Saturday, January 31, 2015

About That Reading List

The newly discovered and circulated junior high reading list from Minnesota in 1908 just hit the conservative websites.  A word of caution here.  Note that this was a recommended reading list.  There is no evidence that 7th-graders had them assigned, completed them, were tested on them for knowledge, or even looked into any of this.  These are lists made up by one or more people, lists that just sorta seemed like a good idea for kids to read.  As this was a published list, there is every reason to suspect that these were pitched as high as possible to makes one's own town look smart - a community with high standards and awareness of literary quality. Aspera ad astra, and all that.

When my God-daughter entered high school, I gave her a pile of books I recommended she read before she finished. Though she is an excellent student, I tried to remember at each turn that she is young, that this was a supplementary list for the next four years, that lists can be intimidating, and individual books often need an introduction*. It included How To Lie With Statistics, and Eat The Rich, which are likely not on anyone else's list.  I don't know if she's read a word of any of them, halfway through her junior year. 

In short, the existence of a list tells us nothing. The existence of the new list tells us nothing about whether those works are being read either.

However, the observations about the other qualities of the books chosen are worth noting. The older list not only contains books written over a wider time-span, they are set in a far greater range of places and times. This is straight out of CS Lewis and Reading Old Books. The modern list tells children that Now! is all-important; that today's political and cultural wrangles, and monitoring the feelings of today should dominate their contemplation and conversation. This is a great cultural shift from a century ago, when children were taught that they were bearers of a flame, of a long tradition of struggle and improvement, which they had a responsibility to pass on to succeeding generations.

One could make the argument that teaching children to focus on the world around them and make it good is a better goal.  I disagree, but I can see that.  I do note that it is a different goal, and is likely to lead to very different religious and social worlds.  This may be unconscious, but it is not accidental.  The educating adults have changed in attitude, and the lists illustrate that.

The third difference, that the more challenging reading level is good for children in and of itself, I no longer subscribe to very strongly.  We believe it will slowly make them smarter.  It won't.  It might teach them that working at reading, or at anything, is personally valuable. It will teach them a different, more archaic vocabulary, but not give them a larger one.

*So I wrote an introduction of a few sentences on a slip of paper tucked into each one.  Of course I did.


Sam L. said...

Without knowledge of previous conditions, "it's always been this way" is an easy presumption. Wrong, but easy.

Korora said...

Also, with newer books, Sturgeon's Law still applies, whereas with older ones there's been more time to separate the wheat from the chaff*. I wonder how many new books currently classified as tomorrow's classics will be little-known in fifty years, or reviled due to propounding (rightly and/or wrongly) discredited philosophies.

* Though Deerslayer is, as Mark Twain claims, a catastrophe of malapropisms, plot holes, and Mary Sues/Gary Stus.

james said...

If the book count is any measure, I had more time to read in high school than any time since. Of course there was no TV or internet, and not much in the way of other entertainments nearby.

How to Lie With Statistics should be in the required reading list. Also something on rhetoric/propaganda, and something that asks some basic questions from philosophy. Old-style geometry doubled as an introduction to logic, but the recent textbooks I've seen tend to blend in a lot more algebra.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Avi's wife - I of course gave her Pride and Prejudice.

james said...

I had to read that for class, and answer questions like "On page 73, what was Mr Darcy doing?" I hated it. After graduating, I decided that maybe I should give it an unpressured try, and liked it. But just making something required needn't be a turn-off: other books I liked just fine: even the some of the textbook collections had some very good works in them.

Eric said...

Jerry Pournelle reprinted the 1914 California Sixth Grade Reader recently. You can find it on Amazon. Having browsed quickly through it, I'd say that Annie Holmquist wasn't far off.