Wednesday, July 8, 2009

On the Necessity of Reading

I'm reading a great book: Real Education, by Charles Murray. He encourages his readers (whom he assumes to be very intelligent in the linguistic and logical realms, or why would they choose to pick up and read such a book) to consider what school is like for someone who is low on the ability scale in the area of reading. Not untrained or unmotivated, but literally low in ability, meaning they are not likely to ever be able to do it well.

He says, to get an idea of the feeling, consider something that you don't do well and are not likely to ever be able to do well. For me, that would be sports. I'm not a complete clutz -- I can dance -- but athletic endeavors are generally failing efforts for me. I participate only to be a "good sport" or to get exercise. Case in point: a recent bowling tournament with people from Keith's work. I usually do OK at bowling, but I won't even share my average scores from that evening with you. Suffice it to say, I offered nothing to benefit the team. Keith kept giving me tips -- hold the ball this way, throw it more this direction, aim for this spot. I knew all that. The mechanics of the sport I understand; it's the execution that escapes me.

I remember playing on a church softball team in junior high for a summer. At one practice, the coach was working with me on batting. When I finally make contact with the ball, he praised me effusely, and then told me to "hit it to the short stop this time." Excuse me?? What unearthly sense of optimism would lead him to believe I could possibly direct that ball in a particular intended direction? The bat and ball made contact. Leave well enough alone.

This is often a point of frustration with Keith and me because he is an athlete -- and a natural one at that. That doesn't mean he doesn't have to work at it; he does. But it means that when he strikes a golfball and it fades right, he not only knows what adjustments he needs to make in his body to correct that, but he has an awareness of and an ability to control the tiny movements of his body to bring that correction about. This is an intelligence I lack completely. I am hopelessly inconsistent at any and every sport we play together, which renders the event much less enjoyable for the both of us.

Could I ever be better at, say, hitting a softball? Probably. But it would take hours upon hours of practice, and very specific instruction from a very patient instructor, and any gains I would make would disappear in a year without continued repetition. If being able to hit a softball to the shortstop on a consistent basis was very important and necessary to me, I could make it happen. But nothing about the process would be enjoyable.

So, is this how a poor reader feels in school? They are told to read, and, even in some good schools, not really given good specific instruction in the truly complicated steps involved in that process. They are asked to make inferences from a text that they have just barely been able to decode at all. They are thrown into classes where being able to read is a necessary skill for success. And they are clearly told -- albeit very indirectly -- that their failure at this task is either because they are lazy or because they are stupid. And that they are now doomed to a life of misery, poverty and failure because they are lacking in this one ability.

There was a boy in our homeschool co-op in Jersey who couldn't read even into middle school. But he knew all the information he was "supposed" to know for his grade level, and maybe more, because his mother patiently read material to him and he retained it with remarkable accuracy. He also had a knack for machines. At an early age, he could take apart any machine, large or small, indentify all the parts and their uses, put the contraption back together again, and often make improvements as he worked.

Don't tell me this kid is stupid. And don't tell me he's doomed to a life of poverty -- what was your last bill you paid for the services of a plumber, or electrician, or some such precious commodity? He will make more in one of those careers than most "smart" kids will make in middle management somewhere with their B.A.s. And I bet he'll be much happier.

I'm not saying he doesn't need to know how to read. He does . . and he's learning. But we need to stop thinking of such kids as educational failures. If he'd gone to school, that's what he'd have been labeled. But because his mother taught him and knew him, he will likely be a successful young man at being who God made him to be. God didn't make us all to be brainy nerds like me who love to read and think and live for the masochism of the classroom. Lucky for us . . . or our toilets would never flush.


chief320 said...

This sounds a bit like my oldest son. We spent many years having him read a section then we would follow up by reading it again to him. He is extremely smart in some aspects and lags behind in others.

With some kids this is dyslexia or dysgraphia (as it is with my son). With others, it could be something different. No matter what, it comes down to learning in a different way.

We get so irritated that so many teachers teach one way, that is the way they are comfortable with. That means they won't reach all of the kids in their classrooms. It is so refreshing when we find a teacher that understands this and works hard to effectively reach all of their students.

DerricksAHor said...

Of course we can all agree that some kids learn differently and therefore should be taught differently so as to maximize all students' potentials. That being said, I would never argue that all are created with equal ability. It sounds like you are: e.g. bad at reading, good at machines; good at writing, bad at sports.

This reasoning suggests that a change of teaching style unlocks everyone's hidden potential. I'm here to be Debbie Downer/Realistic Rita. Some people, for whatever reason (crack baby, bad genetics, or unfortunate trauma) don't have the same abilities and capacities as others. Some people, on the other hand, can build multinational companies, sing opera, and fix toilets. The assumption here is that God doesn't make mistakes or Renaissance men & women--and that God has one role for all of us here--and that the "purpose" of some may seem less evident than others because God gave them talents in another realm. It's simply not the case. "God," in this way, isn't fair, loving, or just. We aren't granted a particular talent coupled with purpose, but we can unlock and invent our own talents and purposes as we shape the world around us.

My hope is that all teachers inspire creative young minds.

GJK said...

Welllll, Derrick . . I can't quite tell if I agree with you or not. I DON'T think all are created with "equal" ability. In fact, that was the point the author of the book was trying to make (knowing it would hack a whole lot of people off, but it is true). However, I DO think that God has created us each with a purpose and with the gifts to accomplish that purpose. I know you disagree. :)