Oh, now there’s a dubious assumption… DO you even read, ever? Well, yes, some of us, even in this age of on-line everything, YouTube everything, rather than printed books and magazines, you still do read; you read the blogs, e-mails, tweets, etc.

But WHY do you read?

I am raising the question in the context of a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, with the title “High School English Without the Politics” (2015 Oct 22) by Helaine Smith, a teacher in New York City. It was sent to me by a friend, very much interested in the quality of education being offered today, who thought that this teacher was very courageous to write it.

This teacher tells us that her English class is an “issue-free zone,” that in class they “do not talk about the environment, or racism, or feminism, or the president’s failed policies.” She cites John Milton’s Areopagitica, and posits that “truth, or as much of it as we can grasp, is arrived not through trigger warnings but through discussion and debate that turns on details.” And therefore her class talks about “books, images, word choice, and constructing arguments about themes and reach conclusions about character, and we back everything up with details from the text.” Her aim is to “teach them to love great writing and to take pleasure in the habits of the mind that close reading demands … habits that are also essential for an informed citizenry … who, whatever political positions they adopt, will question before they conclude, and respect the rights of others to question and conclude otherwise.” When teaching Shakespeare, “we will not consider political parallels to today’s world; rather, we immerse ourselves in the world Shakespeare creates.”

This teacher uses some of the disgusting terminology of Common Core (trigger warnings, close reading), but turns the very purpose of Common Core on its head — she teaches her kids to see how the author or his characters feel, not how the reader feels; to read a story not in the context of today’s world or today’s politics, but in the context of the time  in which the story takes place.

By trying to pretend that literature is apolitical, this teacher commits the standard error of our age and fails to escape it: she remains stuck in the realm of false dichotomies, fighting over the false choice between the two halves of the same thing, refusing to see the complete picture. The fact that is being ignored, both by Common Core and this teacher, is that you can’t explore the “other” without exploring the “self,” and you can’t explore the “self” without also exploring the “other,” because we understand everything — absolutely everything — in terms of relationships. There no science, no math, no economics, no history, no art, nothing — no field of knowledge — without exploring the relationship of one entity to other entities. We understand every single thing in terms of its relationship to other things; we understand ourselves in terms of our relationships to things in this world and to each other.

And of course this teacher ignores the one constant question that all kids in every generation have always asked, why do I have to read that? What’s the point, what am I supposed to learn? So when she limits the emphasis only to the narrow context of a Shakespeare play, for example, and refuses to relate it to current events, she denies the very purpose of spending time in school. What is the purpose of education if it’s not to prepare the next generation for a successful life by the teaching of the lessons learned by past generations?

The fact is, you read for your own selfish reasons — for entertainment and pleasure; to learn, to dream, to explore, to learn about yourself and others through observing how you and they feel about what you are experiencing, which hopefully will lead you to learn the difference between being subjective and objective in your observations, reactions and conclusions.

And the fact is that humans learn through stories, through analogies and parallels with our own experiences, and from the differences between the two. Even in science we tell stories. We write lab reports, theses and research papers. Each such story relates our current experiences — what we’ve learned from our own research — to what we know from the past. Why do we read history and study the humanities? Why do we study the Bible? Why should we? Why do we read biographies, historical novels, watch “period piece” movies?

Oh, I forget, this generation does none of that; they flock to the movies to watch comic books turned into special effects devoid of a story line, and kill dehumanized enemies by the hundreds in pointless, dehumanizing video games. Then they wonder why they’ve learned nothing about the real world, their place in it, and how to cope with it.

Baby boomers and the generation after that, at the dawn of the computer age, used to complain that babies don’t come with an instruction manual. Yes they do, but you have to find it and make the effort to learn from it. But as soon as you tell them that the instruction manual is called the Bible (more precisely, the Torah; the differences between the Old and the New Testaments are themselves very telling), they tune out. You’ve lost them. The wisdom of the ages, so carefully preserved through the millennia, “cramps their style” because it puts limits on their self-centered whims and impulses. Can’t have that and still call it “freedom,” right?

But it’s worse than just that. Nobody explains anymore the difference between “liberal” and “libertine,” between life-destroying narcissism or self-sacrifice on one hand, and life-affirming rational self-interest on the other. You have to read both the Bible and Ayn Rand for that one — and even then you can’t understand one without the other.

They’d save the kids from a lot of grief later in life if they taught THAT in school — in the context of all the great literature that we have inherited from our learned forebears, including the Bible and Atlas Shrugged.

 

Advertisements