Is it weird that I write some of my better blog posts when I’m mad? I got really mad about some people’s reactions to the book One Thousand Gifts, so I blogged out my anger, and it remains my most popular post to this day. If a post’s popularity is directly proportional to how mad I am, then this one will go viral.
Here’s what’s burning my toast:
A lot of my students don’t read books…and some of their parents are okay with it.
I like to think that I’m a realistic rather than idealistic English teacher. I know that every year, some of my students just aren’t going to do the reading, and there’s nothing I can do in the way of threats, promises, bribery or blackmail that will make them actually sit down and slog through The Scarlet Letter or Jane Eyre. I know that lengthy texts are difficult for students who struggle with reading, and I’m fully aware of the allure of Sparknotes to a bored teenager.
But when I hear about parents actually encouraging their children to read Sparknotes instead of the novel, I get furious. Let’s set aside the moral implications of the question. Students who pretend to know the content of a book they haven’t read are engaging in a rather sophisticated form of deception, but let’s leave integrity off the table for the moment. What ideas are parents reinforcing through this seemingly harmless, time-saving suggestion? Take the easy way out. Success in life isn’t about buckling down and doing hard work; it’s about finding shortcuts. Reading isn’t a valuable use of your time. Understanding a book comes down to no more than memorization of the barest elements of plot, character, and themes.
I realize that I’m sounding like an out-of-touch, disgruntled English teacher. But I’m deeply concerned about a generation of students that is reading less than ever. Many of them simply do not possess the sustained attention spans necessary to read a lengthy text. Distracted by a plethora of external stimuli, they are creatures of the present, increasingly unable to understand the past or to form clear ideas of what a healthy future looks like. Due to what author Doug Rushkoff calls “narrative collapse,” technology has left us in an eternal “now.” Because some students don’t have the experience of seeing an idea slowly developed over the course of hundreds of pages, their decision-making processes are shallow and rapid. If it’s longer than a Tweet, you’ve lost them. How many truly worthy, beautiful ideas can be adequately expressed in fewer than 140 characters? How are we supposed to communicate meaningfully to each other through ongoing sound bytes?
Of course, I’m not talking about all students. Thank goodness, there are still those who I find lounging in the hallways after school with noses buried deep in novels. My guess is that their parents have the wisdom to tell them that reading is costly, but that it’s worth the cost. They’ve managed to communicate to their children (both through discussion and by example) the deep personal and intellectual rewards found in a work of fiction. I hope that someday soon, the students who’ve been cheated out of these rewards will find themselves dissatisfied by a life lived in the shallows and will discipline themselves to dig for deeper truths.
Until then, I plan to stay mad.