Hurts like the dickensHere’s how to make somebody hate reading: 

Send them to an American high school.

The end.

Hmmm – in proofreading this post, it seems a little short. So maybe I should elaborate.

I’ve seen some statistics floating around the web claiming that one third of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives. I don’t know if it’s true, but it sounds about right, based on how few adults I encounter who still read for pleasure. And when I think about how literature is taught in most high schools, I’m not surprised.

Some background: I grew up loving to read. My parents were both writers and readers, and the library a block away from my house quickly became my second home. But the high school English curriculum did its best to kill my love of reading, and years later, I watched it try to do the same to my teenage daughter.

How? By forcing kids to read books in which they have absolutely no interest, and then analyzing and dissecting those books in a way that A) almost no student will find relevant, and B) completely sucks any possible enjoyment out of the act of reading.

The argument, I suppose, is that they’re trying to teach them to appreciate literature, not just enjoy it. But I think that puts the cart before the horse. Why not try to get them to enjoy books first? Then, with their interest piqued, they might show an interest in a deeper level of study.

Note: I’m not saying there should be no courses that study literature in greater depth. But I feel that level of study should be offered at a voluntary level, for the few who are actually interested. It’s the way literature is taught in required English classes that I’m ranting about.

It was the best of books, it was the worst of books

So what am I bitching about? First of all, the choice of books. The Grapes of Wrath may be a “great” book, but let’s be honest: it’s also a colossal downer. And I suspect most Americans my age have read A Tale of Two Cities and Moby Dick for one reason and one reason only: they were forced to. 

Before you come at me with torches and pitchforks, let me say that today I genuinely like Steinbeck and Melville (and am doggedly trying to warm up to Dickens). But today I’m also an adult, and a professional writer – i.e., somebody who has shown a much deeper interest in things literary than the average person.

The Grapes of Wrath may be a “great” book, but let’s be honest: it’s also a colossal downer. 

Then there’s the kind of analysis that for some reason has remained popular with English teachers, where the students are forced not just to study the techniques the author used, but also to theorize as to the author’s motivations. This latter point is a major red flag for me. Unless the author is available to confirm or deny the alleged motivation revealed by this scholarly analysis, it’s all just conjecture.

As an example, my daughter was tasked with reading one of those magical realism books that are currently the rage in high school lit programs, and one of the questions she encountered in her odious assignment was to explain what the name of one of the character’s dogs symbolized.

My daughter is awesome. She was able to locate an interview where the author herself said she gave the dog that name simply “because it seemed like a good name for a dog.” As I recall, my daughter didn’t get a very good grade on that assignment, but I was proud as hell. And it further cemented my belief that a lot of “scholarly” literary analysis is basically masturbatory in nature.

Look, I’m not anti-symbolism, nor against any studying literary technique. But I draw the line at building elaborate assumptions about what the writer’s intent was. Maybe something she wrote seems symbolic to me, but that doesn’t prove it was her intent. And if I – a person VERY interested in writing – don’t care about that kind of conjecture, why on earth should the average high school student?

I believe this tedious and highly subjective analysis contributes more to turning off readers than you might think. As a case in point, I’ve avoided Dickens and Steinbeck for decades as a result of being force-fed their work in my teens. Of course, I realize now that it was to my own detriment that I’ve shunned their books for so long. But I also believe that could have been avoided, by sparing me from the horror of looking for themes and symbols and bears, oh my!

Getting serious about fun

I spent many years teaching drums. Drumming is something I’m extremely serious about, with training from a major music school and decades of professional experience. But I learned almost immediately that none of my students were as serious as I was – at least not at first. I also learned that the more fun I made my lessons, the more information my students absorbed.

Then I thought back to my earliest musical training. Like many kids in my generation, I was forced to take piano lessons. My parents thought it was an important thing to learn, and felt it was their duty to make me study the instrument.

I hated it.

My teacher was a rigorous old-school instructor, forcing me to play boring scales and inane childlike pieces. There was nothing fun about it – even though as a kid I always enjoyed banging around on the family piano. Finally, my teacher basically fired me – telling my parents I just seemed unwilling to apply myself.

If you kill a kid’s enthusiasm for something before they can connect with it, you’re really blowing an opportunity.

Years later I came to regret not having developed greater proficiency on the piano. It would have helped me in music school, as a songwriter, and in general it would just be cool to be able to sit down at a piano and jam. But I can’t – all because I got turned off from it, by being forced into taking lessons that did not entertain or resonate with me.

I consider that a real lost opportunity, and as a drum teacher I was bound and determined not to make the same mistake. After all, if you kill a kid’s enthusiasm for something before they can connect with it, you’re really blowing an opportunity. And that’s exactly what can happen with the “serious” books that kids are forced to read in school.

Lord Voldemort instead of Lord of the Flies

A common argument in defense of these traditional teaching methods is that they expose young readers to books that are “great” and/or “important” – in other words, books that are considered superior to popular books about sparkly vampires or young orphaned wizards.

Maybe those “classic” books are superior – that’s a bigger argument than I want to take on today – but I think anything that gets kids reading is good, because it opens the door to infinite future possibilities. Without that initial interest, it ain’t gonna happen.

Anything that gets kids reading is good, because it opens the door to infinite future possibilities.

To me it’s a “gateway drug” thing. Kids have their whole lives to develop critical reasoning and good taste. But I think youth is an important window of opportunity for acquiring and developing the incredibly life-enriching skill (and, one hopes, love) of reading. Frankly I don’t know many people who acquire that love later in life.

The tobacco companies get this. That’s why they try to hook ‘em while they’re young. I’d love to see our educational system do the same thing, with far less potential for harm.

Teach Harry Potter in schools rather than The Grapes of Wrath or One Hundred Years of Solitude, and I submit you’ll end up with more people coming out of that school who enjoy reading. And later on, many of those same readers may turn to Steinbeck or Marquez, but they’d be doing it because they want to, not because they were forced to.

What do YOU think?

Does your psyche have Dickensian scars similar to my own? Did you ever fight the urge to gouge out your eyes while typing up a paper on The Scarlet Letter? Or do you want to take me to task for blasphemy? I’d love input from any and all fronts, so please chime in. And as always, thanks for reading!

 

Image licensed from iStockphoto.com

About Keith Cronin

Author of the novels ME AGAIN, published by Five Star/Gale; and TONY PARTLY CLOUDY (published under his pen name Nick Rollins), Keith Cronin is a corporate speechwriter and professional rock drummer who has performed and recorded with artists including Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, and Pat Travers. Keith's fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine, Amarillo Bay, The Scruffy Dog Review, Zinos, and a University of Phoenix management course. A native of South Florida, Keith spends his free time serenading local ducks and squirrels with his ukulele.