Via The Passive Voice, a link to this article: High School Reading as an Act of Meaningful Aggression
Now, I have become pretty well proof against the … and you won’t believe what happened next! types of clickbait. But this title is one that practically compelled me to click through and at least skim the article. Which does not, at the beginning, seem to have a lot to do with the title. Here is the first paragraph:
Towards the end of each year I do one of those anonymous surveys where I ask the students—high-school sophomores and juniors—how much they read, as a percentage, of each book. I’ve been doing this for the last 10 years or so, and the results are remarkably consistent: most students read most, but rarely all, of each book. About 15 percent read every single word of every single thing, some of it twice. These the kids who would read the contents list of a 7-11 freezer if told, the same students who tend to sit in the front row and take the kind of notes that end up in the Smithsonian. Another 15 percent admit to struggling to even open the books, but would gladly read the 7-11 freezer list because of its novelty value and the refreshing lack of obfuscating adjectives and modifiers. The 70 percent of students in the middle make up the dominant percentage, the ones who often leave little notes, not quite apologia, but regretful explanations about wishing that they had more time to do all the reading because they would have liked to, that they did most of it, that what they read of The Great Gatsby was really good but what with other homework, and athletics, and Uncle Steve’s birthday dinner, and the cousin in Jersey with leukemia, and x not yet having said anything about prom…well, there was a lot to think about.
Okay, so, the author (Giles Scott) doesn’t mean that kids read most-but-not-all of the books they choose to read. That initially baffled me, but by the end of this paragraph, it’s clear he means that they read most-but-not-all of assigned books. That makes much more sense, and in fact I don’t see anything surprising about it at all, though so far I have no clue about this “act of meaningful aggression” thing.
Is this good writing or bad writing? Is Scott deliberately prompting an initial misunderstanding of what he’s talking about, or is he not seeing how much clearer it would be to say “I ask the students—high-school sophomores and juniors—how much they read, as a percentage, of each assigned book.” Perhaps everyone else read it that way automatically, and I just didn’t because 99% of all the reading I did in high school was not assigned.
Also, is he deliberately withholding the connection between his article and the title, and if so, is that playing fair with the reader?
Scott goes on:
For most high-school students, the act of “reading” recalls the soft glow of something done at night, before bed, in jim-jams with a cup of hot cocoa—the equivalent of night-time elevator music. Or, if not that, they’re “reading” on the bus, in the car, while standing outside class two minutes before the bell. And, at best, gaining an understanding of situation and context: who did what or said what to whom and where at what time in what kind of weather. Seeing words but not really reading them, a marriage without contact.
I want them to see reading as something far more intimate, even fractured at times, as something combative, vulgar, assertive—a constant back-and-forth between reading and rereading, moments of stepping outside the text then coming back and battering at it with questions. Something better done in a flak jacket than pajamas. And high school students hate doing it.
Oh! Ah ha! Now I see. Scott has his own personal definition of reading, which excludes reading for fun, instead equating reading you enjoy with mindless, meaningless activities that don’t engage your brain. Naturally this means that books you enjoy reading probably aren’t worth spending time with. What counts is, I guess, philosophy textbooks plus whatever novels Scott personally approves of.
Scott has his students annotate their texts — he’s talking here about The Great Gatsby, among others — and while I think slowing down and paying attention and even annotation might be fine in class, I am baffled by his implication that all reading should involve such exercises. Also by his report that some students feel he has “ruined reading” for them — surely they don’t feel any need to annotate the books they read for fun?
As you might expect, Scott winds up by waxing philosophical:
The skill of delaying judgment, at least categorically, until sufficient questions are in play stands so powerfully at the center of empathy. … if reading can teach us how to begin to push preconceptions about fictional characters further aside (“banish” seems overly hopeful), then reading perhaps serves as a model for a similar push in response to people in the world, and not just those that enter our interpersonal spaces, but also the persons in the worlds outside ours—the cultural, social, and political worlds so often represented in binary ways in the media. To effectively annotate and read the fictional worlds of Jay Gatsby, Janie Crawford, Esperanza, Macbeth, et. al. allows students, ultimately, to be able to do the same for hurricanes, race riots, economic policies, state of the union speeches, even wardrobe malfunctions—but to do so from a place that begins with witness, a place that works aggressively to keep preconceptions at bay—questions not answers. This what real reading can accomplish—an aggressive stance, a flak jacket, that stands as a condition, ironically, for more empathy. Romanticized? Maybe—actually, not even maybe. But still essential.
Not a bad point. Perhaps it could have been made, and made effectively, without dismissing as worthless the act of reading for fun, or implying that only close, analytical reading promotes empathy when that does not appear to be the case. Perhaps reading might be worthwhile in a multitude of ways, even if someone might like to do so at bedtime, with a mug of hot chocolate in hand.