“They opened a book to see what was inside”

November 2, 2012

Is it possible that raising one’s children to be avid readers is becoming an mark of antiquarianism? Such is the thesis of this recent op-ed, “Literature is the New Latin”. Michael Reist writes:

No one would argue that literacy is not an essential life skill — one needs to be able to decode the prompts on an ATM, to be able to recognize the titles of YouTube videos — but the sustained reading of many pages of text is quickly becoming obsolete, like Latin.


Literature has a boring format. Even if I transfer the book to the cool platform of my iPad, I still have to decipher pages and pages of black squiggles on a white background. Novels have no pictures, sound or choice. After reading page one, I have to go to page two — and there are hundreds of these pages. To the mind raised in cyberspace, what could be more boring?

This puts me in mind of a poem by Chesterton, which reads (in part):

Our fathers to creed and tradition were tied,
They opened a book to see what was inside,
And of various methods they deemed not the worst
Was to find the first chapter and look at it first.
And so from the first to the second they passed,
Till in servile routine they arrived at the last.
But a literate age, unbenighted by creed,
Can find on two boards all it wishes to read;
For the front of the cover shows somebody shot
And the back of the cover will tell you the plot.

Now that was satire, once upon a time, but perhaps no longer? Are such ideas really as far to the fringe as they ought to be? It is not the first time I have heard the claim that the multi-media options available today render reading far less attractive, or that we are moving from a literate to a visual culture in which reading will be far less prevalent. (As I write I am sitting in front of a new version of MS Word in which the former text-based menus have been replaced by panels of little visual icons, few of which have any meaning to me.) Perhaps we are all due for another look at McLuhan.

Mr Reist’s students apparently take it for granted that we go to school for job training, so anything that won’t help on the job might as well be jettisoned. This itself points to a major failing of our education system, for we should think of education as a training of the mind, an enrichment of the soul, and a preparation for a lifelong engagement with our long cultural and intellectual tradition.

I take two lessons away. First, it is important to put limits on the use of electronic media in our home if we, as parents, want to encourage reading in our family. Second, to the extent that in our classrooms “literature is being replaced by “literacy activities” that are interactive and online to “engage today’s student””, we should think twice about sending our children to school.

Note: I have edited the original version of this post, after having been encouraged to re-read the newspaper article more charitably.  I also would like to note that Mr. Reist has published several books on education, and I am told that they are good and instructive reads.

3 Responses to ““They opened a book to see what was inside””

  1. Jim Says:

    Haven’t read this article, but Reist is an old and very dear friend and so I suspect you’ve mis-read it. He is a classroom teacher, having spent 30yrs in the Catholic system. His take on technology is very much that of a lament. Kept TV out of his own house till kids were teens, for example. He’s also written an excellent book, Raising Boys in a New Kind of World, that gives substantial attention to the pretty substantial challenges peculair to teaching screen addicted young males.

    He is definitely opposed to the idea of education as job training, but deeply aware of the pervasiveness of its reality

    Odd to see one friend on another’s blog.
    We ought to talk soon..

  2. cburrell Says:

    Well, I’d love for you to read the article, Jim. I’ve just re-read it, keeping in mind what you’ve said — all of which surprises me, by the way!

    It seems to me it reads fairly naturally as a pragmatic, let’s-adapt-to-the-times kind of argument, not a lament. But it is true that some of the more outrageous content is put into the mouths of students, rather than coming directly from the author. From this article alone, it is not totally clear what he thinks about those remarks.

    It cannot be easy to be a classroom teacher of literature these days. I should be more sympathetic. It sounds to me, though, that he’s thrown in the towel. I understand the temptation, and in his shoes I might very well do the same thing, but it is still sad to see.

  3. Christina Says:

    oh, so very interesting… I’ll let M R know of your post and perhaps he will engage in a reply. Knowing both of you personally over a long period of time, and knowing Reist’s thoughts in education fairly well, I think the differences of opinion may not be as deep as they appear.

    On the whole, I think Reists thinking centres around the idea that the current school model doesn’t take the variety of children’s needs into account. Kids who are not oriented to be into literature are coming into a school environment daily that is very disconnected from the digital world they are experiencing outside school.

    I won’t write further in hopes that the author might clarify instead.


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