For various day job–related reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about general education requirements and what we really want students to have, or do, or be able to do. In the language of higher ed administration and policy, that often gets expressed in the language of “learning outcomes” or “competencies,” and there are valid reasons for that.
But at a really basic level, I keep coming back to a love of reading. If students emerge with, or deepen, a love of reading, then something substantial has happened. If they don’t, then something has gone wrong somewhere.
Admittedly, that reflects my own disciplinary background. I was always more of a word person than a tinkerer, as my exasperated junior high wood shop and metal shop teachers could have attested. But even in technical and scientific fields, if you can’t get through the literature, you’ll be at a real disadvantage. And there’s something to be said for the ability to appreciate print culture, regardless of what one does for a living.
Shortly before The Boy was born, I remember hearing a story on the news saying that a new study showed that children as young as 3 years old could benefit from being read to. I immediately recognized it as nonsense. Children as young as newborns can benefit from being read to; there was no way we were going to wait until he was 3. In those early years, they may have no idea what’s going on or what the words mean, but they’re getting lap time with an adult. We have a photo of me reading The Runaway Bunny to TB in the hospital the day after he was born.
As he got a little older, we developed a routine that we also used with The Girl when she got old enough. At bedtime, if he had been good that day, he’d get three stories read to him. But if he misbehaved, one of us would intone gravely, “You’ll lose a story …” If the misbehavior continued, that night’s story count would drop to two. If he only got two stories that night, he felt the loss.
I liked that system for several reasons. It positioned reading as a reward, and stories as desirable. It allowed us to make threats we could actually follow through on without doing real damage. And frankly, story time was fun for us, too. I took pride in getting through the “three cheese trees” page of Fox in Socks without stumbling; later, I’ll admit enjoying the Captain Underpants series as much as The Boy did. We tried to mix old with new. We’d include some of our favorites from our own childhoods, like Dr. Seuss or Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel. But we’d bring in new stuff, too. Martha Blah Blah and Click Clack Moo emerged as favorites, combining wordplay, political allegory and cute pictures of animals. The Girl developed a love for all things Curious George, which forced us to become acquainted with his oeuvre. When the Curious George movie came out, we got her the soundtrack (on CD!). She thought that the singer Jack Johnson was the Man in the Yellow Hat. Now when I hear him playing in the background somewhere, I immediately hear young TG exclaim, “Man Yellow Hat!”
As they got older, we encouraged them to read whatever they wanted. He gravitated toward novels of adventure, often with science fiction or fantasy elements. She went more for books in which heroines’ tendrils are described at length. It’s all good. As a kid and tween, I devoured Mad magazine (and its knockoff, Cracked) at every opportunity, to the point that I could identify different artists. I’ll let my longtime readers decide how discernible those influences are in my humor.
Love of reading isn’t all puppies and unicorns, of course. We have a frightening number of books in the house, both on display and in boxes in the basement. Writers are readers. I regularly lose count of the subscriptions I have to various online journals. Before the internet took much of the sport out of it, I enjoyed rare-book hunting. I still have my favorite hunting trophy, a first-edition hardcover of the entire series of Vernon Parrington’s Main Currents in American Thought, including the rare third volume. A few years ago The Girl and a friend of hers were more excited to see the YA author Rainbow Rowell than I’ve ever seen them for a concert. I was happy to take them. The audience was full of teenage girls radiating excitement. In my preferred world, authors would be rock stars, public libraries would be lavishly stocked and funded, and the major issue we’d have with books would be finding space for them.
To the extent that college can be about deepening the love of reading by exposing students to a broader range, and more idiosyncratic interests, then they’d get at home, I’d consider that a win. It may or may not map cleanly onto rubrics of outcomes, but it’s an outcome I’d love to see. Once they care, the rest is details.