requirement or a list of recommended books. Great literature teaches us how to live better lives. And those are lessons we carry with us long after we’ve left school.
Great literature does teach us how to live better lives. Consider A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. A thin volume, kids can, with exposure, learn to love the sound, the feel of the language. Given the time, they experience the rich characters and moral lessons, they come away with a new appreciation for the value and effects of kindness, warmth, and the meaning of ritual. They learn that their choices, their actions, have an effect in the lives of others. They can learn the importance of laughter and friendship, and above all, that redemption is always possible if it is truly and honestly embraced.
Above all, great literature leads us to understand human nature, which should be a major goal of all teaching. We develop true empathy when we understand our shared emotions, needs and desires, and the appropriate ways to express and meet them. This is the very antithesis of racial, sexual or gender indoctrination. It is the very antithesis of drilling for tests, which teach almost exclusively how to take a very specific type of test.
Oh yes: the benefits of the avid reader. They are unmistakable. They have much larger and more literate vocabularies. They speak more fluidly, and understand that words not only express ideas, but they do it with subtlety. They know there are good reasons why English has more than a millions words in its dictionary and that number increases daily.
They write better, faster, and more naturally. They are able to quickly adapt their writing style to different needs and audiences.
They are able to relate to far more kinds of people, and have much greater cultural knowledge. They share far more points of reference with many different groups of people, including peers and adults. They understand humor more completely and deeply.
They are better able to apply the lessons of their readings to their lives, and to good and advantageous effect. They understand people better.
Ultimately, they are smarter than others. Their intelligence is more flexible and applicable to all academic disciplines. It is, of course, politically incorrect to suggest that some people are smarter than others. So be it. Some people are smarter than others, and for many of those people, it is because they are avid readers. It’s visible in their eyes.
So I despair, daily. But daily, I close the classroom door when the bell rings, and I teach as well, and as fast, as I can with the little time left me. I will until it is time, finally, to leave, and I will console myself with the knowledge I did my best to hold back the barbarian hordes for as long as I could. I did it, in part, by believing in the value of reading, and trying to impart it to my students.