Friday, April 6, 2012

Fluffy reads

I'm trying to keep an open mind about virtual books and to listen respectfully to those with whom I disagree.  All too willing to accept that my preference for books (the ones with actual paper in them) may be rooted in emotion or history, I've been pretty quiet about those preferences.  Until now.

While reading levels of American high school students continue to fall, it's time to ask when we accepted the fallacy that reading is supposed to be easy and fun.  Light reading for pleasure while on holiday, sure.  But all reading?  I don't think so.

The best writing (of the caliber of Shakespeare, Plato, Dante, Socrates, or Homer) is intended to challenge the reader, to make the reader think, to force the reader to The Oxford English Dictionary or another study aid, or to require the reader to tackle a paragraph s-l-o-w-l-y one or more times before the dense text becomes clear.  Great writing takes work, both for the author and for the reader.  And it's not the kind of work that lends itself to handy electronic devices far better suited for popular contemporary fiction.

Most American high school and college students write poorly, largely because they read poorly.  And the need for curriculum to develop 'critical thinking' would be diminished, if not eliminated, by requiring students to read prose and poetry above their grade level, grapple with the complexity of what they are reading, and explain the meaning--in writing. That's critical thinking.  The critical thinking employers want.  And learning to read Dante well helps with reading--and writing--case law, historical documents, philosophy, learning objectives, short stories, instructional manuals, position papers, and annual reports.

Consider, for example, Bram Stoker's Dracula, which can be read here courtesy of Project Gutenberg.  Written in 1897, Dracula could be considered 'light' reading of that era.  The writing style, the historical references, and the cultural differences illustrated by the narrative are what make Dracula harder to read in 2012 than it was in 1897.  And those are exactly the reasons for students to read Dracula rather than--or, at a minimum, in addition to--one of the plethora of current teen best sellers.  If students aren't able to grapple with adventure writing from 1897, what are their chances of understanding philosophy from 400 B.C. or poetry from the 16th century?

What we seem to want is the reading and learning equivalent of cotton candy.  

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