An essay/query for a change sparked by this:
The discussion about a person’s reading choices versus whether or not they read at all is one that I used to have often when I was an English teacher. So many of my fellow teachers, who, curiously, were not readers themselves, believed that it was important for kids to just read; the subject, genre did not matter. One teacher resorted to bringing in car magazines for her kids to read in lieu of stories. "They just won't read anything else,” she would say. I groaned. My instinct was always to find out what the kids were interested in and find stories that linked with those interests. For example, horror films are frequented primarily by teenagers, so why not teach Edgar Allan Poe? Or read “The Birds” and then compare it with the Hitchcock movie? It’s easier to buy the car magazine, but the message is sent that anything that you read is as good as anything else. Ultimately, this is limiting, and we end up with a bestseller list that looks like a who’s who in romance and self-help.
I am not advocating that romance novels or self-help books be banished; every book has it place and mood, but I do believe that as we focus more on TV and less on stretching our brains to interpret tough literature, the less likely will our brains be to handle this type of difficult reading in the future. The mind is a muscle, the overused saying goes, and Shakespeare perks your brain, while Danielle Steele lulls it asleep. Educators, though, want to keep the peace. Students sleep or yell and moan when you ask them to read something difficult, so either read it to them, or get a car magazine, the battle-worn teacher says.
In an effort to make learning more fun, which always makes me cringe, teachers and curriculum specialists are ‘dumbing’ down the lessons. If you don’t want to read Shakespeare, get the No Fear Shakespeare and read comfortably in front of the TV! Don’t read The Scarlet Letter, read The Crucible instead! It’s the same thing, just easier to understand! Unfortunately, we are creating a populace that literally can’t comprehend difficult literature. Maryanne Wolf in Proust and the Squid argues that because our brains are not born learning how to read, they must be taught. If you are not taught how to read difficult prose, you will not have the brain capability to process it. This has far reaching implications. If you are unable to comprehend the irony in Austen, how will you be able to discern nuanced political arguments? How will you be able to read the newspaper or ‘read’ a TV show, public speech, or a chat with a friend for underlying, important meaning? Easy: you will not be able to.
In my opinion, the future is grim. I taught English in Georgia, which is last on the totem pole in terms of education, so I realize my reality may not be the norm, let’s hope so, but I see the majority of our high school students moving into the world choosing romance novels, car magazines, and self-help books (if they choose anything at all) not because they want a break, but because other, more difficult fare is inaccessible to them. Obviously, anyone can beef up their reading ability by getting a library card, buying a good dictionary, and going slowly through a tough book, but I do not know of that many adults who would choose that route. Most of them were taught easily digestible stuff in high school and that’s their bread and butter.
It’s a tough question with no easy solution, though I would start with getting some smart teachers in the classroom and sending the 20 year old trouble-makers to alternative school, but short of that, I am pledged to keeping this blog full of (among the occasional candy) good, hard books, so that perhaps people will be prompted to pick one up for spin.