Why Read? (What are the goals of a good reading curriculum?)

Whenever I start writing a post with a title like this, I’m always a little uncertain. Surely I’ve missed something obvious.

But over the last few weeks I’ve done quite a bit of research, and I’m here to report something striking. When it comes to the question of “Why do we read?” — at least in the context of public schools — the answers from the most authoritative sources are surprisingly sparse.

Why do we read in schools? It seems hardly anyone knows.

Now, there’s PLENTY of writing out there about HOW to teach reading. In fact, the debate about that topic has been one of the bloodiest wars in education.  Being an upper-grades high school teacher, I’m lucky to be able to steer clear.  I’m sure it’s fascinating, but I’m glad to leave well enough alone.

But when it comes to my world, a world in which it’s largely taken for granted that students know “how” to read, the question of what they should read – which is really the question of *why* they should read – gets surprisingly scant coverage.  What should our curricular goals be?  The main answer tends to be something along the lines of, “Reading is, you know . . .  a good thing.  And most kids don’t actually ever do it.  So . . . let’s just focus on getting kids to read, shall we?”

Much of our understanding of reading seems to focus on that definition above, nothing more and nothing less.  There’s quite a bit of literature in the English Language Arts sub-field of education that’s centered on the notion that schools, especially high schools, kill off a love of reading that we need to regrow in students (by, variously, giving students more choice, more time during class, more engaging books, less formal academic work, etc.).  This is a sort of parallel point to the one often made by Romantic critics, those heirs to Rousseau, who see all institutions as inherently corrupting: schools specifically kill off the natural joy of learning that they see inherent in every child.

Then there’s a second stance: that education is, in Neil Postman’s phrase, a “thermostatic activity” — that it must balance the ills of the broader society. In the case of reading, our society offers so many more appetizing pastimes than reading books, which means that schools need to focus all the more on being the one place that makes students read books. 

But both stances seem to simply take for granted the notion that reading is just generally important.  It’s fascinating that, on the one hand, literacy is apparently so in danger that we spend so much of our time decrying its decline – yet on the other hand, it seems so dead-set important that we rarely spend much time discussing why we’re so interested in fostering it.

The Common Core Era

When we do get specific in talking about why we have students read in schools at the secondary level, we usually focus on literacy skills, the ones at the nexus of absorbing, processing, and analyzing, that comprise the major goals of most reading curricula.  The foremost example at the high school level over the last twenty years is of course the Common Core, which still shapes most state-level language arts standards.  The Core is basically a laundry list of skills: analyzing, evaluating, interpreting, and summarizing.  In its controversial predilection for informational instead of imaginative writing, the Core was biased toward the goal of “College and Career Readiness” that pushed a kind of functional / academic justification for literacy.  

What’s more than that, the Core was famously agnostic about what books students read – perhaps owing to the inevitable controversy that comes from any sort of basic required list of content required for students.  As a result, although the Core nodded in the direction of important and high-quality content, it completely sidestepped the question of which books or which authors kids should actually be reading.

My own development as an English teacher has coincided with this era, and my own development as an educator has surely felt its imprint.  When I began my career more than a decade ago, I thought only of the important books I wanted to teach my students about.  Over the years, however – presumably under the influence of all the Core-inspired standards I have taught under for the past decade – I became more and more agnostic about content.  It no longer mattered so much which books I taught, so long as my students learned the important skills prized by state and district standards.

Part of this was a predictable and perhaps admirable development: I grew from focusing on my own doings – the messages I wished to pass along – to focusing on the learning of my students.  Part of this also aligned with the movement toward greater student choice in literature – particularly the movement (led by educators such as Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher) toward a better balance between independent reading and whole-class books.  Again, much of this was extremely positive.

One tangible change was that the notions of organizing English courses either thematically or temporally fell away.  The last time I taught a theme-based literature course was almost ten years ago, and the last time I taught a temporally-organized course (one that teaches books chronologically – for example, an American Lit course that takes students through various eras chronologically, using different books as models along the way) was back when I student-taught.  More and more books were just sort of selected based on their ability to foster the teaching of the all-important “skills.”

This sort of selection process does give teachers tremendous freedom, of course, but it also leaves them with less tangible selection criteria, and less defense when they’re challenged.  If you’re only selecting a book because it fosters the teaching of critical thinking and close reading skills, why choose something old and possibly retrograde in its attitudes when you could choose something less “offensive” and accomplish the same work?  Essentially, it has become incumbent on teachers to create their own selection criteria.

Thinking about it this way, I’m less surprised, actually, that I had so much trouble finding systematic treatment of the goals of reading; perhaps in some sense at the high school level, the goals of reading were, for many years, secondary to the goals of “content.” It was less about engendering any important affective changes in students and more about teaching students about important traditions and movements – with books as the vehicles and the representations.

Then of course you have another selection factor that is at once seeming to pass away, but also to stubbornly remain with us: the notion that some books are culturally and historically important and should be passed along.  This is related to the notion that some books simply get at timeless themes of humanity, that they ask these questions of students which are important to ask better than any other books; when a new book arrives that can knock the old book off the pedestal, we’ll replace it, but for now, no work gets at the question of the American Dream better than The Great Gatsby, so all eleventh graders are going to learn about it.

This vision of curriculum design, essentially a hierarchical and “aristocratic” one, will always be viewed with suspicion in a democracy.  It’s one thing when you’re tying an old work to a historical era; at least then you can retreat to the notion of historical significance, and you can answer any broader questions about the past with some notion that we must learn about the past in order not to repeat it.  That gives you a whole safety-value lens when you’re studying some newly-problematic work, a kind of inoculation against moral critique.  But the perennialist defense – that some books are simply better than others – is much harder to defend.  It’s one thing if you try to defend it by saying that some books are better teaching tools than others – that’s somewhat defensible – but if you start saying that some books are better teaching tools because they are better books, that’s way harder to defend right now, in part because it’s a perspective that has always clashed with the Progressivist/Pragmatist sensibility of process-first: “meeting students where they are” and teaching the reader, not the book. But more importantly because the elitist, one-book-is-just-better-than-another perspective nowadays puts you squarely on the of a classic war over the “canon” (If not the “wrong side of history”!), a debate that has become absolutely turbocharged in the Trump era.

And it’s the Trump era that I want to talk about next, in a subsequent post.