As a lover of language, one of my greatest concerns about modern public education is that our children are being taught to "read -- it really doesn't matter WHAT you read as long as you read."
I understand the sentiment, and it is true up to a point. The actual mechanics of the skill of reading are improved by merely transferring the written words into meaning in one's mind. But, let's face it, as clever and entertaining as Shel Silverstein poems (for example) often are, they do not cause the heart to swell in appreciation. As interesting as a biography of some "famous" entertainer or some fantasic story about a teacher who is really a witch (for example) might be, there are few life lessons to be learned from reading this kind of literature.
There are basically two aspects to "learning to read."
- Reading "anything" teaches us HOW to read. One can develop skill, comfort, and speed in the skill of reading so that later he/she can learn subject matter by reading. This is the theory behind the idea that it doesn't matter what one reads as long as he/she reads.
- Reading good literature teaches us TO read. Readers absorb values, form ideas, and learn about life from whatever they read. Good literature provides readers with the wisdom of those who have lived before us, views of the eternal truths of life, and/or commentary about the intricacies of human relationships. This says to me that it IS important WHAT children read. When readers finish reading a book or article with a better understanding of some idea or culture, when they recognize their own thinking put into words by someone else, when they have learned to think about and analyze the actions or thoughts in the material they read, or when they have a heightened commitment to building community with other human beings, these readers have become a "good readers." If children think about something they have read when they are faced with a dilemma in life, the reading has been worthwhile. If they learn to give thought to the real meaning of life and determine to make their lives count for something, the reading that led them to that point has been more than worthwhile.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow encourages all human beings to really live life and to help others live theirs more productivly and happily. The last four stanzas, in particular, of this classic poem have recently renewed their message to me.
A Psalm Of Life
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Tell me not in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal!
Dust thou are, to dust thou returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each tomorrow
Find us farther than today.
Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
In the world's broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!
Trust no Future, howe'er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act, - act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o'erhead!
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sand of time;
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o'er life's solenm main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.
Let us then be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.