To Read or Not To Read, Now That Is the Question

by Derrick G. Jeter

A quiet revolution is taking place in American education these days, specifically in Middle School literature classes. A growing number of school districts are no longer assigning required reading from a list of age appropriate classics. Instead, students are allowed to select their own books and thereby satisfy the requirements of a literary education—at least for 12, 13, and 14 year-olds. The rationale for such a change is as old as the first time a child had to read a book on his own: If children read that which interests them they’ll enjoy reading, and in the process become better readers and learn more. Of course, as the advocates of this argument are quick to point out, these children will pick up the classics later. Of course such logic has worked well with the subjects of mathematics and science. Why teach students calculus or chemistry, they’ll pick those up later?

Apparently the progenitors of such creative logic are undeterred by Mark Twain’s oft quoted definition of a classic: “‘Classic.’ A book which people praise and don’t read.”1

I have no stamp of approval as an educator—not even from a mail order institution—yet I’m more apt to believe that Twain is closer to the truth than the champions of literary abolition. To be fair, I rather doubt that the literary and educational experts would say that a book like The Adventures of Captain Underpants is equivalent to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; however their actions speak volumes as to their opinion of the equal merits of Captain Underpants with Huckleberry Finn, if they allow a child to choose Captain Underpants over Huckleberry Finn. In other words, isn’t one just as good as the other as long as the child enjoys it? But just because a book is made up of words on paper, and paper bound between two covers doesn’t mean that every book is made the same. Obviously this is true, and its hard to imagine any literature teacher disagreeing. Nevertheless, if the collected wisdom of these school districts is to expect little Johnny and Susie Middle School student to wisely choose their own educational literature then these educational experts have stumbled down the rabbit hole and are consulting with the Mad Hatter.

As the argument goes, better to have a child read and enjoy a book like Captain Underpants and learn something (though I know not what) than have a child endure the boredom of a Huckleberry Finn and learn nothing. This claim, however, misses the central point of reading. Yes, reading can be pleasurable and educational—and frankly, I prefer that it is—but the true purpose in reading is to discover beauty and truth; it is to discover wisdom. We read not merely for utilitarian and individualistic joy and know-how; we read to become wise, to wrestle with the great questions that confront humanity so that we might learn how to live adeptly. Read what literary critic Harold Bloom had to say about reading’s purpose: “We read, I think, to repair our solitude, though pragmatically the better we read, the more solitary we become. I cannot regard reading as a vice, but then also it is not a virtue. Thinking in Hegel is one thing; in Goethe, it is quite another. Hegel is not a wisdom writer; Goethe is. The deepest motive for reading has to be the quest for wisdom.”2 Perhaps there is wisdom in books like Captain Underpants; I know there is wisdom in books like Huckleberry Finn. Yet, if our educators will not point our students to where wisdom can be found—and many parents certainly will not—then we will continue down the road of what Bloom called “the death-in-life of the dumbing down in which America now leads the world.”3 How much further will we persist on traveling such a foolish path?

Let’s suppose, however, for the sake of the argument, that these students who choose Captain Underpants in Middle School will someday pick up Huckleberry Finn. Will they find this classic, and others like it, enjoyable and educational? Or will they put it down before finishing because the going was too tough? Classics assume that their readers possess certain core knowledge about metaphors, similes, and allusions to the Bible, to mythology, to other classic stories, and to history; they trust that the reader understands figures of speech and has a grasp on basic foreign words and phrase. Classics are not for wimps and sissies, nor for intellectual pygmies, who, through no fault of their own, were stunted in their literary development in Middle School by experts who merely want them to enjoy their reading. Think of it like this: in a culture of clipped communication, as a result of texting, Facebooking, and Tweeting, and an educational system that would tolerate the literature of Captain Underpants and the like, our students are feasting on a diet of hot dogs and Coke. This is poor preparation for a diet of lobster and Perrier, which undoubtedly will prove too rich for their more simple palettes—both in the students’ sensibilities and in the expense of mental acumen and time to digest such weighty fair.

We assign classic literature to students because the classics haven’t finished saying what they have to say. Classics endure, obviously because they are well written, but also because they deal with the realities of life, with the struggles men and women have always had—with good and evil, love and hate, sacrifice and selfishness. For a teacher to assign a classic book and to help a student see how timely its timeless themes apply to his or her life is to see lightening strike in the mind and the soul . . . and few things, for both student and teacher, are more enjoyable and educational than seeing that spark of wisdom ignite.

  1. Mark Twain, Following the Equator (Stilwell, KS: Digireads, 2008), 109.
  2. Harold Bloom, Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? (New York: Riverhead Books, 2004), 101.
  3. Bloom, Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?, 278.