Failed Reading

September 12, 2004

A disappointing trend sweeps modern youth – the inability to read
well. Much has been written about this already, and maybe there is
little to add. Today’s children, barring a few who have miraculously
found the joy of reading, are for all practical purposes, quite
illiterate, for an inability to read cripples the ability to
write. Not knowing good reading is to have no idea of what good
writing is either.

“Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself; it requires talent to
recognize genius.” – Sherlock Holmes.

That is an important point. Standards in society are falling, because
the most essential source of good standards is reading. I have not
known anyone who set high standards and did not read voraciously and
well. Good reading is widely available in our library system, yet
there is plenty of rubbish too. But people are less likely to engage
continuously with poor literature as with poor television. The
difference lies in the fact that television is a passive engagement
medium, and so, it is costless (in effort) to stay with it, even when
it is barely keeping one’s attention. Reading requires active
involvement, and if the material is not captivating, which is the case
with poor writing, the effort is just too much to continue
reading. Hence, good writing overwhelms the bad. Yes, even good
pornography trumps bad. And indeed, a person who reads well, upon
finding poor television, will just as often switch off the set and
turn to a good book.

Our school system totally de-emphasizes reading. I am apoplexic every
time my son comes home and announces he has a quiz, and then produces a sheet of questions with answers for me to quiz him with. What do
most children do? They read the questions, and do not read their
books. They have one-liners written on their sheets. At most, their
preparation involves reading 3-4 pages. Which is awful. Our children
are capable of reading into the hundreds of pages if called on to,
from which they will learn not only to access and enjoy an entire body
of writing, but also engage with a subject for a long enough period of
time to learn to concentrate and synthesize a “whole” picture of the
material. Real engagement comes from lengthy reads, not from a hundred
hyperlink jumps across the internet.

I am greatly in favor of tests that require full understanding of the
material from reading. Giving practice tests in advance provides
automatic curtailment of the subject coverage. How many students
prepare by only working over past tests? Too many altogether. It
should be pretty obvious that when students dont know what specifics
to expect on a test, they will have to read widely and cover more
material than when they are told what the boundaries are.

It is a vicious cycle. Unless we set standards high, reading will
continue to decline, and that decline will lead to a further fall in
standards. In the old days, when there was no internet, asking school
students to write forced them to read first. Now it only makes them
cut and paste. So, the problem has become even more difficult.

As I see it, there are four goals of reading: (a) for information, (b)
for relaxation, (c) for understanding, and (d) for reflection. School
children today seem to read for (a) and no other reason. Other media
take care of (b), and (c) and (d) do not seem to even happen
anymore. When children want to understand something, they do not turn
to a book, they go to web sites. These are usually of such poor
quality (from lack of editing, and the absence of economic filters)
that the child fails to understand, or even worse, thinks he/she has
understood when it is not so. And finally, reflection and
self-awareness, which are deeply fostered with reading which is
connected and grounded in active mental engagement, is now being
replaced with extremist shows or sitcoms whose main purpose is to
distract and remove people into an unreal world so they can run away
from the stress that permeates everyday life.

So what are we to do? We must all take our children to libraries and
book shops. Leave them there for hours, lead them to the water, and
they will drink. But, it means being there and doing the same, which
is not that hard. We are lucky to have excellent book shops and
libraries. Who knows, it will also slow down our own pace of life, and
overall, everyone will be better off.