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We Must Advocate for Real Reading
by Michael Clay Thompson
If I ruled the world (I recently observed that this is increasingly unlikely), every school system in the United States would make a powerful literature program the centerpiece of its educational strategy.
The opposite is what is happening; school systems are ditching real literature for dumbed-down textbooks, with exactly the effects on students’ minds that you would expect. Now that students read nothing of value, they have the skill-sets of non-readers, and schools react by reading less and devoting more time to skill drills in workbooks, which causes students to hate school more and read less.
We must advocate for real reading. There is nothing else in education—nothing—that is as educational as reading. By reading serious literature, both fiction and nonfiction, students experience the full range of intellectual experience. They see vocabulary, and punctuation, and spelling, and complete sentences, and good grammar, and correct pronouns, and well-made paragraphs, and human themes, and brilliant characters who become their lifelong friends. Real reading enhances itself, and students grow in their reading power and can read better and deeper, with more comprehension and enthusiasm for important stories and ideas.
Students who have read a real novel, such as The Wind in the Willows, or Pride and Prejudice, or A Tale of Two Cities, have something to discuss, themes to compare, ideas to write about. The more they read, the more high-level language they experience, and the more the vocabulary and grammar are absorbed into their intellects.
The emphasis today is on short excerpts and modern pieces. It is an incredible, incompetent program. Students must read long works. Almost all famous works are long, and colleges focus on long works. To avoid long novels or nonfiction works is to avoid becoming educated. Students must also read books from previous centuries. A preponderance of important works were written in the twentieth, nineteenth, and eighteenth centuries, and you have to read several works from a century to make the style and diction normalize for you. Once you make the transition, you love the reading.
All of the alternatives to real reading, such as excerpts, audiobooks, videos, modernizations, and graphic novels, should be rejected. Students must READ. They must see English on the page, with all of its vocabulary and grammar and punctuation and paragraphs and spelling and ideas. It has to be seen.
Reading is the best educational activity for another reason too: it is between the student and the book. By reading, the student is in a private conversation with Jack London, or Emily Brontë, or Kenneth Grahame, or Charles Dickens, or Jane Austen. Instead of following a teacher’s instructions, obeying, the student is engaged in an experience that is far more fun, far more educational, far more intellectual than any little group of schooly exercises.
It is a question not only of quality but of quantity. Some school systems use the novel-a-semester plan. That is inadequate. In my courses we read six to eight major novels per year as class assignments, but I also required students to read two novels per term outside of class and have a conversation with me about each book. The result was that students would read sixteen or so major titles per year, all accompanied with discussion and writing assignments and essay tests.
The growth in the students was phenomenal. Students who began the year saying, “I’m not much of a reader,” found that by the end of the year, they were readers.
At a conference, someone picked up one of my books and asked me, “What are they supposed to do with this? Read?” Yes. I want students to put their pencils down and read.
Let’s put the literature programs back in place—programs full of strong books, famous books, old books, long books—and let’s read them, and talk about them, and write human and interesting essays about them, and let’s throw those skill-drill workbooks in the trash. It is reading that is the most educational activity.