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Tuesday, September 01, 2009  

A Child Who Picks Up Moby-Dick Won't Actually Like It

I'm agnostic on the debate over how to teach reading, but I'm intrigued by the a la carte approach described in the recent NYT article, and baffled by Diane Ravitch's criticism of it:

Critics of the approach say that reading as a group generally leads to more meaningful insights, and they question whether teachers can really keep up with a roomful of children reading different books. Even more important, they say, is the loss of a common body of knowledge based on the literary classics — often difficult books that children are unlikely to choose for themselves.

“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.”

The first two critiques I really can't answer, but the idea that we face "the loss of a common body of knowledge based on the literary classics" makes no sense to me. I suspect that any such common body in America was based on the McGuffey Readers, the King James Bible, and maybe Shakespeare. At any rate, whenever the great-books cultural wave crested in this country, it was long before I entered school. Maybe everyone should be force-marched through Hamlet, but To Kill A Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies? If that's the canon of timeless classics, it's one I can imagine us surviving without.

And anyway, Ravitch's comment, taken at face value, seems to rely on a tragic optimism about youthful reading ability. I yield to no one in my admiration for Moby-Dick which is, as Yglesias says, the great American epic. But I didn't crack the cover on that monstrosity until I was a year out of college! I had to read some hard stuff before I was ready for it, and I'm generally grateful for having to stretch myself. I fell in love with Hamlet in 12th grade and Macbeth the year before. But Romeo and Juliet fell flat in 9th grade, and while I tried hard with Ethan Frome in 11th grade, I confess I found it mostly boring. And I was accounted a good, even exceptional English student. I loved Their Eyes Were Watching God when I got to it in college, but most of my smart friends who had to read it in high school thought it was incomprehensible.

The point being that a classic out of season is worthless to most anyone. You don't learn to love reading because you were blown away by Moby-Dick; you learn to persevere through Moby-Dick because you learned to love reading from simpler, trendier, more instantly-gratifying stuff. Chase thrillers, Star Trek novelizations, Judy Blume, whatever--it's the Pixie Stix of literary pleasure that get us hooked and in need of subtler, more thrilling highs.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 12:38 PM
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