Friday, July 13, 2012

Social class and reading

I've been worrying recently about the ways in which reading is social, cultural, and deeply influenced by one's social class.  Below are a few attempts to start to think this through.

Images of Reading: solitary, but also social

Reading is in many ways a solitary activity.  People tend not to read in large groups, and when they do (reading rooms; subway cars), reading often seems to wall off the self from the group.  When I think of images of reading, I think of those portraits of female readers, in which the reading is nearly always shown as an activity of almost circular self-sufficiency.  Here's a picture by Fragonard:

It's a lovely picture, and we like it partly because it makes makes us imagine what it's like to be the young woman. We want to be her because reading looks so pleasant, so private, so self-sufficient--not necessarily passionate, not necessarily joyful, but reasonable, calm, and, despite the pillow against which she is propped up so straight, wakefulWe put ourselves in her place, we want to know what the book is about, we imagine such a wonderful self-sufficiency (perhaps we are enjoying the painting in the same way the young woman enjoys the book), and the picture is so much about at-one-ness that viewer and subject partly merge. 

But the picture is more complicated, and the apparent solitude is less solitary, than it might seem. It is also less self-sufficient, and it is embedded in a pretty distinct social and cultural context.  First, and most obviously, such a celebration of privacy, such solitary self-sufficiency in a young woman may seem, as in Vermeer paintings, to have (that pillow!) an erotic tinge. The young woman in Fragonard's picture is both attractive and quite fetchingly dressed, and if reading might seem a solitary activity, she is less alone than she thinks, for both painter and viewer may play the role of peeping Tom.  

(Here's one, by Renoir, in which the inherent eroticism of the subject is a bit more obvious:


The eroticism of the picture is merely the most obvious way in which reading is never completely solitary.  These young women, like reading itself, are also clearly of a certain class--or rather, are distinctly not of a certain class--that is, they are not poor.  The woman in the Fragonard painting is probably richer than Renoir's subject--by Renoir's time, reading, or leisure, had filtered down to the middle class---but both have had time in their childhoods to learn to read, someone to help them learn, and maids and servants to clean the house, shop for and cook the food, put on their dresses, tie their ribbons and plump their pillows.  While their servants were doing such work (you might argue that Renoir's girl looks like she might have to do some housework herself, but then Renoir is an inveterate fantasist), these non-poor women enjoyed available books to choose from, an undistracting space and continuous leisure time in which to read the books they choose, and friends with whom they could discuss the stories.  In nearly every way, reading was an upper-class pursuit. 

Reading and social class in To Kill a Mockingbird 

The situation is similar in To Kill a Mockingbird. The book paints a wonderful picture of an apparently self-sufficient childhood culture of reading.  Jem, Scout and Dill don't need school--Harper Lee seems deeply skeptical of the idea that reading can be taught--and the children's summer world, a combination of unsupervised outdoor play and passionate engagement in Tom Swift and Tarzan books, seems as beautifully self-sufficient as Fragonard's idyll of solitary reading.  Anyone should be able to read, it seems, and when the book's villain, Bob Ewell, is asked by the book's hero, Atticus Finch, whether he can write, Mr. Ewell is indignant, but in the joke he makes (or should I say the joke the author has at his expense), we are given to understand that his level of literacy is despicably low.  "Of course I can write," Mr. Ewell says.  "How do you think I sign my relief checks?"  We laugh, but we understand that the Ewells probably can't read, as we would think of reading, and that their illiteracy is a part of their separateness, their subhumanness.  According to Atticus, it's not even worth making the Ewell children go to school, because the Ewells are the Ewells and will never change.

I'm dwelling at length on to Kill a Mockingbird because it presents such a clear picture of a good reading culture and such a clear picture of the all-important social divisions.  In Maycomb, one is almost completely defined by one's family and one's class. Jem, Scout and Dill are good readers, but nearly every other upper-class character, that is to say, everyone who lives on the town's "main residential street," is also a member of the reading club: even the mean, racist Mrs. Dubose kicks her morphine habit with the assistance of a Walter Scott novel; and even Boo Radley likes to cut out newspaper articles for his scrapbook.  

The poor farmers, on the other hand, who occupy the next rung down on the social ladder, may be literate, but they are not readers.  Of the farm children who make up most of her class at school, Scout tells us that "the ragged, denim-shirted and floursack-skirted first grade, most of whom had chopped cotton and fed hogs from the time they were able to walk, were immune to imaginative literature."  The Cunninghams and their neighbors were not raised by lawyers who are professional readers and writers, they did not see their parents sitting in the armchair reading every night, and they were provided neither the books nor the time to read even if by some form of extra-sensory perception they had somehow gotten it into their heads that reading was a worthwhile pursuit.

The social groups who occupy the bottom two rungs of the social hierarchy, the African-Americans and the poor white trash, are mostly illiterate--not only immune to imaginative literature, but hardly able to read or write at all.  Bob Ewell may be able, barely, to scratch out his name, but his son Burris, who at eight or nine years old has only spent two full days in school, can't spell his, and his nineteen-year-old daughter Mayella, the best of the bunch, has only been to school for two years and can read and write only as well as her father.  Most of the African-Americans in the town are also illiterate; of the large congregation in the First Purchase church, only four or five, including Calpurnia and her son Zeebo, know how to read.

That African-Americans, and poor Whites, are still less literate than the upper classes is completely to be expected.  The Fragonard picture was painted about 250 years ago.  To Kill a Mockingbird takes place less than a hundred years ago. Cultures usually change very, very slowly.  Burris Ewell was younger than my grandfather; his grandchildren could be my students. We, like them, are living with the inheritance of centuries and centuries of social divisions.  For centuries in Europe, only the clergy knew how to read. In England, your crimes were treated much more leniently if you could prove you could read (they'd ask you to read Psalm 51, the "Neck Verse," and if you could read about God's mercy, then the powers that be would offer mercy as well).  In the American south, education for slaves was prohibited by law. This was all very, very recent, and since we are still living in a culture shaped by this history, we can most effectively make progress by accepting that our work is not only "instructional," not only about "skills," but is primarily social and cultural. 

Family, Peers, and School

The point I am laboriously making here is that reading is not only solitary, and it is not a "skill" that can be isolated, taught and tested in the way that perhaps long division can (though I wonder);  no, reading is social and cultural, and we teachers of reading must keep that uppermost in our minds.

We often assume that all parents want their kids to succeed, to become readers, but some of them probably don't.  There's a funny and horrifying scene in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which Huck's absent, illiterate father comes back to find that while he's been away his son has learned to read.  Pap is upset:  "Looky here -- you drop that school, you hear? I'll learn people to bring up a boy to put on airs over his own father and let on to be better'n what he is. You lemme catch you fooling around that school again, you hear? Your mother couldn't read, and she couldn't write, nuther, before she died. None of the family couldn't before they died. I can't; and here you're a-swelling yourself up like this. I ain't the man to stand it -- you hear?"

When Huck reads a bit, Pap knocks the book across the room and warns Huck that if he catches him at school again, he'll beat him.  The scene is funny partly because Pap's attitude is so counter to all the middle-class bromides (Stay in school, etc.), but it's also funny because it expresses something real: there is a real anti-academic feeling in a lot of people.  Sure, nearly every parent genuinely wants his or her child to succeed in school--but a lot of them have mixed feelings.  They may have hated school themselves.  A part of them may feel that they didn't succeed and don't want their kids to succeed.  I had mixed feelings about school myself, and I know I have transmitted those feelings to my children.

It's not only parents, but peers, who work against creating a culture of reading.  In To Kill a Mockingbird, the only two readers in the First Grade classroom are Scout and the teacher, and even if they could work together it would be difficult for them to move the great mass of the rest of the class. The greatest obstacle to student success is often the students.  Not the student, singular, but his or her peers.  It takes more than one person to create a culture--and a teacher is only one person.  True, she has a vested authority, but she is competing against a score of other people, many of whom are not yet initiates into the society of readers.

This is a huge, and potentially growing problem

In the United States, despite the constant talk of our weak performance and the "crisis" in education, the situation is roughly what it's been like for decades.  The rich kids do very well, even by international standards, and the poor kids don't.  Recent results on the OECD's PISA tests make this clear: in 2009, US schools with less than 10% poor kids had reading scores averaging 551, significantly better than the scores in any other country (schools with more than 75% of students receiving Free or Reduced Price Lunch averaged 446, significantly worse than Turkey), but US poverty rates are among the highest in the OECD.

In any case, US schools with few poor kids do very well, and this has been clear at least since 1972, when Christopher Jencks and his colleagues published their magisterial Inequality: A Reassessment of the Effect of Family and Schooling in America (and every year other writers like Richard Rothstein and Gerald Grant make the same obvious point). Oddly, it was also in 1972, or thereabouts, that the economic fortunes of the bottom 50% took a turn for the worse.  Median wages, adjusted for inflation, peaked in the early 1970s and have been flat or declining since, even as the incomes of the upper-middle-class have grown quite a bit and the incomes of the rich have grown enormously.

This inequality has large educational effects.  Robert Putnam (of Bowling Alone fame) gave a talk recently on inequality that has been getting a lot of press (David Brooks, whom I usually loathe, wrote a somewhat reasonable column about it this week).  The basic idea is that poor kids grow up in dramatically different environments, and are given much, much less attention and fewer resources (like books!) than their higher-SES peers.  The inequality among children, according to Putnam, is getting dramatically worse.  I look forward to Putnam's book, but we teachers should be taking this stuff into account every day, trying to provide, in school, the cultural and social education that our students are missing outside of school.

We can't make up for cultural gaps by mechanical means.  Instead, we should be doing just what the Deweyan teacher in To Kill a Mockingbird is trying and failing to do: we should be reading to our students--but reading them stories they like.  We should be modeling our love for reading and thinking. We should be providing them with books to read, and time in which to read them.  We should be fostering student discussion in lit circles and the like.  What we should not be doing is what we too often are doing: giving our students the educational equivalent of Scout's classmates daily chores: drudge-work, like feeding hogs and chopping cotton, that keeps them from the valuable, mind-growing work of leisure-reading.  School should look like this:

...or even like this:


    ― Matilda's father, Roald Dahl, Matilda

    One of the reasons we love Matilda is that she isn't like her anti-intellectual parents and she turns the normal parent-child relationship with reading on its head. How rare are these Matilda's? They exist but they are pretty rare. Part of our job as teachers is to create them.

    I have thought a lot about the possibility that we are in a world where people may become readers later in their lives than they used to. The demands of school have increased and the "demands" of Facebook and videogames and texting are ciphoning off students' leisure time. However, those demands lessen after college (and perhaps during). I have thought about what it means for me as an English teacher if what I am actually doing is PREPARING students to become readers later in their lives...

    1. But you prepare them by having them DO it, no? It may be true that "the demands of school have increased", but we are a part of school, and we can play a role in what those demands are. If we demand that they are (or at least help them to be) readers, if only for the hour or so every day that we have some influence on, that is something. I don't think I, for one, always demand it... Yes, let's all create Matildas! Millions of Matildas!