Paul Di Filippo
Pertinent to this thread is Garrett Keizer’s article in a recent Harper’s, “Getting Schooled,” which recounts his classroom experiences after a long gap from teaching. He has a lot to say about how his kids dislike reading. Probably the most horrific anecdote, from my old-fart POV, is this one:
I come to suspect that it is not reading they hate so much as reading in isolation. The same radical privacy that I seek in books, my mind’s way of eating its lunch alone, is what turns their stomachs. I learn of two girls in my class who got through Ethan Frome by reading aloud to each other over Skype, not unlike George Gibbs and Emily Webb chatting between their upstairs bedroom windows, just with different kinds of windows. They are acutely social creatures, these kids, and it is a slow learner indeed who fails to grasp that fact even as he prattles on about building a more social democracy.
If you visit this blogger and click on the link he provides, Keizer’s article downloads as a PDF.
Since the conversation has gotten far afield from Heinlein I’d like to say that when I was in my early teens the most fun I ever had was reading Harold Lamb, and I wish he would come back into fashion again; there are re-releases of his stories now, and they remind me over again what I loved about him, and how important he was to me.
I, too, am grateful for the classics curriculum at my school. Without being guided to classics, I might have spent all of my adolescence reading nothing but horror, fantasy, and science fiction, rather than fitting those readings between the interstices of my school assignments. I’d have had a wonderful time, but I doubt I’d be as avid or as serous a reader as I am today.This is pretty sad. I enrolled in and TA’d any number of undergraduate science fiction courses, with curricula that ran the gamut from Burroughs and Doc Smith to C.S. Lewis, Le Guin, Pohl, Heinlein, and Stapledon. Though science fiction classes had the reputation of being “gut” classes, I don’t think I met a single student who was being introduced to science fiction through the class. Almost every student I knew brought an interest and even a passion to the class, which in large part made them some of the liveliest classes I was involved with. College kids who take a science fiction class should not be complaining; they should know exactly what they’re getting into.
Guy Gavriel Kay
TOTALLY onside with thoughtful reassessments of alleged classics. Which may well include Heinlein juvies, of course (to drag us back). I doubt anyone here would be against that process. Books rise and fall (and rise and fall again).
But the issue was (or seemed to be) ‘is this work premature for high school readers?’ and that’s what I was addressing. If you want to say ‘this work is just bad’ we can let you and Karen Fowler go at it, given her post. That’s just taste, really. And ‘going at it’ is pretty much a waste of good time in the bar, on reflection.
I think the debate was as to diminished receptivity for works from an earlier time (200 years? 50 years?) and we’re seeing some comments I find really sharp (um, yeah, okay, ‘really sharp’=’I agree with them’!) as to an earlier generation of readers being willing to be confused, not get it all at once, grow with the book and then other books. There’s a ‘spell it out’ aspect to the zeitgeist today that cuts hard against that, and this may be how I’d phrase Karen’s query about maybe ‘more support’ in our day in the culture and not being so fussed about getting every single thing right away. I think (still working this idea through) it is linked tospeed. It may also have to do with narcissism (not using the word professionally, but broadly, pop use): we never expected to get everything when young, we knew we had a ways to go.
I knew a writer in the early ’80s who was hired to write a “dumbed down” version of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan, because the original was too hard for kids today to read.
Russell’s point about the inability of kids–at least some kids; there are still avid readers out there, mostly self-taught–to read at a higher level is an excellent one. Kids don’t like to read because at some basic level they CAN’T read–and they can’t read because they were never taught HOW to read. It’s hard to be polite about this, as I consider it to be a major failing of the American educational system. I was horrified to learn that not even an attempt is made anymore to teach kids the rules of grammar, and probably not one kid in a hundred even knows what a noun is, or how it differs from a pronoun, or what a verb does. Stopping the teaching of reading by the phonetic system and switching over to the “progressive” “see/say” system was also a disaster.
I think the debate was as to diminished receptivity for works from an earlier time (200 years? 50 years?) and we’re seeing some comments I find really sharp (um, yeah, okay, ‘really sharp’=’I agree with them’!) as to an earlier generation of readers being willing to be confused, not get it all at once, grow with the book and then other books. There’s a ‘spell it out’ aspect to the zeitgeist today that cuts hard against that, and this may be how I’d phrase Karen’s query about maybe ‘more support’ in our day in the culture and not being so fussed about getting every single thing right away.
This, I would say, is fair, and I might have seen that point more clearly had I not been seeing red over how much I hated that play. 🙂
To address it directly, then: I’d say the reading problem, this sense that kids are less willing now to go along with stuff they don’t know and figure it out along the way, is just one facet of the broader problem a lot of people are citing — teachers, employers, etc — with the trend toward thinking kids should succeed at everything, should never face failure, etc. If every kid who takes part in a competition gets a trophy, if parents storm into the classroom to harangue the teacher for flunking little Johnny when he didn’t turn in his homework, then when does little Johnny learn actual perseverance?
(Obviously the examples I cite are extreme; not every parent acts that way. But there’s been a distinct trend toward the “everybody’s a winner!” mentality, that I think is relevant to our own issue.)
Even as a strong reader, I’ve experienced the difficulty myself. I bounced off The Three Musketeers the first time I tried to read it, because it was full of Gascons and pistoles and other things I didn’t understand at all. On the other hand, I later grew up to read Dorothy Dunnett, so clearly I got over that problem.
Let me chime in with those who say that the way schools teach literature usually doesn’t do literature any favors. Among books I couldn’t stand because I was forced to read them: A Scarlet Letter, Catcher in the Rye, The Fountainhead (admittedly I was probably never going to love that one), and almost every last scrap of poetry when the teacher teaching that section decided to go straight from Keats to ee cumings–and then gleefully told us how ‘wrong’ our interpretations of cummings poems were.
Then there are all the classics that I loved when I found them on my own in my 20’s and 30’s: Canterbury Tales, Herodotus, Paradise Lost, etc. Or the ones that I loved when I found them on my own between the ages of 10-14: Jane Eyre, Les Miserables, To Kill a Mockingbird.
Maybe kids who love reading anyways are ill-served by being forced to read stuff they don’t like… and the kids who are never going to be lifelong readers aren’t affected one way or the other?
I will also defend ‘dated’ literature, since I remember loving 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea when I was young.
This is true. If kids read what they like, they keep reading. If they don’t, they weren’t going to love literature anyway by having it pounded into them.
Karen: 20,000 Leagues. I agree: terrific.