School vs. Readers

quietly reading...shhh

“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”
—Ray Bradbury

“I cannot remember the books I have read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

I have one formative memory of elementary school related to reading. On Halloween, when I was in grade 5, a supply teacher, or perhaps a volunteer of some kind, took a group of us to a small study room, dimmed the lights, and read Poe’s The Telltale Heart aloud with a flashlight under her chin. It’s important to note: I have no idea who this person was and never saw her again. Other than this one, shivery, excellent memory, I can’t think of another teacher in elementary school who encouraged any kind of love of reading in me—directly or indirectly. Without the influence of my family, particularly an older sister who is now a Professor of English, I doubt I would have taken it up.

Jennifer A. Franssen has written a superb piece for Canadian Notes & QueriesSchool is  no Place for a Reader, that ponders the irony of an institution—elementary school—that purports to foster reading as an important skill for children to develop, and yet offers little to no opportunities for actual reading.

Worse yet, according to Franzen, schools are becoming environments that are antithetical to real reading in the service of a utilitarian kind of functional literacy: “Arguably, the literacy agenda is a limiting approach that ill serves all children in schools. It is inarguable that it ill serves those who are already readers,” Franssen writes.

I find reading to be one of the chief pleasures in life. Many would agree with me that reading is transporting and enriching in a wide variety of ways. But, putting aside any such aesthetic and ennobling benefits, the habit of reading—of any self-directed kind, I don’t judge the format or content (much)—is an essential tool for success.

Over the past twenty years I’ve hired a number of employees in various white-collar, office jobs. Harry S. Truman once said that “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” From experience, I can say that readers, even occasional ones, have a distinct advantage in almost any workplace. Any white-collar job—and a large number of blue—requires paperwork, usually done on a computer. The advantage that any longtime reader has, is the ability to go off and sit quietly and focus for an extended period of time on a solitary task. Even the most type-A, salesman has to sit down and record that sale or finalize that contract in some manner. And I’ve seen people attain fairly high levels of employment—right up to VP level—who struggle with reading and writing. These executives can achieve a certain level of success, but most are mocked by their peers for their lack of these fundamental capabilities.

The assumption is that school will teach a child how to quietly concentrate on a task until completion, but I think that really happens at home now. Many classrooms are becoming barely controlled chaos punctuated by watching movies. Parents who are diligent in terms of quiet, focused time for homework can help prepare their kids for their future working life, somewhat. But a life-long reader, encouraged to read from an early age, will slip automatically into that focused space that real mental work requires.

Franssen is right to fear the emphasis in elementary school on literacy over reading. She quotes a teaching professional’s disdain for reading above your level: “Perhaps she is decoding that book, but she isn’t comprehending it.” Any lifelong reader knows that complete comprehension is never a criterion for either enjoyment or enrichment from a given piece of writing. She also quotes the positive influence of a Mrs Phelps, who said “And don’t worry about the bits you can’t understand. Sit back and allow the words to wash around you, like music.”

There are some professionals who would seem to agree, at least tangentially:

“The connection between reading speed and comprehension; a film is made up of still images flashed in rapid succession to simulate movement. Slow down the film, and the movement and meaning slows and the film’s impact is diminished. Viewers won’t learn as much about the film as if it were shown at normal speed. With reading the same thing can happen. When a person reads word by word, like frame by frame, they are not reading on the level of ideas. You need to read on some level that’s more conversational and allows things to coalesce into ideas themselves.”
—Doug Evans, Director of Planning, Institute of Reading Development

A child who is content to be awash in words and concepts they don’t immediately grasp, but will instinctively strive to place in context, will, I think, become a better critical thinker later in life. I’ve reread bits of experimental prose like J.G. Ballard or William Burroughs at different times in my life and gotten different things out of them each time. The experiences of my life have eventually provided the context I needed for those difficult passages. I believe it’s roughly the same process as when you’re a child and initially misuse some big word you got from Stan Lee in a comic: once that word falls into the right context, you never lose it again.

The one question I’m left with that is unanswered by either Franssen, or my own personal experiences, is this: was it ever better than this? If elementary school didn’t encourage me to read over thirty years ago, was there a time when schools did a better job of creating young readers?

“The most erroneous assumption is to the effect that the aim of public education is to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence, and so make them fit to discharge the duties of citizenship in an enlightened and independent manner. Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all; it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States, whatever the pretensions of politicians, pedagogues and other such mountebanks, and that is its aim everywhere else.”
—H.L. Mencken

Do those of us who become lifelong lovers of reading do so out of a perversely stubborn streak of nonconformity that literacy training can’t stamp out? Maybe we read in spite of school.