For various reasons related to day-to-day work, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about general education requirements and what we really want students to have, or do, or be able to do. In the language of higher education administration and policy, this is often expressed in the language of ‘learning outcomes’ or ‘competences’, and there are valid reasons for this.
But on a really basic level, I always come back to the love of reading. If students are emerging with, or deepening, a love of reading, then something substantial has happened. If they don’t, then something has gone wrong somewhere.
Admittedly, this reflects my own disciplinary background. I’ve always been more of a man of my word than a do-it-yourselfer, as my exasperated teachers in the carpentry shop and the metal shop could have attested. But even in technical and scientific fields, if you fail to skim the literature, you will be at a real disadvantage. And there’s something to be said for the ability to appreciate print culture, regardless of what one does for a living.
Shortly before The Boy was born, I remember hearing a story on the news that a new study showed that children as young as three could benefit from reading. I immediately recognized that it was nonsense. Children as young as newborns can benefit from reading; there was no question of waiting until he was three years old. In those early years, they may have no idea what’s going on or what the words mean, but they get lap time with an adult. We have a picture of me reading The Runaway Bunny to TB in the hospital the day after he was born.
As he got older, we developed a routine that we also used with The Girl when she was old enough. At bedtime, if he had been good that day, he would have three stories read to him. But if he misbehaved, one of us would gravely intone “you’re going to lose a story…”. If the misbehavior continued, that night’s story count would drop to two. If he only had two stories that night, he felt the loss.
I liked this system for several reasons. He positioned reading as a reward and stories as desirable. This allowed us to make threats that we could carry out without causing any real damage. And frankly, story time was fun for us too. I was proud to browse Fox in Socks’ “three cheese trees” page without tripping; later on, I’ll admit to enjoying the Captain Underpants series as much as The Boy. We tried to mix the old with the new. We would include some of our favorites from our own childhoods, like Dr. Seuss or Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel. But we would also bring new things. Martha Blah Blah and Click Clack Moo became favorites, combining puns, political allegory and cute animal imagery. The Girl developed a love for all things Curious George, which compelled us to familiarize ourselves with his work. When the movie Curious George came out, we gave him the soundtrack (on CD!). She thought the singer, Jack Johnson, was the man in the yellow hat. Now when I hear him playing in the background somewhere, I immediately hear the young TG exclaim “Man Yellow Hat!”
As we grew up, we encouraged them to read whatever they wanted. He turned to adventure novels, often with science fiction or fantasy elements. She instead opted for books in which the heroines’ tendrils are described at length. It’s perfect. As a child and preteen, I devoured Mad magazine (and its counterfeit, Cracked) at every opportunity, to the point of being able to identify different artists. I’ll let my longtime readers decide how noticeable these influences are in my humor.
The love of reading isn’t just puppies and unicorns, of course. We have a frightening number of books in the house, both on display and in boxes in the basement. Writers are readers. I regularly lose count of the subscriptions I have to various online journals. Before the internet took away much of this sport, I loved rare book hunting. I still have my favorite hunting trophy, a hardcover first edition of the entire Main Currents in American Thought series by Vernon Parrington, including the rare third volume. A few years ago, The Girl and a friend of hers were more excited to see YA author Rainbow Rowell than I’ve ever seen them for a gig. I was happy to take them. The audience was full of teenage girls beaming with excitement. In my favorite world, authors would be rock stars, public libraries would be richly stocked and funded, and the major problem we would have with books would be finding space for them.
To the extent that college can aim to deepen the love of reading by exposing students to a wider range and more idiosyncratic interests then they would go home, I would consider that a win. This may or may not fit neatly into the results headings, but it’s a result I’d like to see. Once they care, the rest is just details.