Thursday, July 25, 2013

Assigned Reading or Great Conversation?

Over at one of my favorite blogs, Gerontion, inhabited by Prof Hartley who teaches econ at Mount Holyoke, I found the good prof's latest post, The Widening Gyre thought provoking, not for his insightful review of Things Fall Apart, but for his mixed thoughts on summer reading requirements, and, more profoundly, his description of his relationship with his daughter. He writes:

"First, though, can I just say that this whole idea of assigned summer reading makes me very happy?  My kids all hate it, but I love it.  Just think, in the old days, I never had homework during summer vacation.  Never—not once in all my years of schooling did I ever have a single summer assignment.  This change is proof that civilization is not totally in decline—some things are improving."

He continues,

"I actually liked Things Fall Apart in ninth grade—indeed, it was one of the very few assigned books I enjoyed.  As I have noted in this space previously, over the years I have reread most of the books I was assigned and hated in high school—I have enjoyed them all.  The books were good—the method of assigning them sucked all the joy and life out of them.  Why can’t schools just let kids read the books and enjoy them?"

At first read, I didn't "get" it.  Hartley loves the "idea" of summer reading.  It makes him happy.  But how does it prove that civilization in not totally in decline?  Now, before you point out that his tongue was in his cheek, at least halfway, and that this is merely a bit of hyperbole on the part of Hartley, please know that I recognize that possibility.  But if civilization is not actually at stake, what is it that he likes about assigned reading?  If, as he says in the second paragraph cited above, "the method of assigning [books] sucked all the joy and life out of them" (and there we agree wholeheartedly), why, oh, why does he rejoice at their assignment?  Is it the assignment itself, or the method he rejected as a youth and now embraces?  And what exactly is he embracing?  The key to his conversion, I think, is not the assignment, but his desire to share his love of books with his daughter.

Towards the end of the post, he talks about the questions which round-out his daughter's reading assignment, pointing out that those questions are leading, and won't actually take much time, though he predicts his daughter will complain (who wouldn't?) .  Again, what is it about assigned reading and the trappings that go with the assignments that he likes?  Ambivalence resounds in the piece as he asks the most profound question in the post:  "Why can't schools just let the kids read the books and enjoy them?"

Perhaps Prof. Hartley is trying to convince himself that he loves summer reading requirements, but there I don't think he succeeds, until he speaks specifically of his daughter:

"...I just reread it so that I can talk with Clara about it.  (Not that she will want to talk with me about it.  She won’t.  She is 13, and for reasons I cannot understand having a sprawling hour long discussion about a book is not something which causes young Clara to experience paroxysms of joy... "

Ah.  There it is.

As a homeschooler, and more specifically, as an unschooler in the classical tradition for whom freedom to read and share is as natural as breathing, I was profoundly saddened when I read this.  This assigned reading does suck the joy out of books.  A joyful reading makes one want to share and talk about a book, perhaps privately with a best friend, in a family (common among homeschoolers), or perhaps publicly on a blog, in a book club, or in a lecture hall.  I read aloud to my children because I want to share good books and great books with them, and launch discussion after discussion, naturally, around the dinner table, in the car, before bed (a way of procrastinating?) before the lights go out.  I want to consider what an author has written without forced and stilted questions determined by a committee or computerized algorithm, but with real insight (as Hartley does in his discussion of the prepared questions his daughter must answer rather than the question he would choose that is real and dear, and as personal in nature as a booklover's love for his daughter ) and passion.  The joy is in the understanding, the discussion, the argument, and the shared knowledge.

I asked my own grown daughter about assigned reading, something she did not experience until college, and she agreed that it "divorces learning from love."  We did not experience that divorce at home, but instead renewed bonds in the free land of living books that I describe above.

Perhaps Clara is that falcon who cannot hear the falconer.  Disguised as a book review, Hartley has written a call to the discussion, in invitation to the great conversation, to his daughter.  I do not know if that is his intention in writing the post, but if he finds an opportunity to reach her through assigned summer reading, I suddenly see why he loves it.

Honestly, I hated Things Fall Apart when it was assigned.  I think I, too, will listen for the falconer and pick it up again.

1 comment:

ainaa khan said...

Amazing post and very interesting stuff you got here! I definitely learned a lot from reading through some of your earlier posts as well and decided to drop a comment on this one!
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