I am, you see, preaching to the choir. You, the readers of this scruffy little blog, are among the 20 percent of US families that did buy or read a book last year, almost certainly, multiple books. You are that small percentage of blog readers willing to read more than a few hundreds words at a time. I generally shoot for no more than 1500 words, but often exceed that word count, sometimes greatly, but you read the articles anyway. Do you know how rare and simultaneously discouraging and encouraging that is?
Why do you do that?
I was going to make this a “Why I Read” article in the vein of my periodically updated “Why I Carry A Handgun ” article. But I realized I was not only preaching to the choir, but to the small portion of it capable of understanding, and willing to think. Perhaps you’re thinking by complimenting you, I’m dishonestly patting myself on the back of my brain. Actually, I’m speaking from a career of experience, for you see, one of the primary, and most damaging, problems in contemporary education is kids aren’t readers.
Shall I tell you a dirty little secret, one I refrained from telling while I was still employed as a teacher? Many teachers—including teachers of English—aren’t readers either. I learned that early, when I was taking my bachelor’s in English and music. I discovered I was often the only student in English classes of all kinds that did all the reading, and did it on time. Does that sound strange to you? People studying to become English teachers failing to do the reading, not only reading about methods, but the actual literature they would be responsible for teaching? It struck me as odd, but in a sense, it didn’t.
I, you see, have certain advantages. I read extraordinarily quickly, and where academic reading is involved, can sort of skim texts, because I know exactly what to look for, which ideas and passages are important and spark insight. I don’t have a photographic memory, but I remember much of what I read on the first pass. What’s responsible for this? Marvel comics, the originals back in the 60s and 70s. They had college level vocabulary, interesting stories, and I ate them up. It was these skills that allowed me to read all of my student’s papers, write comments back to them, grade them, and hand them back the very next day.
If teachers aren’t readers, what does that mean for education? It was my universal experience that when an English teacher declined to teach a given author—like Shakespeare—or a given work, it was because they likely had never read them, and it was certainly because they didn’t understand them. Nor were they interested in catching up, or for the most part, asking a more widely read colleague for insight and help.
To be absolutely fair, some of my colleagues had families, even families with special needs children, and they didn’t have the time I had. Still, not to read…
In speaking with teachers of history, science, math and other disciplines, I often found myself struggling to keep a neutral expression when they told me with considerable pride they had not read a book in, well, they couldn‘t recall how long exactly. I merely nodded and quickly moved the conversation in other directions. English teachers tended not to make such admissions, but it was clear far too many were not readers, and intended to do nothing to remedy the situation.
Even though I generally taught the same literature from year to year, whenever I would teach a story or book, I would read it again prior to teaching. This is absolutely essential with good art of any kind, because whenever you return to it, you find something new, something you missed or couldn’t understand because you didn’t have the experience, or hadn’t read many other articles or stories or books that gave you insight you needed to understand what you earlier missed. You find something new, because if you continue to read, to think, to better understand human nature, when you return to a familiar text, you are new.
How true is this? How many teachers are not readers? Is it universal, the same everywhere? I’ve no idea. Anything I would write is only a guess, and I suspect it will stay that way. Not many teachers are willing to admit they don’t read—at all—and have no intention of reading in the future. All I can say is the frequency of the problem I encountered across multiple schools and states, and through conversations with colleagues on the high school and college levels around the world is beyond concerning.
With this as background, we turn to the coming school year, where educrats and politicians—they’re pretty much the same thing—are planning a “dual track” system: standard, in-class schooling for those that choose it, and “on-line” schooling for the rest. Or, districts are planning a two-track, half time system, primarily to enforce social distancing. There is no way to put the usual number of kids in classrooms if they have to be 6’ from every other student. Some are combining all of this brilliance.
As I’ve so often written, a teacher’s most important resource is class time. Remove five minutes a day from their classes, and they’re losing a month of class time, minimum, over a school year. Cut that time by 50%, and retain all the usual distractions and time cut from classes, and it would be a miracle if kids managed 35% of the class time of a normal school year. A student may graduate at the end of 12th grade, but unless things change and we return to a normal system, they won’t have anywhere near 12 years of instructional time. And of course, they’ll have only a fraction of the prior opportunity to learn and become reasonably productive people.
Consider the kids in on-line schooling. Some few will be self-motivated, the kind of kids who read the material and like to learn. They will miss a great deal by not being in class, but they’ll lose far less learning opportunity than kids that don’t much care about learning. Most, however, will be kids that know it’s impossible to maintain the same level of educational opportunity online. They’re there to avoid learning, or to scam the system, to get a passing grade for very little effort. Educrats and politicians will tell you online learning is every bit as rigorous and provided equal opportunity for learning. Don’t believe them.
Back to reading. Teachers that don’t read don’t have new ideas. They don’t have new insights. They can’t make connections in different kinds of literature, and they don’t learn about human nature. With the scant time they have, they miss the most meaningful and important insights in texts, and they and their kids fly right past them, focusing only on the dull and obvious. Remove actual person-to-person contact, and the loss, teacher and student, is incalculable.
Oh, but the kids. Non-readers most, if they’re not sitting in class, required to read as a group, they won’t read nearly anything. Even then, teachers can only require them to appear to be paying attention, and then only in schools that allow adults to be in charge. To be sure, good teachers, teachers excited about the texts, teachers who know those texts and seek new insights, and who can relate Shakespeare to kid’s lives, can produce better results, and more of their students will read, but not if they’re not in the classroom.
I’m not talking about relating literature to kids based on gender, race, sexual orientation or any other currently fashionable victim group ideology. That’s political nonsense and educational malpractice. Some will claim Black kids, for example, can’t read or learn unless they’re reading contemporary Black authors. There is nothing for them in Shakespeare, nothing in Poe, nothing in the writing of dead white men that can reach or teach them. This too is absolutely false. Good art– great literature–teaches and delights because it relates to humanity, because it causes readers to understand themselves and others better, and besides building bigger, better brains on the molecular level, makes them better and more capable human beings. But not if they don’t read.
Want to “reform” education? Want to “transform” teaching? Read. That’s it. It’s the foundation for everything else. Every other discipline requires the ability not only to read, but to comprehend texts and processes. Mark Twain said:
The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.
But there is too much else to teach, to learn. We can’t focus on reading.
If you don’t, you’re not actually teaching, and the kids aren’t actually learning. They’re appearing to pay attention, and many don’t bother to do even that.
So gentle readers, as you consider the various brilliant methods of reopening school while simultaneously behaving as though everyone—from now to eternity—is about to die from a horrible contagion, give some thought to analyzing the brilliance of these schemes though the lens of not reading.