By Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD, Author, I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide
Reading has been on my brain of late. Not that it is anything new. I am a voracious reader and have always been. As a child I was one of those obnoxious kids who won the summer library reading competition year after year. On the other hand it masked my huge shyness. I could hide in a book and not interact with others. Fortunately, I got over that. I can talk to folks and curling up with a good mystery is still fun but not the center of my life. But what has been like breathing for me is clearly not for far too many. And it is that which has been occupying my thinking.
But as a child I was read to from infancy. And my grandkids are now reading books in the 3rd generation. Sendak’s A Hole is To Dig was a favorite for me, my son and my granddaughter. Two of my grandkids are in a school district where from toddlerhood they were able to take out packets of 10 books each with a goal of reading 1000 by first grade. One made it to 600. That of course means that her parents had to read them 1800 times and we can all pretty much recite “When You Give a Mouse a Cookie.” She is reading Harry Potter at 2nd grade.
There are the statistics that say that a student reading below grade level at 3rd grade is far more likely to drop out of high school. So we know now who will be hanging out on the street, in jail, on welfare. It is the kid who at 5th grade reads at 2nd grade level. That strikes me as really short sighted and stupid.
There was an appalling (to me) story in the NY Times Education section on Cliff Notes videos which totally massacre Shakespeare in every way in an attempt to be colloquially accessible to current students. So Lady Macbeth is exhorted to “Turn that frown upside down”. That is playing to a dumbing down rather than a raising up. It does not move the skills set forward. It is a form of defeatism or worse, a form of sabotage.
This week I heard several stories about students– young men especially– who will not read. They ask what is the point and why are there so many words and why does it take so long to get to the point.
Then there are the kids who have no books at home, no library they can get to easily and for whom television is their only entertainment. In the game of life who is likely to win.
Employers tell us that communications skills are essential– the ability to write presentations, reports, speeches, memos all move work forward, make sales, advance careers. A student getting to college is likely to have to read hundreds of pages a week. (Not anymore the 700 or so that we were expected to read back in the day when I was an undergrad at Bryn Mawr and walked to school barefoot up hill in the snow both ways.) College students should be writing 10, 15, 20 page papers with ease. A powerpoint is not the same as a well structured, well supported thoughtful prose argument. Not to say that being able to condense material and present it well are not valuable skills. They are essential. But even a powerpoint has to begin somewhere and that is likely to be the written word, a report summarized, research produced, texts of some sort that have been digested and interpreted. That is to say that someone had to do some reading.
In a recent panel discussion among college alumni about how their majors affected their stellar and diverse careers, all noted that the biggest asset (from two English majors, one Classics major, one economics major) was the work they did reading and writing. Being able to absorb and process lots of information was the product of voluminous reading. Being able to communicate cogently in writing had been essential to their advancement to law partner, head of a state dept of health, HR Director, and Assistant Director of Education for a state government. Everyone of them was grateful for their language skills born of reading and writing.
My son, an advertising executive, uses books all the time to reflect on management theory, consumer behavior, trends in the marketplace, and interesting ideas floating around in Malcolm Gladwell’s brain. But he did not love reading until college when he discovered the tomes of Tom Clancy and devoured them regardless of their heft.
Just hanging out with colleagues or watching movies and television involves some degree of awareness of literary canon. I note all the time quips on TV that reference works of great literature that should be common to all educated students. If you miss it then you have missed part of the entertainment. You are not an insider, in on the witty joke. Not being an insider can be death to a career. In management ranks it would be assumed that you have a glancing awareness of the New York Times and/ or the Wall St. Journal. Maybe to hitch it up a notch you might reference the New Yorker or the Economist. You are assumed to be a reader.
But perhaps more important than the vocational which is at the forefront of everyone’s mind, is the sheer human power of opening the mind to the world of reading and writing. It is a space where you can connect with others literally and figuratively, find your own identity mirrored in the experiences of others across history, ethnicity, nationality or religion. A clear example is in the powerful new documentary called “Stories from an Undeclared War”. You may remember Erin Gruwell’s story from the Freedom Writers movies tarring Hilary Swank as Erin Gruwell. The documentary of this incredible story features Gruwell’s 150 at-risk students from Long Beach, California. The film follows their story from the first day of freshman year in 1994 to present day.
What Erin Gruwell did was help students to find their voices and then to connect in their humanity with Anne Frank, or victims from Sarajevo, appreciate literature as a vehicle to understand and engage experience and give credence to their own feelings and their own power.
So if those who are low income are not taught how to read–indeed why to read and value it then we have immediately cut off their access to a better life in every respect.. And I am not suggesting that everyone has to love the Brontes. Boys may prefer illustrated novels, or action heroes as my son did. Romance is fine, mystery or vampires are fine. Bless Harry Potter– or Tom Clancy or Twilight (all now also captured in film.) The best films are often wonderful books first. If you want to be a film maker you need to read. If you want to have a voice you have to be able to communicate and the best way to learn to write is to read.
I have been excited by work I have been doing. I just joined the board of the READ Alliance which connects pre- third graders and teen tutors. The teens are paid to teach adoring little ones to read and love it. The little kids are coming up to grade level so that they can achieve this make or break skill. The teens reinforce their own skills, make some money and maybe find a career. The Eagle Academy for boys where I chair the advisory board is planning an event for this spring that will put two books in the hands of thousands of young men and have them exposed to lively discussions by authors and celebrities and others who love these texts. I start every day by turning on my computer and by clicking on the child literacy link on the hunger site. (www.hungersite.org) I feel like I am putting a book in a child’s hand. If we lose the literacy war, we lose the education war, and then the economic equity war. We just lose. Didn’t Shakespeare say something about for want of a nail… Oh, you never read that one.