Welcome to the Playpen, our space for ferrety banter and whimsical snippets of things that aren't quite long enough for articles (although they might be) but that caught your eye anyway.
Choosing books to pound in an idea of national heritage, or kick off discussions of social issues, or have people get familiar with books considered "classics" (with or without explaining why) or based on pure entertainment--they're all just one answer to an unanswerable question: what book should we read? They all have drawbacks. The first obviously focuses only on the one country, the second, imo, suggests that literature only exists for what social issues it highlights, which I don't agree with, the third can be empty and arbitrary without admitting it, the last is going to be different for everyone. Basically, any teacher has to start somewhere and teach something about it. And probably the teacher's approach is going to wind up being most important.
I also half-agree with Dan's point about classism. I guess the thing is that, as an avid reader myself, I feel as though my life has been tremendously enriched by my reading habit and that therefore it relatively would have been greatly impoverished if I hadn't had the opportunity to develop that habit. And consequently I think, for any child who has the potential to become an "active reader", everything that can be done, should be done to nurture that potential. On the other hand... if you said to me, "avid readers have better lives than reluctant readers", I would wholeheartedly reject the notion. Some people just aren't interested, and they find their fulfillment elsewhere, and I have no doubt that there are many other sources of fulfillment that are every bit as rich and satisfying as reading is. More so, even! I guess in terms of an "ideal school program", I'd want something that gave maximal encouragement to avid readers and potential avid readers, and minimised the boredom and resentment (and possible, shame) of reluctant readers. How on earth to do that in reality, I have no idea.
That's a very good point. Already for various reasons we're no longer immersed from early childhood in the Bible and the Greek and Roman classics, as the majority of even moderately educated Europeans were until several generations ago; and this makes it very difficult for us to understand a lot of the allusions to Biblical and classical mythology and history that permeated western art and literature up to the beginning of the twentieth century. Those references weren't put into paintings and books to mystify people - they weren't elitist when they were made. They've only become inaccessible to us because we've lost a lot of the basic cultural knowledge audiences in those days were assumed to have.
Of course in exchange we've gained other things, but it's important to consider, before jettisoning the books that we were all force-fed at school, how many other things we wouldn't understand if we hadn't internalized those books so early in our lives. We wouldn't laugh half as hard at the gravedigger scene in L.A. Story if we hadn't seen Hamlet, and goodness knows what we'd make of the repeated phrase "the Dickensian aspect" in season five of The Wire if we hadn't at least some idea what sort of things Dickens wrote. That's a risk in the approach that says it doesn't matter too much what children read as long as they read something.
Gosh, I'm surprised by that: I have a Canadian friend who intermittently complains how few of her compatriots know any Canadian literature. When she went to a bookshop to ask for something by Hugh MacLennan, the shop assistant had never heard of him.
That's a little too close to the whole 'reading is elitist' argument for my liking. While academic freedom is great and choice is valuable, leaving school with a basic grounding in a few classics is never going to be a hindrance. Obviously canon formation is a hugely controversial area, but Shakespeare won't be falling off the list any time soon and making him compulsory (in the UK, this is) means that ideally nearly everyone has a rudimentary knowledge of who he was and something he wrote. I'm not going to say that erodes class boundaries or anything so silly, but he's part of everyone's literary heritage here, not just the privately educated.
I do hate the tick-list mentality that comes with the classics sometimes, but communal reading - and the discussion that comes with it - has almost always been worthwhile to me. I've kicked out when a book has simply been too difficult for my ability at the time, and hated being pushed into 'worthwhile' books by blinkered teachers, but I don't see anything wrong with reading together as a group. Indeed, generally the more difficult the book the more I've appreciated the fact that I'm not alone in struggling through it. Then afterwards that sense of group satisfaction at interpreting something and having the 'aha' moment is much more potent for having talked it through.
Honestly, I don't think it should matter how old or well-known a book is. Books should be assigned on the basis of challenging the kids' views. Give them The Analects or A Vindication of the Rights of Women, or Das Kapital (though people would probably have fits over that last one) or use books that can be a jumping-off point to discuss real-world issues (my eleventh-grade teacher assigned us research projects on child labour and homeslessness when we read Oliver Twist) instead of just throwing The Scarlet Letter at them because it's considered a classic.
Basically, art appreciation is always going to be fraught with problems about who gets to choose what art is best, but English was always my favorite subject so I was biased. If we read a book in class that I didn't like all I lost was having read a book I didn't like. I might have hated it anyway. Or maybe I was bound to hate it at that age. I do think it would be an improvement to be more honest about why books are chosen--the attitude that they're just generally "good books" (meaning of a higher quality in some snobbish sense) is ridiculous--but also sometimes a good thing for a kid to be aware of anyway.
In talking to other people about it it really comes down to bad teaching, it seems. Teachers who teach certain books as just generally better than any story you might like, unable or not caring to make a story relevent beyond that, basically teaching the whole thing as a class issue. Better teachers can teach the same books without making poeple hate them.
And everyone in that NYT article has a case of insufferable smugness.
There's something slightly off about both of them, isn't there...
I'm always ambivalent about reading programs in schools. There's always that slight smack of classism. We have to get children to read because that's what nice little boys and girls do. We have to get children to read the right sorts of books, because we don't want them to grow up reading trash.
One always wonders exactly how many works of literary fiction the average education secretary reads during his time in office...
Viorica: There is! It's sitting in the queue as we speak.
Robinson: Oh good.
Kyra: Is there to be a review?
Good idea. I'll put it on my reading list, and maybe get to it in a couple years ... or not.
On the other hand, really glowing reviews on this site have been known to bump books towards the top of my reading list. I'm still rather cross to learn that the library system near my college doesn't have a copy of Innocent Mage. Guess it'll have to wait for winter vacation.
Kyra: lol lol lol
This video is not allowed in your country due to copyright restrictions./smarmy Youtube official voice
Pillocks. Care to tell me what it was?
There is! It's sitting in the queue as we speak.
It's interesting that this movement away from having children all read and discuss the same book as a group is beginning at the same time that the rise of the book-group is moving adult reading in the opposite direction. I wonder what it all means. There are several different forms of entertainment, now I come to think of it, that seem currently to be drifting one way or the other on the axis of Solitary Pursuit <-> Shared Social Activity. Music has slowly been becoming less collective and more solitary since the invention of the gramaphone, but especially now with the ipod is becoming almost an anti-social (in a neutral sense) form of entertainment; computer games used to be at most a shared activity for two or three players at a time, but the internet has blown the social potential of computer games wide open. Reading, since silent reading became the norm and especially since mass literacy killed off any real need for books to be read aloud, is almost necessarily a solitary activity, but book-groups and online discussions create a social activity not out of reading itself but out of 'having read', as it were. So... er... sorry, completely lost track of how this relates to anything. Yeah.
An article from the NY Times on the future of reading and a rebuttal from Meg Cabot.
If anything they both illuminate this: society has a funny attitude to reading.