Discussion Post: Should We Have Required Reading in Schools?

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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.

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14 thoughts on “Discussion Post: Should We Have Required Reading in Schools?

  1. saraletourneau says:

    Excellent arguments here, Krysta. I don’t really have anything to add, other than I agree with you. As much as we might have disliked required reading in school, it had its purpose. It exposes readers not only to classic stories, but to the ways of the world in different time periods, countries, during war, etc. If we didn’t have required reading and I read whatever I wanted to read, I probably would have been even more ignorant and sheltered growing up than I already was.

    Also, it’s interesting how our required school reading in the past influences or affects us down the road. Actually, a better way of putting it is, how our opinions of certain stories we read in school may change over time. I hated Shakespeare’s work when I was a teen, especially since I struggled to simply understand what he said most of the time. Now, as an adult, I have a better appreciation and respect for his plays. I understand his work a little easier now, too. 😉

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    • Krysta says:

      My experience with Shakespeare is, I think, an excellent look at how required reading can go right or horribly wrong. When I first read Shakespeare in school, the teacher seemed uninterested in the material and worse, as if she weren’t very familiar with it. She was unreceptive to students and held an attitude that she was always right and her students were always wrong (even when the text in hand obviously contradicted her interpretation). Student participation was thus discouraged and the class was dull and uninformative (especially as she was focused most of the time only on context, asking questions like “And then what did Romeo do?). I decided Shakespeare wasn’t my thing.

      Years later I had a professor who taught Shakespeare with enthusiasm. He made everything really clear and really delved into the work so that we were actively interpreting it rather than merely summarizing the play day after day because, you know, Shakespearean language is just so hard and no one ought to expect students these days to understand it. Suddenly I LOVED Shakespeare. And it’s all because I had a teacher who introduced me to something I probably would not have read on my own and he explained to me exactly who other people found it so fascinating–and I realized that I agreed. It was fascinating!

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      • jubilare says:

        This is part of the point I was going to make exactly. As unpredictable and un-standardizable (hey, I have good English skills and vocabulary, I am well-qualified to make up words 😉 ) as it is, the key lies in how subjects are taught… and in the individual teachers themselves. If one loves the material, and is a good teacher, one has a high chance of imparting that love to the students (provided the curriculum allows you enough flexibility). Dislike the subject, dislike teaching, or simply not having a gift for teaching, and your students are not going to like what you teach them unless they have some interest in it outside your class.

        Every person I have ever come across who dislikes literature either had a bad teacher, or was never read-to. It seems either being read-to, or having a good lit-teacher, can make a bigger difference than anything else.

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        • Krysta says:

          Yes, yes, yes! I think most of the subjects I loved in school I loved because of the teachers. And, in a way, that makes me sad. I think of all the other things I could love if someone would have explained them properly to me. Left on my own, however, I don’t know what to do with them!

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          • jubilare says:

            I had great teachers in math, but I never got very good at it, partly because of a learning disability, and partly because it never interested me enough for me to work at it until I got past the block. 😛 But even so, these good teachers let me know that math is, to some people, quite fun, even if I didn’t get it! That sort of thing is important, too. And I can’t help feeling that we are, more and more, tying the hands of good teachers even while we are trying to mitigate the damage done by bad ones.

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          • Krysta says:

            I love how you keep saying pretty much what I’m thinking! They’re are subject I’m not very good at, but having had a good teacher for them, I can still appreciate their beauty. And it’s a shame that teaching is undergoing increasing regulation and standardization to the point that I’ve seen news articles claiming schools have to cut subjects just to make sure their students are prepared for all the tests they have to undergo.

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      • saraletourneau says:

        That’s a great point! Teachers really can make the difference between liking or not liking a writer’s work. I actually took a Shakespeare class in college because I’d enjoyed other courses taught by the same instructor. He was like your second Shakespeare teacher: clarified things for us, enthusiastic, scooped into the deeper meaning of things. I went into that class dreading the material despite that fact, and passed it with a greater appreciation for Shakepeare and his work.

        Not to mention all the Shakespeare plays I studied in high school were the heavier dramas, none of the comedies. The college class had more variety. My favorite of the plays we covered was “Twelfth Night.” 🙂 So it might also depend on which Shakespeare works are being used in class.

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        • Krysta says:

          I sometimes wonder if the comedies aren’t taken as seriously as literature because they’re light-hearted–for some reason we seem to have a tendency to associate misery and pain with great art. But I agree that a lot of high schoolers might find they enjoy a comedy better than a play where everyone dies at the end. 😉 I love the tragedies,but, yes, definitely, I wish we had read some of the comedies in high school. I think I would have loved Much Ado About Nothing so much more than Romeo and Juliet. (My teachers didn’t really analyze the works and so Romeo and Juliet seemed kind of silly to me–teenagers dying all over the place because they were in love. Much Ado, on the other hand, has a plot I can enjoy without having to think about deeper meanings to make the characters seem less absurd.)

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  2. Briana says:

    The university I’m at now has a dedicated “writing” department exactly because they believe that writing isn’t something only done in the field of English. Interestingly, the English department feels a bit threatened by this (as far as I can tell)–which may be justified if you consider that English and writing usually ARE lumped together, and that writing is one of the most “transferable skills” a student is supposed to gain from studying English. Take that away, and your field of study suddenly looks a lot less marketable to employers (if that’s what you’re after). On the other hand, though, I think there often isn’t time to teach both writing and literature at the same time, as in-depth as a teacher might like.

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    • Krysta says:

      Well, English departments are undergoing an increasing struggle to justify their existence, seeing as they seemingly offer no utilitarian skills–that is, the ability to analyze a sonnet isn’t likely to get anyone a job. As far as I can tell, they have responded either by identifying themselves with composition or by embracing cultural studies. The issue again raises the question of why we don’t consider English literature a field in its own right, why we feel the need to justify its existence. And it goes further by raising the question of whether colleges are meant to get students jobs or simply educate them. (The “simply educating them” principle is a nice one, in my opinion, but only works if you assume college students are all pretty much already independently wealthy/financially stable an thus aren’t going to college to get a job–but that just isn’t true. Thus, personally, I would like to see English departments make more strides in helping their students to become more marketable, perhaps by encouraging their students to get internships.)

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  3. jubilare says:

    I agree. Kid’s should be allowed to read what they want, but should also be made to read classics. Not only does the latter let them in on cultural influences, and widen their horizons, but it introduces them to different ideas and perspectives, and that is just as important.

    I mean, given the choice, how many people, whether children or adults, will seek out books that have perspectives or opinions that are different from their own? How many will seek out a variety, and therefore get some concept of just how varied (and sometimes alike) worldviews from other times and places are? It’s so easy to just read what we like. But if we apply the same principle to, say, food… only eating our favorite stuff, I’d probably die from donut-poisoning. 😉 The best way to get a kid to like different kinds of food, is to make him eat different kinds of food whether he wants to or not. Same thing goes for most aspects of life, including Literature.

    So, like you say! The key is to let kids read enough of what they want to read to keep them reading SOMETHING, while also trying to expand their natural tastes with works that have found a solid audience for generations, or that tell us something important about people from other places and times.

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    • Krysta says:

      That’s very true. Even now I have certain genres that I like and I tend to stick to them. I don’t typically go outside my comfort zone unless someone keeps pressing a work on me (and I want them to go away ;P). And I see the same things with children. Actually, if you just walk into the children’s area at the library, it’s common to hear a bunch of parents trying to persuade their kids that they have to check out a book they don’t already have at home. Children know what they like and they stick with it to a degree adults can find tiresome!

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