As a teacher we are often told that the Workplace student's future is equally important to that of the academic student. Yet, as I search through the internet on a variety of issues facing graduating High School students and the idea of life-long learning I couldn't help but notice that the articles are targeted to one demographic: the academic student.
In Neil Postman's Graduation Speech he notes that the world is divided between Athenians and Visigoths. Those with a passion for life-long learning, reading and culture are the Athenians and those who do not have such a passion are the Visigoths. He also makes it clear that "you do not become an Athenian merely by attending school or accumulating academic degrees" adding that his "father-in-law was one of the most committed Athenians" despite being merely a "dress cutter on Seventh Avenue". The same, I might argue can be said for my father-in-law who reads several papers from start-to-end everyday. It seems that in the past we instilled in students the passion to know. However, I wonder if we have forgotten the importance of instilling reading and life-long learning in our College-level, or more importantly, workplace students?
As my own grade 12 Workplace students graduate high school they do so with great excitement, for they will - in their estimation - never have to read or apparently learn again. Yes, of course, they believe that they will learn how to do certain tasks like plumbing or renovations or learn while on the job. However, they seem to not see that learning goes beyond that, and perhaps that is where we as educators have failed?
As an English teacher, I often begin my classes by asking students to think of a book they loved. They immediately react to this question defensively, as if to admit that they ever enjoyed a book places them in a group with "those" students who are forever reading and poised to be "stuck behind a desk". At some point though teachers have to admit that we played a role in the death of literature. We were an accessory to the crime. Even the most reluctant reader can reflect on a time when they loved entering the zany world of Dr. Seuss, or the oddly awkward stories of Robert Munsch and/or the cadence of Dennis Lee's Alligator Pie. But, then we stepped in. We "guardians of language" (as Stephen Fry referred to us) chastised them for their use of grammar, told them they dare not start a sentence with and, and drowned them in symbolism & theme. Just when we had them there drinking from the fountain of beautiful poetry and prose, we killed that love. I can already hear my colleagues ready to rhyme off Academic students who went to study literature here or there. But, what of the others? What about those students who will work as a cashier, a farm hand, a labourer or dress cutter? However, we teachers are not alone in the blame for this wave of reading reluctance.
An occupational hazard in my profession is that I have a preponderance for reading. Thus, our house has numerous bookshelves holding numerous books. As too do my children's bookshelves. Yet, I am amazed when I walk into peoples' homes and see relatively few books (it is even more strange when I don't see books in the homes of fellow teachers). There was once a time when parents read to their children. The joyous first memories we have of reading should (and hopefully do) involve parents taking us into the world of Seuss, Munsch, Lee. Can't you see parents smiling with rolled eyes as their kids, cuddling up in beds or on a comfy couch pull out the same book they wanted last night, the night before that, and even the night before that? Yet, what happened? When did we stop mentoring that reading? When did parents lay the entire onus of reading on young people deciding other things were more important? Instead of mentoring reading they seemingly chose overscheduled calendars, or TV viewing.
I have recently taught a student whose parents want her to get higher marks. So, every week or so she comes to me and asks - as if memorized from some script - "what can I do to get 70%?"
The last time she asked I replied with my own question. "How many hours did you practice hockey this weekend?"
The girl seemed a little shocked but replied quickly "about 4 hours". I then asked her how many hours she had read.
I know I don't have to give you the answer, because as I already mentioned, we killed reading. Parents, and educators together have created a generation of truly reluctant readers who don't care if it is in a magazine, tablet, graphic novel or whatever other form a publisher has decided might sell. The truth is that "those" kids will read, get a job (perhaps even "behind a desk") and read the paper, the news, blogs, non-fiction, histories, biographies and even the occasional novel. But, the sad truth is that the other students, those students who begrudgingly pushed through each and every one of their English classes and raged against literacy like it was the "dying of the light" won't.
Tonight my daughter and I ended our day together perched on our sectional in a relatively new little ritual. One of us facing east and one of us facing north. Each of us was reading our own book. Now, if I can only get that love of literature across to the 16, 17 and 18 year-old students counting down the days until they graduate...when they never again have to read.
I have been meaning to write more lately. Although, what to write often eludes me. Don't get me wrong, the medium of Twitter allows me to share my views in 140 characters, but let's be perfectly honest, it has been a heavy few days, and although for great thinkers 140 characters might be more than enough, for me it hardly seems acceptable. It is Monday December 17th, 2012. It has been 4 days since a gunman entered an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut and took the lives of 26 people. This seems like the right time to say something.
I spent the better part of the weekend between my kids and the avalanche of online news regarding the Newtown shooting and the impending war of words between the American "Right" and "Left". I forged into Twitter with my own opinions and held tight to them with undaunted earnest. When hanging out with my kids I thought on the sadness of parents in Newtown, while online my lefty-socialist leanings took me into frustrated diatribes against those I deemed know-nothing-gun-totting Conservatives. My opinions heightened my anger and to a certain extent dulled my emotional response to the truth (once the media finally got around to reporting it).
As this flurry of sad news descends, we are all - rightfully - concerned about our children. But, I think we too often get caught up in the media onslaught of fear and forget to talk and more importantly listen to our young people. We instinctively look to protect our children (as we should), but forget that they might have a view on this that seems "wise beyond their years". We need to read our young people, and if they are mature enough, listen to their thoughts and feelings.
In their often simplistic answers there is root problem, and more often a solution we cannot see for the cut-off nose that dangles so often from our face. My 8 year old daughter asked about the Newtown shooting on Friday. After an honest, although albeit a simplified version of events, she asked "why did he do it?". I of course didn't know the answer. But, I presumed that it was the same reason that most people go to peaceful places with the means and ways to horrifically destroy and kill, sickness. So, I told my daughter that "he was sick". My daughter's response hit at the crux of the problem: "why didn't a doctor help him?". Yes, this is a simple answer. She doesn't know a thing about the ideological arguments regarding private coverage, insurers, or public health care. And of course my 8 year old daughter doesn't know the financial issues that go with health care and mental illness. But, to be perfectly honest, who cares? So often we want to politicize issues or find a means of explaining something that corresponds with our own ideologies. But, a child tends to see the issues for what they really are. They see the honesty of the issue. To them the politics and bias that weigh down adults are irrelevant. The issue is simply black or white. Therefore, we dismiss their ideas. But, perhaps sometimes somethings really should be black and white, uncorrupted and clear. A child's view is, at its purest, unadulterated. The etymology of the word adulterate is "to falsify or corrupt". Note how we connect the idea of falsifying with adulthood. To be unadulterated is to be void of this corruption, and to see things as a child does, pure with no added bias.
As I write this I cannot help but think on a poem I read in my Romantics and Victorians class at Carleton University. In it William Wordsworth wrote that "child is the father of man." And, although there is debate about the line, ultimately - as I see it - what we are as adults we gained from our childhood. So, don't we as adults have an obligation to give our young people the freedom to think without bias, without judgement and without fear? Because they, like us, will have the rest of their lives to live with those millstones.
I write about education, music, politics and my own philosophical conundrums. If I have left you thinking about something let me know. Sometimes I think this world needs more thinking.