Suzanne Fields / September 11, 2009

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.”

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 classics later.

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 courses.

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 Wakefield High.

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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