Motoko Rich reports on a new approach to teaching reading: letting kids read books they actually want to read, rather than having them all read the same book. This strikes me as an excellent idea. The established secondary school canon is weirdly random and unchanging. I read Lord of the Flies as a high school freshman in 1984 and apparently it’s still being taught to hundreds of thousands of students nationwide. Why? Because it’s mildly literary and being about children makes it “accessible,” I suppose. And because of first-mover advantage–there must be zillions of paperback copies stacked in high school storage closets and if you’ve taught it before it’s easier to teach again.
The article is generally very positive with only one dissenting opinion, from an unsurprising source:
“What child is going to pick up ‘Moby-Dick’?” said Diane Ravitch, a professor of education at New York University who was assistant education secretary under President George H. W. Bush. “Kids will pick things that are trendy and popular. But that’s what you should do in your free time.”
Ever wonder why some people get quoted in the newspaper a lot? There’s a trick to it. Reporters generally don’t call “experts” looking for new ideas. They call looking for quotes that match the ideas they already have. The key elements to being quoted are (A) returning phone calls quickly, (B) having a credible title and organizational affiliation, and (C) being succinct. For example, Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Economy.com, has been quoted I’m guessing hundreds of times over the years in major new outlets about all manner of economic issues. Is he the world’s greatest economist, a financial Renaissance man conversant in the arcane details of myriad topics? No. I’m sure he’s a smart guy, but his real genius lies in providing a credible one-sentence summary of whatever thesis reporters are trying to advance in their story. He’s the King of the Confirming Quote. Ravitch has carved out a related but slightly different niche in recent years. To maintain the appearance of balance and objectivity, reporters like to include at least one opposing opinion, even in a feature story with an obvious point of view. That’s Ravitch’s role. Whether it’s new test score results, a federal policy initiative, a new program from the schools chancellor, a new way to teach reading, Ravitch will reliably lend her deserved reputation as an education historian and NYU pedigree to a quote saying, essentially, that this is all a bunch of B.S. She’s the Queen of the Curmudgeonly Quote.
This one is particularly crusty. “What child is going to pick up ‘Moby-Dick’?” None, I imagine. And good! There’s a tendency in thinking of all the books an educated person should read and K-12 curricula as the same thing. But being well-read is the work of a lifetime; the most important thing schools can do is get that project started and heading in the right direction. If I’d been allowed to read what I wanted during class in middle school, it probably would have been Dune and Stephen R. Donaldson. Or comic books. Thirty years later, I’ve moved on from sci-fi and fantasy (although not from comic books). I went through a William Styron phase in my early 30s, once spent 3 months reading nothing but Paradise Lost, tackled Faulkner unsuccessfully, relished the collected essays of A.J. Liebling, and wondered at the mind of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Good bookstores make me excited and sad at the same time–as long as I live, I’ll never run out of good books to read, but I’ll also never get to read them all. And during all that time it never really occurred to me to read Moby-Dick. I was assigned The Confidence Man in college, kind of hated it, and that’s that. The number of books I can experience is finite, and I’d rather read Infinite Jest.
The important thing is that I read a lot, and always have. Per Dana Goldstein, that’s the main reason I’m lucky enough to be able to write for a living. I appreciate the importance of exposing students to our shared cultural and intellectual heritage. They should all know that Moby-Dick exists and is considered by many to be great. But given the competing imperatives of getting all students to read something that just happens to be canonical and getting all students to read something, we should be far more concerned about the latter.
Update: Several friends have emailed to assure me that Moby-Dick is a very good book and worth reading, while another says “if I had to choose between Summerhill and E.D. Hirsch, I’d go with Hirsch.” Fair enough! I’m a lot more likely to give Moby-Dick a try now, although I think I’ll let Infinite Jest digest for a while first. Per Summerhill, I don’t think the choice here is between anarchy and an iron-clad reading list. As I’ve written elsewhere, I’m pretty sympathetic to a “Great Books”-style approach at the college level. But there are important distinctions between college students and middle schoolers, and between philosophy and literature. There’s simply no way to study philosophy or get a legitimate liberal arts education generally without contending with certain books and ideas. There’s no avoiding The Republic. But when the goal is teaching literature to seventh and eighth graders, I don’t think the same principles apply. I’m also struck by the weight given to 19th century books in the canon. The ratio of great books written in the 20th century to the 19th is probably 5,000-to-one, objectively speaking. What’s the expiration date on Huckleberry Finn–not as a worthwhile book in its own right, but as a book that every single student in America has to read?