Monday, March 31, 2014

"Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible. They are engines of change (as the poet said), windows on the world and lighthouses erected in the sea of time. They are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasures of the mind. Books are humanity in print." -Barbara W. Tuchman

What was your favorite book growing up? No really, what was it? I'll wait.

If you're above the age of 25, you probably have to sift through, at the very least, the books you read in school. Maybe you read "The Giver," "The Diary of Anne Frank," or "The Great Gatsby." If you're me, and many of my friends, the number of books to consider and discard is exponentially higher. For example, George Orwell's "1984" remains one of my absolute favorites to this day, and I read that in Mr. Frey's ninth grade English class. Today, students may actually leave schools without having read and absorbed any great literature, and it's to the detriment of our society as a whole.

Even now, reading through quotations from "The Great Gatsby," or "Catcher in the Rye," fills me with the desire to read more, to become smarter, in effect, to become even more aware of the human condition. That's what literature is, after all. It is evidence that other people share your emotions, your stories, and your worries. Maybe even more importantly, it is a reminder that there are those who have more worries than you, people whose lives are hampered by trauma and experiences that defy imagination. 

THIS IS IMPORTANT. I don't care what you say, or how well a movie is done, you can't truly understand Nick Carraway's stress in "The Great Gatsby" without reading the novel. You can't feel Katniss' terror and depression in "The Hunger Games," and you certainly can't understand the complexity of Scarlett O'Hara's character in "Gone With the Wind."And trust me, I get just as excited as the next person to see my favorite stories on the big screen, but always, there is something missing. 

As a teacher, and I know, I know, I write about teaching all the time, the number of books-to-movies out there is somewhat troubling. Sure, I enjoy it, but all my students see is an excuse not to read the novel. When they're 25, will they be able to remember realizing that money can't buy you love after watching DiCaprio's Gatsby? Will they have turned the excitement that they felt at watching "The Hunger Games" into a passion for freedom and the importance of the government protecting its citizens' rights? Somehow, I doubt it.

In this world where it's as easy as the touch of a finger to a smart phone screen to watch a video, why would anyone remember any one in particular? When you can watch entire television show seasons on Netflix in a week (guilty), why use the extra energy to open a book and read for fun? 


The frequency of students who read only when forced to in school (and sometimes not even then) is increasing, and with it, this anti-intellectual age in America is gaining a stronger foothold. Susan Jacoby wrote an article called The Dumbing of America for the Washington Post in 2008 that is scarier than most horror movies I've seen. In it she posits that Americans are in danger of losing our "hard won cultural capital to a virulent mixture of anti-intellectualism, anti-rationalism and low expectations." 


Six years later, America is still on a set path to intellectual destruction. The easier things become for us, the less likely we are to go the extra mile. Where are the students who want to write the next great American novel? Most of my students want to be professional athletes, and when prompted to consider other options, answer "I don't know," or "I'll just find something." 


I was looking back over my life today while I created an autobiographical PowerPoint to show my students, and I realized that in middle school, I was already well on my way to college and a career. I read books, wrote poetry, played the violin. I look at my students, glued to computers or smart phones, and wonder whether they will make it, or if the only ones who do will be the "elite" one percenters who are fortunate enough to be enrolled in private schools. 

We as a nation are not preparing future novelists, or scientists, or presidents. We are allowing technology use to dull the senses of our students, encouraging rote test taking strategies and skills, and killing creativity by removing it from curricula. 

What is going to happen to us when this generation of American citizens are tasked with the operations of the country? This needs to change, and it needs to begin now, and at home, because God knows the education system is sluggish at best, and possibly heading in the wrong direction altogether. 

1 comment:

  1. great article Brooke but I believe this problem is persistent everywhere. The main reason we had so many great inventions in the previous centuries was the combination of creative/art subjects along with sciences. But that is withering away. Everywhere there is a trend for short and quick communication. In interview we are told to restrict answers to 2 min or less, make bullet-ed presentations. So the school system have also started accommodating these changes early on in order to make their students workforce ready. However, this has taken its toll as the imagination part is suppressed. When was the last time we came across a profile where a student/person excelling in poem writing was also a great scientist/researcher.