Every now and then an article pops up questioning the value of required reading in schools. Children don’t want to do it, they say. They hate the books. They’ll never read again if their only association with literature is being forced to slog through such horrendous material. Everyone should get to pick their own books and all problems will be solved!
I agree that many of the books I had to read for school were ones that I absolutely detested or at least found very dull (Ethan Frome comes to mind). However, I find the increasing demand for no required reading in schools problematic. To argue that students should only read what they want works only if we assume that the purpose of reading in schools is simply to prepare them to be better readers and writers. After all, reading helps grow vocabulary, enables students to excel generally in school (it’s hard to ace science if you can’t read the text), and makes better writers–and better writers will go on to have more success in the workplace (because, unfortunately, few people will take you seriously if you can neither spell nor form a complete sentence, regardless of how intelligent you actually are).
Of course, the above argument assumes that students will choose consistently to read at the appropriate grade level, so that their reading ability will continue to grow rather than stagnate. I grant such an assumption since I suppose that many teachers and parents will guide their children toward appropriate reading material, regardless of the “whatever you want” mantra. After all, the idea to get students reading is presumably to guarantee their academic success, not merely to give them the pleasure of enjoying a good book. Ideally a child would read a book both enjoyable and improving, but I suspect that if many adults had to choose, they would select an educational title over one that is “just for fun.”
But let us suppose that we have entered an ideal world where students all select titles both improving and pleasurable. Or that they read enough pleasurable books, ones below their grade level, that they learn to love reading so much that they eventually move on to harder books. Is this all that English class is? A way to teach children to read and write so that they can excel in school? Put another way, is English class simply a composition class or is English a field in its own right?
Reading and writing are skills required in all fields, but somehow the burden of teaching these skills falls inevitably to the English teachers. We assume these skills to be largely transferable, even though reading David Copperfield cannot teach you how to write a history paper and analyzing The Tempest will not initiate you into the mysteries of writing a lab report. That is, other fields have specialized ways of researching and writing, but their teachers are not typically called upon to impart these skills because it is assumed they are too busy doing the real work of their fields. Why stop to teach your students the basics of writing a science article if you could be doing lab work instead? But, if history teachers can teach history and science teachers can teach science, why are English teachers called upon to teach composition–rather than English?
The root of the required reading question seems, to me, to lie in how we view English class. Right now, especially in the lower grades, we seem to view English as a composition class rather than as a literature class, and so we say children can read whatever they like so long as that will improve their vocabulary and increase their test scores. However, what if we looked at English class as a literature class, as field of study in its own right?
For comparison, imagine yourself walking into an art history class. You know little to nothing about art and you actually sort of don’t like art, but you have to be in this class and so you are. The teacher is aware that 90% of her class is there only because they’re required to be, so she announces, “You can ignore Michelangelo and Picasso if you can’t stand their styles! Just look at whatever art you like!” in hopes of keeping all of you engaged. You might enjoy the class more, but you would leave having a very poor understanding of art history.
Just the same with literature. In many ways, literature is an ongoing conversation. If you don’t have to read Shakespeare or Dante or Bronte because you don’t like them, then you are going to miss out on part of the conversation. Reading a book that adapts Shakespeare or alludes to Dante or makes a satiric commentary on Bronte won’t make sense. Why, even watching television shows or engaging in pop culture won’t make much sense without a background in Shakespeare! We have books that are considered–rightly or wrongly–to be classics and writers through the generations have built upon them, commented on them, lashed out against them. If you want to add your voice to that conversation, you have to have some idea of what everyone else is talking about.
I don’t propose, of course, that we simply continue forcing the classics upon our students in hopes of their future ability to spot a Shakespearean allusion a mile away. No doubt the wise course here, as with many issues, would be the middle course–allow students the ability to choose their own books, explore their own interests, find that work that will at long last ignite their passion for reading. But also continue required reading. Because some of those students will go on to study literature at a higher level and they will need that base knowledge to build upon. And because some students will discover a great work they would never have read otherwise. We all gripe about the terrible books we had to read, but what about the good ones? I first read To Kill a Mockingbird in school and I have loved it ever since. Required reading may sometimes be disagreeable, sometimes not, but it still serves a purpose. English is a field and it deserves the chance to be taught as one.
The time in schools is limited enough without any proposals to add composition as a separate class, so I won’t submit any. Instead I would like to extend my appreciation to all those teachers who perform the delicate balancing act of teaching composition and literature, of encouraging their students to explore literature on their own while also hoping to introduce them to books they would not otherwise have read. Teaching is hard and sometimes we who don’t teach can make it harder by shouting out our suggestions of what should and should not be done in the classroom. Here’s to all the teachers who are so good at what they do, even in the face of so much outside scrutiny.