Reading: It’s good for you

Reading is good

Drink your milk, exercise and read.

Several recent studies refute U.S. College Board president David Coleman, who takes the position that reading literature isn’t very important for developing the mind in this day and age. Specifically, he says, “Forgive me for saying this so bluntly. The only problem with a [personal narrative] writing is, as you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give [expletive] about what you feel or what you think.”

I know I’ve been ramming his arse pretty heavily on this blog, and generally I try to steer clear of political topics, but seriously, an educator said that. Imagine if the head of the EPA said, “Trees? What do we need with those silly things? They just drop sap all over my car.” Or as Homer Simpson might say, “Stupid no-good trees! What have you done for me lately? D’oh!” And Mr. Coleman strikes me as about as intelligent as Homer Simpson, but fortunately Homer is in a harmless job that only involves handling nuclear waste. Mr. Coleman is controlling the education of our children.

As I’ve said before, Mr. Coleman would rather see our youngsters preparing for jobs today by reading “technical manuals” than by studying the getting to know thoughts of the great people of the past, because the type of jobs America seems hungry for these days eschews this kind of ambiguous thinking. (“Eschews,” Dave. Look it up if it’s too tough for you.) Better to be a good, productive worker.

Not that I’m condemning any sort of workers, from baristas to barristers. But we used to push our kids to do so much better and aim so much higher in the United States, not very long ago. We’ve changed radically—and scarcely anyone has noticed (or at least commented). There’s hardly a peep about Mr. Coleman and his Common Core Curriculum in the mainstream media, and what has been written has been neutral at best and laudatory at worst.

But as David Chura says in this interesting article, the Common Core designers believe students are unable to analyze complex and government documents because they’re reading mamby-pamby literature. In other words, reading insulation manuals instead of George Orwell will help them understand the governmental double-talk surrounding climate change, starting with the fact that the government insists on calling it “climate change” rather than global warming.

The Common Core answer is for “informational texts”—those manuals—make up 50 percent of elementary school readings and 70 percent of 12th grade readings by 2014. If you do this you get money from a number of “philanthropic” organizations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who don’t have a vested interest in creating a vast hive of technical workers bees, honest. (On second thought, maybe those workers could improve Windows 8.)

Now several independent studies, including a recent one from The University of Toronto, find that people who read a great deal are better at solving problems that come up in business every day. It seems those who excel in business—those entrepreneurs we love to love so much—don’t just type code and geek out all day. They have to analyze strategies, manage people, follow the business market, figure out logistics and legal issues—in short, understand human nature. But don’t just take my word for it: no less than the Harvard University John Shad Professor of Business Ethics, Joseph L. Badaracco, says the same thing.

For years Badaracco’s been teaching a course that uses literature to help develop leadership skills. He has also made his case in a book, Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership Through Literature. “Literature gives students a much more realistic view of what’s involved in leading,” he says.

The Toronto researchers meanwhile found that people exposed to complex reading material—material that offers no clear-cut answers but shows the folly of those who think they have them—better recognize and accept ambiguity and therefore don’t rush to judgment.

And it’s something we—and Americans especially—have become terrible at in the last quarter century, as so much is increasingly presented in simpler and simpler terms, whether by the news media (“Is your child safe?” “Will the victims of this tragedy ever feel closure?”), movies (driven by one-dimensional characters and situations and unrealistic choices), and music (I won’t even go there; the lyrics alone are way too explicit and degrading, the emotions childish, the musical content simple and repetitive).

If I were Mr. Coleman, I’d be a lot more worried about our children growing up in this sewage than in them getting too much exposure to Shakespeare or Dickens or Flaubert. During the aftermath of 9/11, when our administration chose to attack Iraq as a sort of cathartic vengeance while the constant drumbeat of non-existent WMDs) played in the background as justification, more people might have better understood the folly of this misdirect if they were familiar with the opening of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I. Alas, they were not.

Maybe we should have been a little more suspicious of group-think. Like the sort going on in education right now. Forty-six states and the District of Columbia are on board for the Common Core Curriculum. But remember when everyone embraced New Math, too? (You really should click on that link to watch the Tom Lehrer clip if you don’t know what I’m talking about.)

Read more about the Toronto study here and here. And read about similar fears over the desire to take apart the educational curriculum in the UK here. Only, it appears the changes they fear happening are largely how things are already taught in the U.S.—the standards we’re trying to protect, in other words.


2 responses

  1. Drive it home, John! It is a noble and worthy cause.


    August 23, 2013 at 4:37 am

  2. Maureen Owen

    Iv’e been reading a little about this Coleman since you’ve been pummeling him in your blog and I have to admit he comes across as a classic American hire: a pure bureaucrat who will go very high on the ladder accomplishing absolutely nothing–_because_ he accomplished nothing. Sad. Young people today deserve better. At the same time, they all have access to library cards and there’s no reason they can’t crack open a good book themselves. I did.


    August 23, 2013 at 1:05 pm

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