Wednesday, September 14, 2011

On Reading

A few days ago I followed a link from The Daily Dish to a very strange article by the famous English professor Helen Vendler in Harvard Magazine. In it she bemoans the intellectual preparation of her students at Harvard. She writes:

"As it is, our students now read effortfully and slowly, and with only imperfect comprehension of what they have seen. They limp into the texts of the humanities (as well as the texts of other realms of learning)."

Her solution? Devote the first four years of elementary school to reading in all its forms (and mathematics) (parentheses hers). These forms include singing, clapping to the rhythm of poems, and learning to conjoin "prefixes, suffixes, and roots as they learn new words."

She admits:

"I have never taught elementary school and grant that I wouldn’t know how to do it. I only see the results downstream, and wish that reading at the earliest levels provided better preparation for the higher-level intensity of the humanities."

It's not that I don't think reading, in all its forms, should be a backbone of elementary education. It's not that I don't think a lot of what Vendler proposes for elementary reading immersion is reasonable and good. It's just that this is cranky version of the same old great complaint about "kids today" with a twist in the direction of our bugaboo du jour, the failure of American education. It's not new it's just snotty (no surprise) and besides the point (except for the point about mathematics). This one probably started at a dinner party table and should've been better off left there.

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