October 12, 2011
MY SON was recently talking to a college student who bragged that he had never voluntarily read a book in his life. That he had never voluntarily read a book is less disturbing than that he bragged about it. I have talked to a number of students like this. A book arouses their condescension, but even more strange and perplexing is that the written word seems to make them angry. When they speak about a famous, long-dead author, they usually mention whether they “like” him or not. Typically, it’s not. “Oh, I don’t like Shakespeare,” a student at a well-regarded university told me. And when he said it, his lip curled. He didn’t mean that he found Shakespeare difficult, though certainly he did. He just didn’t like Shakespeare. He was angry at Shakespeare.
This attitude is not surprising. At the institution where a person should learn to revere the book, he is taught to despise it. Schools will choose anything over the book, replacing it with the pseudo-book, the textbook, the anthology, PowerPoint, games, worksheets, music, Internet chatboards, and movies. Even at fancy prep schools, you may find high school students watching Saving Private Ryan in English class. I know a third grader who has a regular class in “rapid research.” He is in third grade and has reached the point where he can read a chapter book on his own. He is bright and curious, but his attention is now being scrambled. “Rapid research” does not call for sustained reverie or thought. He will hate the book someday too.
The problem with the book is not so much that it is difficult to teach, but that it is not a tool of social harmony. It doesn’t serve the aims of collectivism.The modern school is an elevated form of crowd control. For this job, a real book written by a single person gets in the way. As Richard Allen, wrote in The Leaning Tower of Babel:
Any mind that would audaciously put itself forth to work all alone is surely a bad example for the students, and probably, if not downright anti-social, at least a little off-center, self-indulgent, elitist. Such a mind might easily bore somebody, since only a very few people can possibly feel an interest in highly specialized subjects. And then there’s the problem of self-esteem, a frail flower, easily bruised by the unfamiliar, by arcane references, snooty allusions, and, especially, by prose that is simply not written at the right grade level. It’s just good pedagogy, therefore, to stay away from such stuff, and use instead, if film-strips and rap sessions must be supplemented, “texts,” selected, or prepared, or adapted, by real professionals. Those texts are called “reading material.” They are the academic equivalent of the “listening material” that fills waiting-rooms, and the “eating material” that you can buy in thousands of convenient eating resource centers along the roads.
Schools fill the mind with educational pizza. If one grazes and never sits down to dine, the ritual of dining seems strange and cumbersome. The student’s anger at the book is anger at the author for expecting anyone to devote so much time to him. “Look, I’m just here to grab a slice, not to have dinner with you.” This attitude is cultivated at school. The student, having been trained to rapid consumption, is understandably mad when anyone expects him to pull up a chair and sit at the table.
Thomas F. Bertonneau writes:
The type of literacy that existed in North America in 1950 took thousands of years to develop, going back to the craft-literacy of the Bronze Age, with its cumbersome syllabary writing that only a few could master. The alphabet – which some unknown Greek genius invented around 800 BC – marked the real turning point. Whereas in the craft-literacy writing systems there were scores or hundreds of signs, whose usage was often context-dependent, and which took many years to master, in the alphabet there were only a few signs (around twenty), the rules for combining which were also few and unambiguous. A three-year-old could learn to recognize one-syllable words with a few brief lessons; the alphabet was applicable to any language, and soon after the Greeks adopted it, other peoples (Etruscans, Phrygians, Lydians) also adopted it. Walter Ong, the great historian of literacy, argued that all writing systems are technologies that alter the intellectual habits of their users, but that alphabetic writing transformed mental habits in an unprecedented way. Within four hundred years after the appearance of the alphabet, all the genres of poetry and prose, all the distinct disciplines from geometry and physics to ethics and political science, were in existence. Ong refers to this psychic metamorphosis as “the alphabetic revolution.” That “revolution” also commenced a perpetual struggle: the struggle namely between oral habits of thought, which characterize alike pre- and non-literate societies and early childhood in literate societies, and textually reorganized habits of thought. The achievement of modern high civilization has as one of its main pillars the triumph of the latter over the former.
Alphabetic literacy is thus both strong (it has created Western Civilization) and weak because there is no doubt that the oral mentality is the natural mentality of human beings, and that means that it is the natural mentality of the pre-civilized humanity. As soon as the tradition of inculcating children in literacy weakens, literacy itself must begin to weaken. That the mass media and the popular culture encourage oral habits of mind and discourage literate habits of mind is a proposition well enough known not to be presented in full on this occasion. Suffice it to say that we are witnessing the withdrawal of literacy. The culprit is a culture awash in blinking, beeping devices and image-centered entertainments that reinforce orality at its lowest level.
The main reason for students to fail college courses is that they refuse to do the reading associated with coursework; some of them refuse because they are not sufficiently literate to tackle challenging books or articles, while others refuse because they hate reading. The biggest event every semester in the campus bookstore is the end-of-the-semester return of books by students, who get a paltry refund of about ten cents on the dollar, but they would rather have those few cents than keep the books. It is true of course that many of the books are probably not worth keeping and were probably not worth reading in the first place. Unfortunately, one book is pretty much like another to many college students. I have seen a student contemptuously toss a volume of poetry in a trashcan on leaving the classroom for the last time at the end of the term.
The proper response is for people with young children to homeschool their kids, even when they also send their children to public school. Literacy has almost always, I believe, been home based, intimate, a matter of close, sensitive mentoring from elder to younger.
Yes, literacy has always depended on the home, which is why the immense cultural shifts of recent decades have hurt intellectual life. With many women unable to do housework at any time other than when their children are home from school and fathers burdened with extra work at home too, with the rise of divorce and single motherhood, there is no time to cultivate literacy. Sham projects by educationists, such as “Reading Olympics,” in which teachers induce students to engage in competitive reading in the hopes of getting them interested, are a failure.These projects are based on the assumption that reading is unpleasant and they make reading more unpleasant. Also, the enormous amounts of homework schools assign disturb home life and make the school a constant presence, an ever-watchful Big Brother, in the home.
Your observation of a student tossing a volume of poetry in the trash says it all.
I am spending time on my laptop reading your blog which tells me I might better spend my time reading a book. How is that supposed to work? Seriously, my habit of literacy is so thoroughly ingrained that no amount of time on the computer can shake it.
The books is threatened, to be sure, yet I have faith. There are poems so strong they are close to immortal, even the Bible itself.
Books defend and perpetuate themselves, although our efforts to support literacy are necessary as well.
Keep the faith and keep up the work!
And Happy Columbus Day. Among other things, Columbus brought literacy to the New World.
The book will never vanish, but we are witnessing a cultural crisis. The twilight of the book is the twilight of thought. Many people will never overcome their inculcated hostility toward the written word. And they cannot possibly pass on higher literacy to their children.
A people is either for the book or against it.
Mr. Bertonneau writes:
Fred can productively exploit his laptop because he established his literacy in the milieu of books. I see no evidence that laptops can foster literacy, and much to suggest they cannot. Certainly X-Boxes, I-Phones, and Game-Boys cannot foster literacy.
I doubt whether “books can defend themselves.” They can only “defend themselves” when people read them, which people are not naturally inclined to do; people must be encouraged and carefully trained to be readers. Books need apostles. They have fewer and fewer with the passing years.
I believe that perhaps the single most important thing we can do to restore our culture – aside from regular attendance at church and cordial discussion at family meals – is reading aloud to our children (I take for granted such things as getting and staying married, having and raising kids, practicing and teaching good manners, and all the many basic things that cordial discussions at family meals presuppose). My wife and I read to our children before bed every night. They treasured the ritual (one ancillary benefit is that we never had the slightest moaning and groaning about going to bed; they reacted differently to “let’s get ready for reading” than they would have to “go get ready for bed.”). We started out with very short books for young children, with pictures (often Dad would make these books somewhat sillier than the authors had thought to do – generally the father in the story was the butt of the humor)(often the hilarity provoked by such embellishments found partial expression in jumping up and down on Dad – mere laughter overflowed into antic joy). Very shortly we graduated to “chapter books.” This is a key transition; the kids went from looking at pictures to imagining them. I am convinced that it is this ability to imagine what one is reading about that brings reading alive. When all the pictures are provided by the medium, as with TV, there is no internal rehearsal of the cognitive interpretation of language; no practice at translation from sign to experiential referent. Absent facility at such translation, the sign stultifies, insults, scandalizes. And this is why children come to hate reading, to fear and disdain poetry and loathe dead white European males. Reading aloud provides such practice, and rewards it with the interest and excitement of a good story. Thus is the natural human orality Dr. Bertonneau adduces enlisted in the service of literacy. Daddy is able to perform, and clearly himself enjoys, the magic of reading a story; the story is pleasant; the child would like to possess Daddy’s incomprehensible, awesome power; and Daddy is able and willing to teach it.
So the child thinks of reading as the key to a treasure chest, rather than a mere skill. He thinks this, not because some teacher has told him how important and valuable reading can be, but because he has a thousand times seen his mother and father open that treasure chest and pour forth its riches. He has tasted the richness himself.
We read and read and read. We read Lord of the Rings three times through. I read to my youngest every night until the eve of his departure for college (it was a very emotional farewell to a sacred institution) (fortunately we had not finished the book, so it is still “on our list” to do some more reading together). The first chapter books were the Narnia books. By the end, we were reading James Fenimore Cooper, Patrick O’Brian, and CS Forester. Every session produced at least one pause to answer a question prompted by the reading: defining a new term, explaining a historical event or practice or belief (“Daddy, why were the Protestants against the Pope?”), or sharing a thought arising from consideration of the story. As a result of all this, my children have massive vocabularies; their teachers have all remarked upon the extraordinary breadth of their knowledge about all sorts of things; they can read almost anything with interest, and are always working on a book or two (indeed, their problem is often that they are working on too many books to focus adequately on any of them); they can write rings around most adults; and, finally, they can reason, and express themselves orally in extremely sophisticated terms. Having spent thousands of hours rehearsing how expert writers use English, they have themselves become experts, both in speaking and in writing. In a society that is less and less literate, and yet depends upon literacy, they are equipped to outperform almost all their age cohort. They are, i.e., equipped to rule; and, I hope, to conserve.
I do not say any of this to brag. I claim no credit at all. Indeed, so humble were our intentions and abilities, that the incommensurately good results rather stagger me. When my wife and I started out reading at bedtime, it was because we had both loved the same ritual when we were very young. We thought that reading before bedtime was just the way things were done; like brushing your teeth and saying your prayers. In no sense did it occur to us that we were doing anything special – not, at least, until much later, when we compared notes with other parents, and heard of children watching TV until they fell asleep. The credit is due, not to us, but to the generations of parents before us who likewise read to their children, including our parents – and to the authors whose work we read, whom we came to know, and love.
If you want to save the West, then get married, have kids, teach them manners, eat dinner together, go to church – and read aloud at bedtime.
This is a key transition; the kids went from looking at pictures to imagining them. I am convinced that it is this ability to imagine what one is reading about that brings reading alive.
That’s it. Reading aloud stimulates the imagination of the listener. The word awakens the ability to project oneself, to exist elsewhere. The word invites and the reader follows. The image does not make the same demands, but transports the viewer effortlessly.
It’s a great idea to read aloud to children until they go to college or start to work. I’m glad you mentioned that because it’s something many people, especially those who are not homeschooling, don’t think about. I didn’t do it with my older son when he was a teenager but did with my younger son. We would trade a book back and forth, reading to each other. He occasionally complained and said, “Why can’t I read it myself?” and I insisted with certain books that we read them together. One big advantage to reading with an adolescent is that adolescents naturally tend to go through periods of withdrawal. Reading together is a way of respecting a teenager’s privacy while spending time together in a meaningful way and having the chance to have a shared intellectual experience.
Jill Farris writes:
I grew up in a reading household with no TV in the 1960s and 70s when, even then, TV was dominating many homes. I married a man who is extremely intelligent but who spent many hours in front of the TV as a child. He had what I consider to be an impoverished childhood even though his parents were college educated.
I’ve written here before about our son who didn’t read fluently until the age of 13 but because we read great books together his vocabulary was phenomenal. When he did finally begin to read he jumped to an adult level quickly and became a fluent and gifted writer because his mind was filled with rich imagery.
I speak and write on the subject of reading aloud and the importance of being a word filled people. Neurodevelopmentalists have studied the brain and how to stimulate it and they have found that the brain functions best when it hears or sees words and imagines/pictures what those words are saying. Doing this stimulates chemicals in the brain and creates new neuropathways. Did you get that? Words that are pictured by the mind cause physical changes to the brain! When we watch images (such as movies) we short cut the way the brain is designed to function because the brain is no longer required to visualize the image.
I also believe that God designed us to be readers because He chose to reveal Himself through the written word; the Holy Bible. Jesus Christ, Himself, is called the Word of God. God’s people have always been a literate, word-rich people and this (I believe) is the way God created us to learn best.
Reading aloud to our children is a rich and essential gift for both their intellects and their souls.
Buck O. writes:
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