Literary Call to Arms
- Tuesday, February 19, 2008
Between TV shows, video games, magazines, and instant messaging, there’s just not much encouragement in our culture for sitting down with a good book. And while many kids with hands-on parents are guided toward developing a love of reading, it is hard to ignore rising illiteracy rates and the struggles many college freshmen are having in adapting to the rigors of college academics. The decline in reading has become so pronounced that the National Endowment for the Arts asked the Census Bureau to collect data on the subject. The results, although not particularly surprising, are disappointing.
In Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, the findings of that survey point to significant declines in literary reading. For the purposes of the study, literary reading was defined as “the reading of novels, short stories, poetry, or drama in any print format, including the Internet.” Any type was admitted, from romance novels to classical poetry. A broad definition, to be sure, yet the trends should be taken by all educators as a call to arms. Although the publication describes ten major findings, there are a few that are of particular interest to homeschooling parents committed to the intellectual development of their children. Consider the following:
The rate of decline is rapidly accelerating.
The decline affects all ethnic backgrounds, education levels, and age groups.
The decline parallels a decline in community and cultural activities.
Perhaps the most compelling of all is this—the sharpest decline is among young adults. Twenty years ago, young adults were the most likely to read literature, and now they are the least likely.
These are numbers and trends that fly in the face of what dedicated educators work so hard to accomplish in their life’s work. And the numbers point to disturbing overall trends and future implications. So, what does this mean for you, the homeschooling parent? You can bring a new perspective and enthusiasm into your own children’s learning experiences. It means that it is time to take action, one home classroom at a time.
Why Read Literature?
The rich tradition of literature does not have to be at risk in your home. The benefits of a solid foundation of literature in education are numerous. Being “wellread” is a hallmark of an educated person. It enables him or her to understand insightful references and to establish his or her credibility as an intelligent and educated person. In college, a student with a good start in literary education is at a definite advantage. Regardless of the major the student chooses, he or she will do better in language arts courses, have the discipline to read a lengthy work, and have well developed critical thinking skills. To become a skilled reader, a student must learn to enjoy reading and being taken on a journey by the author, while also learning to pay attention for literary devices, characterization, and thematic development and consistency. A proficient reader can both enjoy the book as the author’s “guest” and pay close attention to see what the author is doing throughout the book. These are highly developed thinking skills that apply to many disciplines and courses, not to mention that they benefit the student throughout life.
Although fiction is wholly created by the author, there are definitely life lessons to be gained in reading literature. The best literature makes it easy to give the author what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called “suspension of disbelief.” For example, characters that are realistic have believable strengths and weaknesses, and they make decisions and interact with others in believable ways. Consequently, whatever they learn, the reader learns. But the reader gets to learn the lessons from the safety and comfort of a cozy reading chair. The setting an author chooses is another means of teaching. The setting could be one to which your child is drawn, such as outer space or a foreign land, but the lessons are the same. This teaches about the universality of human nature. Reading Greek drama and Shakespeare’s plays demonstrates that people long ago were subject to the same vulnerabilities— pride, ambition, cruelty, and unrequited love—as people are today.
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