Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Pitcher Cries for Water to Carry and a Person for Work That Is Real

I just finished reading John Holt's last book, Learning All the Time (Addison-Wesley, 1989), and while it's full of interesting ideas and stories, this especially caught my attention:
Schools, top-rank or low-rank, have always operated under the wonderfully convenient rule that when learning takes place, the school deserves the credit ("If You Can Read, Thank a Teacher"); and that when it doesn't, the students get the blame [150].
I've seen that slogan before, especially on Facebook. It occurred to me that if I were to thank anyone for my ability to read, it would be my mother, who taught me when I was four. She wasn't a professional, but you don't have to be to teach a child to read. Then I remembered my fellow students reading aloud in class in second grade. They read awkwardly, slowly, badly. I don't have to wonder why so few of them read for pleasure or use as they got older. Reading was hard work for them; for me, even in second grade, it was easy, a fairly transparent process I didn't have to think about as I took in the stories I read. Most people, I think, would conclude that my fellow students weren't bright enough to read well; I think they just weren't taught well.

Earlier in the book Holt quotes Bruno Bettelheim and Karen Zelan's Learning to Read (Knopf, 1982). After reporting how the vocabulary in elementary readers dropped from an average of 645 words in the 1920s to 153 in 1962, Bettelheim and Zelan speculated:
One possible explanation ... is that as the readers became more boring, children learned to read less well. The conclusion drawn from this fact was not the obvious one that as textbooks became more boring to children and teachers alike, children would have a harder time working up an interest in learning to read. Instead, it was concluded that the books were too difficult for the children and that things should be made easier for them, by asking them to learn fewer words! So each new edition of a primer contains fewer words in ever more frequent repetition, and in consequence is more boring than that which preceded it ... As this cycle continues up to the present day, things have gone from bad to worse [quoted in Holt, 29].
No wonder my kindergarten teacher, in 1956, didn't believe me when I explained that I'd been reading a version of The Three Billy Goats Gruff that was primarily text, in a book my parents had bought. She made me bring the book in and read from it aloud to her to prove that I had the chops; I still remember her surprise when I obliged. (This came up because one day I'd begun giggling during nap time, remembering the story. Even at that age I was No Damn Good, you see: I thought I was too smart to take a nap!)

I don't mean to put down teachers; only some are martinets more concerned with order than with learning. But my mother was no educational radical; she thought that learning shouldn't be fun, it should be work. But she inadvertently put into my hands the power to bypass a lot of the structural barriers to learning that school raised up. Not deliberately, of course: if you'd asked, any educator and any parent would have denied that reading, writing and arithmetic were taught so as to discourage kids from learning them; but that was the result. And despite those barriers, most kids manage to learn anyway. And many teachers try to clear space for their students to learn.

I think that parents are more of a problem: they suffered in school, and by God their children had better suffer too! Politicians pander to that attitude, in parents and in businessmen who believe that the purpose of schools is to grind out docile workers. Again, this is seldom declared upfront: it usually surfaces when someone objects to more effective teaching/learning methods by snarling, "Learning can't all be fun!" As Holt remarks, "What they usually mean by this is 'Learning can't ever be fun, or it isn't really learning'" (83). He adds, "Figuring things out, solving problems, is about as much fun as anything we human beings know how to do", which I think is partly true. "Fun" isn't really the right word. Solving problems isn't always "fun", but it's intensely satisfying and rewarding.

One more story. Holt tells of Leon, a seventeen-year-old African American student in an Upward Bound summer program.
He was at the absolute bottom of his regular school classes, tested, judged, and officially labeled as being almost illiterate. ... Until quite late in the evening Leon didn't speak. When he did, he didn't say much. But what he said I will never forget. He stood up, holding before him a paperback copy of Dr. Martin Luther King's book Why We Can't Wait, which he had read, or mostly read, during that summer session. He turned from one to another of the adults, holding the book before each of us and shaking it for emphasis, and in a voice trembling with anger, said several times at the top of his lungs, "Why didn't anyone ever tell me about this book? Why didn't anyone ever tell me about this book?" ...

It's worth noting that Why We Can't Wait is full of long, intricate sentences and big words. It would not have been easy reading for more than a handful of students in Leon's or any other high school. But Leon, whose standardized Reading Achievement Test scores "proved" that he had the reading skills of a second-grader, had struggled and fought his way through that book in perhaps a month or so. The moral of the story is twofold: that young people want, need, and like to read books that have meaning for them, and that when such books are put within easy reach they will sooner or later figure out, without being "taught" and with only minimal outside help, how to read them [27-8].
I know that everybody isn't going to read as much as I do, or as fluently or compulsively. And that's okay: schools should serve all students, and enable them to learn a wide range of things. But stories like Leon's always fill me with rage and despair, and have ever since I first read Jonathan Kozol's Death at an Early Age over forty years ago. It's not possible to give back the lost years to the many students who were denied access to learning while being held indoors and told they were stupid. What infuriates me is that in the face of this history, many adults fiercely resist any attempt to fix the situation for the future.

(The title of this post is the final two lines of Marge Piercy's poem "To Be of Use.")