The elite are "nurtured"and "inspired" toward a "love" for reading
Barack Obama and Arne Duncan, Bill Gates did not go to a public high
school. Instead, Gates, a scion of an elite Seattle family, went to a
fancy prep school called Lakeside. Lakeside's English curriculum is
quite different from the Common Core Standards that Gates paid millions
to have created and is spending millions now to promote, and that Obama
and Duncan are pushing as well, through their "Race to the Top" (sic)
program. The Common Core standards suggest long and detailed classroom
analyses of extremely difficult texts, and offer absolutely nothing in
the way of requiring extensive reading or encouraging a love of
reading. This curriculum is dramatically different from the ones
offered at Lakeside, where Bill Gates's kids now go, but I wouldn't
expect Lakeside to change its ways anytime soon.
Here are the mission statements for Lakeside's English programs at the middle school and high school levels:
"The Middle School English Department is dedicated to nurturing a
lifelong love of reading
and writing. We strive to create a community of
readers and writers that inspires students to
experiment with a variety
of written forms."
"Lakeside’s [High School] English
Department’s highest goals are to inspire in students a
love of literature and to help students become great writers."
the middle school and high school statements use the word "love" and
emphasize writing in an "authentic voice" and "artistically." The
curriculum is notably literary and cultural, and not narrowly designed
to ready students for the business or political world.
also notable that these English departments aren't afraid to talk about
encouraging a love of reading. Encouraging a love for reading might
seem like an obvious goal of English class, but in the Orwellian world
of the Education-Industrial-Complex that goal is controversial.
The masses are given "instruction" aimed at "proficiency"
This Orwellian madness surfaced in 2006, when the new President of the International Reading Association came out against
encouraging a love for reading. Professor Tim Shanahan, one of the
biggest names int he reading world, had already made clear that he was
against natural reading: he was a prominent member of the "National
Reading Panel" (2000) that after a cockeyed look at the evidence, argued
at length for explicit instruction and dishonestly
claimed that there was no evidence that independent silent reading was
effective. In 2006, he became President of the International Reading
Association, which has as one of its three stated purposes, in addition
to improving reading instruction and promote reading proficiency, to
"encourage reading and an interest in reading" (Reading Today,
June 2006). Shanahan's first move as President of the Association was to
say that while he could support improved instruction and promoting
proficiency, he was not in favor of "encouraging reading and an interest in reading." Although Shanahan can be eloquent and passionate about why reading is important, he apparently thinks it's inappropriate and dangerous to encourage interest in it.
this, Shanahan was not laughed out of the profession; he remains one of
the big shots of the reading world. This past week, the thoughtful,
intelligent instructor of my PD workshop referred to Shanahan in glowing
terms and gave us a couple of his articles. How could this be? How
could the President of the International Reading Association argue
against teachers' trying to encourage "an interest in reading"?! Bill
Gates's kids have teachers that nurture a lifelong love of reading, but the rest of us can't even encourage an interest in reading? Are there different rules for private and public schools? Well, yes--according to Shanahan.
Interest in reading and "freedom of choice"
although his central (if insane) argument is that encouraging an
interest in reading is
somehow inimical to effective teaching, and that we should be "jealous
of instructional time" which would apparently be wasted by encouraging
student interest in our subject, Shanahan also argues at length that it
is beyond a public school teacher's mandate to encourage interest in his
subject. In order to make this argument, Shanahan shifts the terms of
the debate from the words "interest" to "pleasure" and then to "desire"
and then to "love", and argues suggests that as "institutional beings,"
teachers have no right to try to instill love or desire in anyone. A
teacher's "public responsibility," according to Shanahan, does not
include "encouraging reading," which is, he says, a "personal goal" that
might carry "danger." What danger? Apparently encouraging reading
would limit "freedom of choice."
That encouraging an
interest in reading could be considered as limiting to freedom of choice
is obviously Orwellian. As Bill Gates found when he went from public
school to private school, and as Shanahan should know, given his explanation of why he is passionate about teaching reading, encouraging an interest in reading actually promotes
freedom of choice, while merely teaching it dispassionately as a useful
skill is usually a good way to limit freedom. For Shanahan public
schools, although obligated to impose explicit instruction of the kind
Bill Gates found so tedious
when he went to public elementary school, are not allowed to offer
students encouragement and nurturing of the very practices that will
Conclusion: We need to create a culture of reading, even in public schools
Why is Shanahan so uncomfortable with the notion
of encouraging interest in reading, even though he acknowledges that
reading is important? Why does Gates spend his billions to promote
increased class size and increased testing, even though he sends his
kids to a school that brags about its average class size of 16 and that
manages to have 40% of its Seniors be National Merit Scholarship
Finalists without having done any of the kind of high stakes testing
Gates is working to impose on the rest of us? The obvious answer for
Shanahan is that he has spent his career promoting explicit skill
instruction, and for Shanahan to admit that it's important to teach
reading as an organic, pleasurable experience, or to admit that reading
is largely a socially mediated activity, might seem to him to call into question
his life's work.
As for Gates, perhaps he doesn't know
how to address the social and cultural aspects of learning, or perhaps
he thinks the changes he's pushing will lead indirectly to an improved
cultural and social environment in the classroom. My guess is that Gates
sees public school as properly different from what he offers his own
children. When Gates himself switched from public school to private
school, he noticed a dramatic cultural shift. As he recalls, "it was a change at first. And the idea of just being kind of a
goof-off wasn't the sort of high reward position like it had been in
public schools." It seems possible that, partly based on this experience, Gates doesn't think it possible to change that culture.
But he should think
so, for in the same interview I quoted before, he offers an excellent
example of a public institution that encourages reading. Gates remembers
that when he was a kid, the library would give you a gold star if you
read ten books over the summer, and two stars if you read twenty.
According to Gates, he and "five or six girls" would compete to see who
could read the most books. For reading is a solitary activity, but
reading is also a social activity, and it can be encouraged.
The first job of
every high school English class should be creating a culture of
reading. This is difficult to do when many of our expert authorities
don't believe that interest matters, and think that human beings are
mechanisms that have only to be properly programmed for "proficiency."
The best way make sure that our public schools are not like the one Bill
Gates went to, where "being a goof-off
was more socially rewarding," is to replace the interest in goofing off
with an interest in reading and thinking, and that can only happen if we encourage that interest. We must make sure that our public schools do "encourage reading"--even inspire a love for it. If reading is, and has always been, strongly linked to social class, we
don't have to accept the social class divisions that we are given.