Thursday, October 11, 2012

Great Thinkers thinking greatly

"The man who does not read good books has no advantage over
the man who cannot read them." Mark Twain

Today I attended the first of a series of inspiring workshops. The starting point for the workshop caught my ear with its Fahrenheit 451 overtones and reminiscence of Mark Twain wisdom. To be fair, the gentleman running the workshop was a high school English teacher for 30 years before moving to the University of Pennsylvania, so he "had me at hello," literally.

The opening piece was an excerpt from Rushworth Kidder's book "Reinventing the Future: Global Goals for the 21 st Century." He states a valid, yet unheeded worry about why people should read, but don't:
       "It is that they read for wisdom, for depth, for a conscious acquaintance with the values and judgements of great thinkers thinking greatly. The tragedy of illiteracy - and even greater waste of alliteracy, involving those who know how to read seriously but don't - is that it abandons the accumulated wisdom of the ages. It places fine writing in the hands of fewer and fewer interpreters, whose translations and commentaries become progressively oversimplified - and whose audience, increasingly unable to think for itself, grows more and more susceptible to the manipulations of the elite.

       "Are we headed, then, backwards into the pre-print attitudes of the Middle Ages, when the literate few ruled the illiterate many?....To avert such backsliding, [our educational focus] must be given over to two things: training people how to read, and teaching them why they should want to read..."

This does not mean people have to read more than anything else.

This does not mean people are not smart unless they read abundantly.

I am one of the most avid readers I know, but even I am guilty of this! Sure, reading lends me exposure to a wide range of views and ideas, but I am as guilty as the next person when it comes to shrugging off what I should be reading because I do not want to be bothered with the responsibility, I'm too busy, or I figure it doesn't matter if I do or not. Recently my mom told me I should read a finance/business book. The authors had predicted the current conditions of the housing market and our other economic issues two years before they happened and now the authors have a new book that shows us where the economy will go from here. Probably worth looking into, but what did I tell her? "You read it, make a list of things I should do, and let me know."

What happens when the trustworthy on such topics, such as my mom, become few in my life - or in the world in general? To whom can I turn for this information - on whom will we all rely?

What this means is that people need to realize the importance behind reading and use it as needed at the very least.  More and more people make decisions based on what they hear or see on TV, without ever gathering, reading, and critically thinking through the materials themselves. Why do campaigners place signs in people's yards? Because people will recognize the name and short list of facts at the voting booth and simply mark that name down because they've heard it before.

By losing the ability to comprehend and think critically about what we read, we set ourselves up for failure. If the trend continues, we are lambs gladly led to the slaughter. Men like Bradbury, Orwell, and Huxley were not pulling crazy ideas out of thin air. They could see this coming and now it is ours with which to deal.


  1. Reading has become 140 characters or less; literacy per Sparknotes.
    Having said that, I remember when children resisted reading chapter books like they resisted eating peas. Then Harry came along and all that changed. To see little kids walking around with doorstops, and loving them, gave me hope. This generation is quick to act per one liners but when it comes down to the really serious stuff they know exactly where to go to find substance.

    1. I don't know...I seem to hear a lot of parroting when it comes to serious stuff. People can state something but they can't back it up...they can't usually give proof other than "So and so told me." I'm as guilty as the next person on certain topics.

      And I only used politics as the most obvious example, probably a poor one since people know it affects them so it is in the forefront of people's attention.

      I guess what I really see is that people aren't questioning much. I don't want my students to take my word for it! I want them to question me, think and find things for themselves. They want information to regurgitate on a test. Life's a test, but no one is going to give you the answers. You need to find them on your own.

  2. Lavar Burton also didn't want me to take his word for it.

    I tend to think the majority does not like to read anything that requires effort. If it isn't easy to read or requires attention after the fact, burn it.

    Critical thought is just like exercising any muscle. If you don't use it, it will atrophy. My personal experience with exercise is that it sucks when I've neglected a muscle group. When it sucks, I don't do it. That's why people have personal trainers. To push you when you otherwise wouldn't or wouldn't know what to do.

    Or to use another analogy, information from tv or any source that doesn't require thought is like eating junk food. Easy to eat. Simple to turn into fat. Not like fiber. Need fiber to be healthy.

    Ok. I'm off my soapbox now. Any rebuttals are welcome. I hope I have not offended anyone.

    1. Ahhh, good old Reading Rainbow. That show was great! And Lavar was onto something with his catch phrase I think.

      Teaching school for eight years with an average of 100 students a year, I've seen a small handful willing to exercise their critical thinking skills. And even when I get a really smart set of students - such as AP - they are too lazy to employ their smarts!

      I'm hoping it's the age more than anything. But I have a feeling people in their 20s and 30s are like this too. They just go to those who have read or know and do/believe as they say. It's what I see with those around me anyway.

  3. I loved Reading Rainbow! I will sing the!