The War on Reading

POLITICS & POLICY
(Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

In response to Can We Get Young Americans to Appreciate Reading?

George Leef asks whether we can get young Americans to appreciate reading. This young American’s answer: not if our public schools have anything to say about it.

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There were a few teachers or professors along the way who made reading enjoyable, and I’m grateful for them; but they were the exceptions, not the rule. On the whole, I enjoy reading despite my educational experience, not because of it.

If someone were setting out to design a 13-year program to get people to hate reading, they could hardly do better than American public education. Reading is presented as a chore, so it should be no surprise that kids treat it like taking out the trash.

I’ll never forget having my reading comprehension assessed by the number of sticky notes I slapped on the pages of books in elementary school. Instead of reading like normal human beings, we were expected to stop in the middle of the page, write down thoughts about the text on a sticky note, and stick it in the book. More sticky notes corresponded with more approval from the teacher.

Not only that, the sticky notes couldn’t just be annotations. They had to fit into specific categories. We had to have so many “text-to-world connections,” “text-to-self connections,” etc., as if anything we were reading at that young age was all that deep to begin with. This bizarre quota system of reading comprehension made for slow, painful reading, and you wanted nothing more than to get it over with.

The incentives students are given create tension between being honest about what they think and getting good grades. Teachers generally assign books that they like. When it comes time to write the book report, students understand that the best way to increase their chances of a good grade is to rave about the book, no matter what they actually think about it.

Is it true that teachers might appreciate a well-argued, critical book report? Some might, but that’s a lot of work, and the path of least resistance to an A+ is almost always in telling the teacher what he or she wants to hear. Students are quite good at finding that path, and endemic grade inflation makes it even easier.

And so, from a very young age, Americans are trained to substitute what they think about a text with what someone else in a position of authority thinks about it. Reading is not something you do for yourself and your own intellectual development; it’s something you do for someone else to check boxes on a rubric. We shouldn’t be surprised that when the kids grow up, and the teacher and the rubric aren’t there, they don’t feel the desire to read.

On the educator’s side of things, teachers are saddled with a series of rubrics full of “learning targets,” as if learning is something that you can hunt down and nail. Implicit in this approach is denial of the power of reading. There should be one “learning target,” and it should be to get kids to like reading. Once kids like reading, they will learn all sorts of things on their own — things that no teacher would have ever expected or prescribed — because they won’t see reading as something you do in a classroom to get a good grade but rather as something they enjoy and want to do in their free time.

For example, right now I’m reading Every War Must End by Fred Ikle. I learned of the book’s existence from Ikle’s Wikipedia page, got interested in the idea of the title given the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, and got the book. It has given me some things to think about related to Afghanistan, but I’ve learned more about the German decision in World War I to wage an unlimited submarine campaign against the Allied powers, among other things.

In school, this path to learning is completely closed off — if a book isn’t assigned, and won’t help you get a grade, it must not be worth reading. (As we wrote back in September, many of the books that are assigned are boring and in need of replacements anyway.)

Second, schools train students to believe that Wikipedia is the root of all evil. The number of intelligent people completely scandalized by the idea of clicking a Wikipedia link are too many to count. It’s really not that bad! In fact, it’s the best place on the Internet to start if you want to get cursory knowledge of something. Then from there, you can decide if you want to dive deeper.

I did this with Every War Must End. Though it’s not as insightful into the dynamics in Afghanistan as I had hoped, I learned plenty I wasn’t expecting to learn about World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. In the public-school reading framework, though, I have failed. Learning target not achieved. I have wasted my time. C−.

This was an A+ experience, though. Ikle’s writing is a model of clarity. He taught me about the dangers of metaphors in policy analysis. He gave many concrete examples from past wars to illustrate his points, and even if you disagree with every point of his analysis, it’s an interesting book just for the history.

This sort of spontaneous learning guided by curiosity is what makes reading enjoyable. It’s also prohibited by schools. Whether they realize it or not, educators have declared war on reading, and they have pretty much won. As Leef says in his post, “In the past, most Americans, even those who weren’t ‘educated’ (no college credentials), read literature, but today many who are ‘educated’ hardly ever open a book.” He’s right about that, and it’s an intellectual tragedy. But it’s an outcome that makes perfect sense if you’ve ever sat in a public-school classroom.

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