Two New Quotes For You

From Sol Stern’s “A Solution for Gotham’s Reading Woes,” City Journal, Summer 2011:

Noting that SAT reading scores nose-dived in the 1960s and have remained flat ever since, Hirsch blames the nation’s education schools. “Our teachers and administrators are taught brilliant slogans like ‘rote regurgitation of mere facts’ which make factual knowledge sound objectionable,” Hirsch writes, “and they are told that a deeper, better approach is the ‘how-to’ scheme of education. Don’t give students a fish; teach them how to fish. Don’t tell them what to think, teach them critical thinking skills. Don’t teach them factoids, teach them comprehension strategies.” To the contrary, it is precisely the accumulation of facts—whether in history, science, the arts, or civics—that enables young readers to move from the foundational skill of decoding the written words of the English language (that is, phonics) to a deeper comprehension of complex texts.

From Alan Jacobs’ “We Can’t Teach Students to Love Reading,” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 31, 2011:

Rarely have young people been expected to have truly deep knowledge of particular texts. Instead, education, especially in its “liberal arts” embodiments, has been devoted to providing students with navigational tools—with enough knowledge to find their way through situations that they might confront later in life. (Even the old English public schools flogged their students through years of Latin and Greek not because Latin and Greek were intrinsically valuable, still less useful, but because the discipline of such study would have a salutary effect on young men’s characters. And these are the terms in which survivors of that system typically praise it.) This is one of the ways in which the artes liberales are supposed to be “liberal,” that is, “liberating”: They free you to make your own way through the challenges of life without requiring external props.

All this is to say that the idea that many teachers hold today, that one of the purposes of education is to teach students to love reading—or at least to appreciate and enjoy whole books—is largely alien to the history of education. And perhaps alien to the history of reading as well. A chief theme of Jonathan Rose’s magisterial The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes is that the culture of reading among those classes was more dynamic, more impassioned, before the study of English literature was incorporated into the general curriculum of English schools (in the wake of the Education Act of 1870).

Rose’s book is largely a celebration of autodidacticism, of people whose reading—and especially the reading of classic texts, from Homer to Dante to Shakespeare to the great Romantic poets—wasn’t imposed on them by anyone, and who often had to overcome significant social obstacles in order to read. “The autodidacts’ mission statement,” Rose writes, was “to be more than passive consumers of literature, to be active thinkers and writers. Those who proclaimed that ‘knowledge is power’ meant that the only true education is self-education, and they often regarded the expansion of formal educational opportunities with suspicion.”

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