From the department of “Again already?” there’s hyperventilation about whether or not kids are reading and growing more stupider by the minute because they don’t read.
Truly, take a breath people. Remember that annoying song in 1997 about how everyone has to wear sunscreen but not credit the correct source of all that wisdom? (It wasn’t Vonnegut, fyi). In the middle is this bit of perspective:
Accept certain inalienable truths, prices will rise, politicians will philander, you too will get old. And when you do you’ll fantasise that when you were younger prices were reasonable, politicians were noble and children respected elders.
Add to that: you’ll also insist that children should read great and sometimes cumbersome works written by those whom someone has deemed among the great minds and because children are not doing so, they are now growing more stupider by the minute.
No, I don’t think that’s true at all. I don’t think kids are stupid, judging by the ones I meet. I don’t always understand the things they worry about – but I bet the things I worry about are as baffling to them.
When I see histrionic articles like this one about what kids are reading and how they’re growing more stupider by the minute, I think to myself:
1. Take a breath.
2. How are you defining “reading?” Can we agree that the definition of “reading” is increasingly nebulous in its boundaries?
Are they reading text in ways you can identify? Are they interacting with stories in forms you have quantified in your estimation of Here Comes Teh Stupids Oh Noes? There are more ways to consume narrative on heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
According to a Daily Beast article on the subject of teens reading,
…children should read newspapers and magazines, texts about nature and technology, and biographies—genres that increase real-world knowledge. This is especially important for poor children, who may not be exposed to as much “background” information at home: the random vocabulary, facts, and associations that make it easier to do well on tests like the NAEP and SAT, and to succeed in the workplace.
But for the most part, kids aren’t reading this kind of material. “One of my big gripes is the imperialism of literature, of trivial fictions and poetry,” says E.D. Hirsch, a literature professor and advocate of “cultural literacy.” Hirsch rejects the idea that storybooks are the only books that appeal to children. “Fiction doesn’t have a monopoly on narrative,” he says. “Take, for example, biographies. They have the form of fiction. It isn’t whether kids can read it or not, it’s whether it is taught or not.
In other words, there is value in imagination, whether the intricate narrative is coming from text on a page or screen, or a interactive dynamic world projected on a screen. The narratives and issues dealt with in video games or in comics are not at all worth less than the narratives of classical literature, (just as romances are not of less value than other works of fiction). Alas, the bulk of the article is not so innovative, and rehashes a lot of the Oh Noes Here Comes Teh Stupids hand-wringing while recommending nonfiction in addition to fiction. Why not… let kids choose what they want to enjoy?
Peter M. Dickinson wrote about this back in 2002 in “A Defence of Rubbish” and said,
Nobody who has not spent a whole sunny afternoon under his bed rereading a pile of comics left over from the previous holidays has any real idea of the meaning of intellectual freedom.
Nobody who has not written comic strips can really understand the phrase, economy of words. It’s like trying to write Paradise Lost in haiku.
While I immediately bristle at the use of the word “rubbish,” as it’s so often applied to that which I hold most dear (and to my bosoms, of course) I agree with Mr. Dickinson like damn howdy. Especially this part: “Third I am convinced of the importance of children discovering things for themselves.” And this other part, which addresses my rubbishy fears: “it may not be rubbish after all. The adult eye is not necessarily a perfect instrument for discerning certain sorts of values.”
Sing it, Brother P. I shall hold up a lighter. (Thank you to Christine D. for the links.) We’ve discussed the idea of youth reading and required reading before, and the discussion follows a similar route each time.
but I want to stop short of the shrill and earnest whining that at least kids are reeeeaaaaaaading when seen toting Harry Potter or Twilight or whatever mammoth hardback is capturing attention and making hands wring in agitation. I want to stop well short of that crap, to be sure, because it’s just as patronizing to say so, as if kids should be reading because doing so is good for them and they’ll all arrive at the same level of intellectual joy and wonderpants so long as they consume pages of text.
I disagree with that, and the idea that there’s only one way to learn, and the idea that identifying, quantifying and assigning to value to what a child is reading is more important than asking that child what he or she thinks. I drew a whole set of conclusions about Twilight, but some of the most interesting conversations I’ve had about the first book were with individuals between the ages of 10 and 15. (Note: I used to work in overnight camping so I’m often around children of camp age. Also, summer camp freaking rules).
It seems that as technology changes the way we consume and access information, articles about the state of reading among young people emerge that have all the calm and reasoned tone of a Weather Channel meterologist in the middle of a snowstorm in July. Calm down already.