Thoughts over Themes

How theme-focused English classes are subtracting from our love of reading and critical thinking.

Human history is a story of exceptional progress. From our dirt caves and flint tools, we have developed a remarkable world-spanning society resplendent with towering steel skyscrapers and vehicles capable of journeying around the world in less time than it once took us hunt a deer. The magnitude and rate of our growth only makes the periods of stagnation or decline even sharper. At this moment, the Western world is facing one of the greatest contractions of reading rates since the Second World War took tens of millions of lives and put a screeching stop to cultural development.

Most polls and studies have shown a steady decline in the percentage of American readers.

In 2011, the Pew Research Center began conducting annual surveys to measure the percent of Americans who had read a book in the past year. The first survey showed that 79% of Americans had read a book — either wholly or partially, on paper, in audio, or any other format — over the previous year. In their most recent survey, conducted just five years later, only 73% of Americans reported reading any section of a book at all over the past year (Perrin, “Book Reading 2016”). The decline of 6% may not seem excessive at first, but it represents a loss of more than 17 million readers with an average leakage rate of almost three million per year. The negative shockwaves that this decline could have are truly monumental, given the number of studies linking reading to better critical thinking skills and a greater ability for empathy.(Chiaet, “Novel Finding”), (Aloqaili, “A Theoretical Study”).

While it is impossible to attribute an event of this scale to a single factor, one in particular stands out: The methods by which literature is taught in American middle and high schools are struggling to generate interest in reading among students. These classes have the potential to function as a breeding ground for strong interest in reading. After all, they serve as an introduction to literature for many students, and generations of Americans have nurtured an interest in reading through the schools.

However, far too often today, these classes are becoming some of the steepest hurdles for any aspiring reader to jump. The hurdles jumped by high-caliber athletes are constructed from wood, rubber, and steel. The hurdles a would-be reader must jump are built out of dull mandatory readings and oversimplified lesson questions that in an attempt to make novels more relatable, constantly diminish their most thought-provoking events. The hurdles a would-be reader must jump are built out of an idea increasingly common in English classes that books should be selected not because of the power and complexity of the writing the author uses, not because of the book’s ability to craft detailed, extremely human characters, not even because of the writing skills a student could learn from studying the text, but because of a book’s ability to clearly and simply teach a specific value or lesson.

A perfect illustration of this is the use of The Giver as one of the most standard sixth grade English assignments. While this isn’t necessarily a bad book, it fails to challenge students to think creatively and critically or to wrestle with nuance; instead it mostly asks them to agree with a moralistic worldview. Rather than inviting open-ended discussions, it is far too easy for teachers to then bombard students with questions like, “would you like to live in the society described in the Giver?” Right from the beginning, English student are taught that reading books is about decided whether they are right or wrong, rather than exploring new ideas and possibilities. It becomes clear why most Americans would rather browse facebook or watch football then read a book.

William Shakespeare, one of history’s greatest authors and playwrights.

There are, of course, many exceptional books that invite exploration and creative discussion that ultimately make it onto school reading lists — The Great Gatsby, Shakespeare’s plays, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Canterbury Tales, the list goes on. Far too many, however, resemble The Giver in their moralistic simplicity, book such as Night, The Lord of the Flies, Things Fall Apart, Beowulf, A Separate Peace, or Brave New World. For the most part, these books fit the mold of following a single theme, and teaching a single value through characters that can be easily regarded as symbols of single ideas. As an English student I believe that the books we read in English class should be selected based on the values they teach no more than the sections of history we study in history class should be selected based on their ability to teach us economic theory.

Like any class worth teaching, English class is comprised of more than one goal. The three most important of these goals are developing critical thinking skills, a love for reading, and a talent for writing. Not only are these three goals worthy objectives in themselves but they also feed into each other. The more you read, the more literary techniques and writing ideas you pick up. As the great horror novelist Stephen King said, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”(King) You’ll never become a great writer unless you study the works of the great writers who came before you. This current runs both ways. As your ability to comprehend writing techniques widens, your ability to consciously notice and appreciate these techniques skyrockets. While a love of reading and a talent for beautiful writing are excellent tools, they are both wasted if their wielder avoids thinking critically and independently. I agree with Albert Einstein’s claim that, “The development of general ability for independent thinking and judgement should always be placed foremost.” (Einstein 62)

If you write in the most fantastic, flowing language possible, your writing will still be meaningless unless you are able to make interesting and compelling insights into issues. At the same time, interesting and compelling insights can be undermined by a lack of literary style and control. One consequence of the nearly-exclusive focus on themes in English classes is that writing style, which is often much harder to discuss, is neglected. It isn’t until high school that the English student will be told to pay any attention to the actual writing techniques that make reading a good book so pleasurable, and even then the results of this lesson will be muddled because the books used to teach these ideas often contain weak examples of literary technique. Reading without a critical eye can be even worse. There is a reason common wisdom advises us “don’t believe everything you read,” because if you do, you’ll end up believing all sorts of half-truths and outright lies. When you do learn to think critically, reading will be your greatest weapon for developing thoughts, and writing for articulating them. Fortunately, a strong English education will provide you with sturdy foundations for reading, writing, and thinking. Unfortunately, an English education centered around teaching simple books with easy lessons has left many Americans, through no fault of their own, without any base.

Because these filler books, selected not to teach literature but to teach values, demand an extraordinary amount of class time, removing them from the curriculum unveils a host of options to fill class time with. Personally, the two possibilities that seem to be the most efficient use of these newfound hours would be more in-class discussions and personalized reading assignments. In-class discussions are an excellent method of improving both critical thinking skills and engagement. According to Ethan Yazzie-Mintz, project director of the High School Survey of Student Engagement, “Discussion and debate is still one of the highest rated kinds of teaching, as are group projects.” His 2009 survey also found that “65 percent (of students) agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, I like discussions in which there are no clear answers.” I think that personalized reading assignments, in which students are given the ability to choose what book they want to read, are an excellent method of providing students with real interest in reading. It is obviously much harder to enjoy anything that you are told you must do more than something you select to do yourself.

Ever since the Renaissance transformed Western society, critical thinking has been one of our most valued attributes.

There are two primary arguments in defense of these filler books. The first is held by the group of people who believe that by being taught values through books students are being prepared for the world. I agree that there is a place for values-centric books, but I believe they have become too central to the English curriculum, and that they are eclipsing other more dynamic alternatives. In addition to my argument that teaching narrow-minded books makes it difficult for students to develop effective writing techniques that will help them throughout the rest of their lives and that bombarding formerly interested apprentices with samey, formulaic books leaves them completely unaware of the dazzling array of stories a book can tell, I would add that the role of a book is not to tell you what is right and wrong, but to make you decide what is right and wrong and everywhere in between. Leave persuasion to the essay-writers. What makes a book like The Giver mediocre is that it builds a single perspective case for individuality and ignores all the perspectives that suggest potential downsides of individuality or upsides of uniformity. The attempt to force learners into one viewpoint without real opportunity for debate or discussion is stifling to both critical thinking skills, and ironically in this case, individuality of opinion. Furthermore this simplified, one angle-style of writing pokes holes in one of the greatest joys of reading, finding new perspectives, even ones you disagree with. If people are bored of reading maybe it’s because they never learned a book could contain an entire constellation of aspects, attitudes, and approaches.

The second argument is held by the group of people who doubt the importance of reading in spare time and are therefore willing to ignore that our education system is likely to leave students with no interest in reading outside school. If you fall into the small but growing minority of people who would argue that reading is an activity of little practical use, not noticeably different in its benefits from other leisure activities, I would argue that you are overlooking three benefits of reading which make it a truly critical part of developing well-rounded and versatile people. Literature remains by far the most powerful medium for transmitting cultural experiences, improving writing skills, and teaching critical thinking. Books harness an unique and unrivalled power to provide the reader with insight into the mind of another human being, to communicate cultural experiences, (either from other regions or other eras) to let him ponder and reevaluate his beliefs. These are advantages that reading will always have over a television show or a sporting event. Writing skills are a serious requirement for many professions, and the best way to develop them is to observe how they are used in literary masterpieces. Finally, reading develops critical thinking skills, all good books contain a variety of ideas and challenge the reader to hone their thinking skills so as to determine what they agree with.

A particularly bored-looking group of students in an American classroom.

Ray Bradbury, an American author best know for the book Fahrenheit 451 once said, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture, just get people to stop reading them.”(The Times 92) By his measurement our society is in serious danger. Reading rates have been falling at a rate of three million people per year, at this point a massive 72% of 17 year olds read twice a year or less for pleasure (Alter). Our best hope for reversing this rapid decline comes in middle and high school English classrooms, ideally, these classes could foster a love of literature in the newer generations and lift reading rates back up to previous levels. Disastrously, the recent trend in these classes has been away from complex, thought-provoking, scholastic masterpieces and towards narrower, one-dimensional stories. To revitalize the English class, and by extension, literature and reading in our nation as a whole, these oversimplified books must be discarded and replaced with a greater number of opportunities for personal or small group book selection and in-class discussion. Only then will students be able to uncover the aesthetic beauty and moral complexities that are the rewards of reading.

Works Cited

Aloqaili, Abdulmohsen S. “The Relationship between Reading Comprehension and Critical Thinking: A Theoretical Study.” Journal of King Saud University — Languages and Translation 24.1 (2012): 35–41. Web. <http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2210831911000373>

Alter, Charlotte. “The Number of Teens Reading for Fun Keeps Declining.” Time. Time, 12 May 2014. Web. 14 Nov. 2016. <http://time.com/94794/common-sense-media-reading-report-never-read/>

Chiaet, Julianne. “Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy.” Scientific American. N.p., 04 Oct. 2013. Web. 16 Nov. 2016. <https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/novel-finding-reading-literary-fiction-improves-empathy/>

Einstein, Albert, Carl Seelig, and Sonja Bargmann. Ideas and Opinions: Based on Mein Weltbild. New York: Crown, 1954. Print.

“Indiana University News Room.” Latest HSSSE Results Show Familiar Theme: Bored, Disconnected Students Want More from Schools. Indiana University, 8 June 2010. Web. 11 Nov. 2016. <http://newsinfo.iu.edu/news-archive/14593.html>

King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York, NY: Scribner, 2010. Print.

Perrin, Andrew. “Book Reading 2016.” Pew Research Center. N.p., 01 Sept. 2016. Web. 10 Nov. 2016. <http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/09/01/book-reading-2016/>

Prose, Francine. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read.” Harper’s Magazine [New York City] Sept 1999. Print.

The Times Book of Quotations. Glasgow: Times, 2000. Print.

Weissman, Jordan. “The Decline of the American Book Lover.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 21 Jan. 2014. Web. 20 Nov. 2016. <http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/01/the-decline-of-the-american-book-lover/283222/>

Thanks for reading!