I followed a link in the ASCD SmartBrief on-line newsletter to * The demise of reading: hype or cultural crisis?” and read the article, “The Loss of Literature,” by Lawrence Hardy. He was bowing the old saw about e-texts and visual media replacing the reading of books, especially literary books.
There was a link for comments entitled “Your Turn.” It asked:
Are your students more interested in “The O.C.” than Catcher in the Rye? Would they rather discuss “Survivor” than Lord of the Flies?
Given the dominance of television in our culture, maybe those questions are unfair. Well, then, let’s ask them another way: Are your students reading books at all — other than (parts of) books they absolutely must know for the test? Are they reading much of anything?
In this month’s cover story, Senior Editor Lawrence Hardy examines a report by the National Endowment for the Arts that says literary reading — the consumption of fiction, poetry, plays, etc. — is declining precipitously and that the fastest decline is among young people aged 18 to 24.
Some educators say the NEA has hit on a serious problem — indeed, a crisis, as the report says. Others say the NEA’s predictions are exaggerated.
What do you think? Is reading in trouble? Please choose a response from those listed below and send an e-mail — with December Your Turn as the subject — to your-turn@[deleted on principle. It wouldn’t go anyway]. We’ll report the results in February.
A. Yes. Reading is in trouble. On average, students seem to be reading less of everything — books, newspapers, magazines — and it’s not being replaced, either in quality or quantity, by online material. (Please elaborate.)
B. Yes. Reading is in trouble. Students may be reading as much as ever, but an increasing amount of it is online material that is not of the same quality as the books they’ve given up.
C. Relax. Reading’s not in trouble. The move to a digital world is an inevitable progression of our society. Kids are as literate as ever, but the concept of literacy is changing.
I composed the response below and tried to send, but the e-mail returned due to finding that the recipient did not exist.
I checked again and sent again, and the e-mail returned a second time.
I copied the response, did a Google search for the journal, and found the “write to us” link, which went to a person at the National School Board Association. There I pasted the response and sent a third time.
My e-mail returned as before. Apparenly this group invites responses
but their reading is in trouble.
My response is below in case they happen to read my blog, which is probably more unlikely than any other occurrence on the planet.
[Note January 1: I received e-mail from NSBA stating that they received my message and will use it in their letter to the editor section in March. The message kept sending itself from my outbox until it was successful. I love e-mail.]
A. Yes. Reading is in trouble. On average, students seem to be reading less of everything — books, newspapers, magazines — and it’s not
being replaced, either in quality or quantity, by online material. (Please elaborate.)
In brief, I have to choose this option for a reason not even mentioned in the article. That reason is that we place many teachers in the classroom who do not understand, appreciate, or participate in literary reading themselves. The ability to parse a text into its themes and assertions and to respond to it in a philosophical sense — which is what we mean when we say “make meaning” — is not “teachable” from a textbook or any curriculum unless the teacher has the ability and understands the process.
The love of texts and the ability to identify and interpret them is “caught” like a cold, from someone who has it. If the teacher has it, the teacher can transmit it. This statement is true because texts contain meaning whether they are classic texts or modern, printed or electronic, verbal or visual. The reader’s activity in finding and constructing meaning is what we are talking about when we reference “literary reading.” No student can learn this from a teacher who cannot do it. We should never place a teacher in a classroom and expect that teacher to convey something that teacher doesn’t have.
The problem is that we can’t teach the teachers. Our English professors are experts on Shakespeare, or experts on Realism and Naturalism, or experts on 20th Century Ethnic Poetry. Our history professors are experts on the Civil War or experts on Southeast Asia through 1800, or experts on Europe in the Middle Ages. We don’t teach teachers philosophy, logic, or debate. We don’t even, in most instances, teach them to parse grammatically, much less to weigh, define, and rank ideas. Only rare individuals can link today’s texts — cybertexts, video games, music videos, films, blog sites, anime films, manga comics, Orson Scott Card, William F. Buckley, Stephen King, or Neil Gaiman — to the themes and movements of Homer, Aesop, Herodotus, Greek theatre, Plato, Aristotle, Chaucer, and Shakespeare.
In fact, you would be hard pressed to find any single individual who can give you any accurate one-sentence description of each person or category of text listed above. Those individuals who can are not in academe because they do not fit. We have “specialized” them out, bored them to academic death. We have beaten the literary virus, and it no longer threatens our academic categories or challenges our authority.
If we do not find the key, we could be setting up another Dark Ages. Already the clouds are gathering as we see different segments of society moving to excise from the curriculum certain ideas that offend their agendas. Our physical world is growing smaller. I get e-mail dated tomorrow because it comes across the date line. Travel is rapid, commerce is essential, and the clash of cultures is inevitable. If we let our world of ideas shrink and become isolationist, uncritical, and dogmatic we can expect the storm. This is no new idea, but rather is a pervasive theme in both ancient and modern texts. The question is whether or not enough of us can read it and respond to it.