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April 24, 2013
Jewish World Review
Sept. 11, 2009
22 Elul 5769
Learning Is No Picnic, Buster
Conservatives and other parents won their point. President Obama
dropped his lesson plan for the schoolchildren of America. He didn't ask
what they can do for him, as he first intended to do, but what they can do
for themselves and country.
"We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills
and intellect, so you can help solve our most difficult problems," he said.
"If you don't do that if you quit on school you're not only quitting
on yourself, you're quitting on your country." Nobody can argue with that.
The furor that preceded the speech was rage against the "cult of
personality," and the White House did a good job of changing the subject to
misrepresent what the furor was about. But as the Bard would say, "All's
well that ends well."
A good follow-up question might be how many of the kids he
talked to would know who the Bard is the bright young man who introduced
the president at Wakefield High would know but a lot of American kids are
getting shortchanged by what they're reading, and not reading.
A new method of teaching reading has taken hold in many
classrooms, allowing children in middle school to pick their own books for
literature class. No more assigned classics. If a child prefers to read a
Judy Blume novel or the "Twilight" vampire series rather than "The
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" or "To Kill a Mockingbird," he can get
credit as a happy, satisfied reader. The idea is that he'll develop a love
for reading a love he wouldn't develop if told what he should read.
Lorry McNeil, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade English
classes in a suburban Atlanta middle school, tells The New York Times how as
a teenager she devoured the novels of Judy Blume and Danielle Steel. She
disliked Mark Twain, even though she taught Twain later. Now she teaches
"gifted" students and lets them choose what they want to read. She says
they're more excited about their personal choices than the classics they're
forced to read. She boasts that her students score well on standardized
state reading tests, but standardized tests tell only how well a student
tests to statistical standards, not necessarily to substance.
Many educationists have, as usual, boarded the Band-Aid wagon,
teaching the "personal choice" method. Fads are always popular with the
educationists. But Diane Ravitch, professor of education at New York
University, asks the pertinent question: "What child is going to pick up
'Moby Dick'?'" Or "Julius Caesar?" or even "The Rime of the Ancient
Mariner," once the staples of literature classes. Kids can learn good
reading habits in elementary school to be prepared to read the best of the
But few schools teach a reading "core" any longer, and students
graduate from high school with no collective body of knowledge in common, a
problem made worse when they're encouraged to make their own personal
choices for book assignments. President Obama passed up a good opportunity
to tell the teachers, in an avuncular aside, that dumbing-down is not the
rigorous discipline he promised to encourage in the campaign. A dumbed-down
curriculum inevitably leads to dumbed-down state standards.
Reading time-tested literature should be about enjoyment, of
course, and a good teacher should see to that. But it's about a lot more
than enjoyment. A reader of fine literature develops critical thinking that
is both aesthetic and moral, probing profound questions of life from
different perspectives. These are lessons not found in social studies
Reading the classics is about raising universal questions in an
imaginative context, challenging the reader to evaluate ideas outside the
passing popular culture. It's never difficult for kids to read the trendy
fluff after school, just as there's no shortage of diversions from the
rigors of homework. Guidance to good literature is an obligation of
teachers. This is a presidential reminder Obama could have given at
The president told the students that when he was a boy, his
mother got him up at 4:30 in the morning to do his homework with her. When
he complained, she reminded him, "It's no picnic for me either, Buster."
Learning, as the president emphasized this week, is hard work for everybody.
Reading Harry Potter is fine, but not when it's instead of Huck Finn. There
will be time later to "light out for the territory." Only those who have
read their Mark Twain would understand what that means.
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