Look, my main point is efficiency. Kids need to learn to read, and they should also be learning science and history too, so why not combine the two tasks? Reading would still be taught and, in the early years, would be the central focus of the lesson, but the texts would have an added benefit of getting started learning other academic subjects.
I'm not saying fiction isn't worth reading. I'm saying that it can be held for after hours pleasure reading. Frankly, I think this would increase the love of fiction. Here's this shelf of books that you can read when you finish your other work. You can take them home if you like. I think this would give them an aura of excitement. There are lots of people who have fiction forced on them and avoid it once they're out of school. My father would get passionate about his hatred of "The Return of the Native," which he was forced to read. Me, I read "The Return of the Native" and all of Thomas Hardy's novels on my own and loved them. Look at how kids read the Harry Potter books on their own. Put them outside of the classroom and let kids see them as a leisure treat.
In saying that, I don't mean to say they are just for fun and that there's nothing deep. I'm saying that reading fiction books is or should be intrinsically rewarding and that intrinsic reward is best felt when you are exercising free choice. And I also think that the depths in fiction are best absorbed in a free environment without an authority figure trying to lead you or tell you how to think. Much good fiction is about challenging authority, and I worry that authority figures will choose fiction that they approve of because it teaches the values they like. That's not my idea of how good fiction works.
Another thing I'm not saying is that we shouldn't have literature classes. I've been talking about reading classes, those learn-to-read sessions very young students have. Those students aren't delving into the subtleties of themes and language and so forth. I have no problem with literature classes that teach students how to analyze texts in some fairly deep way, as long as they don't destroy the pleasure and love of art. So perhaps literature classes should be elective.
I'm also not opposed to teaching history and science through the kinds of novels and storybooks that present the information accurately. And I think a history class could very well have students read novels that had an effect on history or how people think about history, like "Uncle Tom's Cabin" or "1984." I've taught a couple "Women in Law and Literature" seminars myself. (We'd read a court case and a novel that dealt with the same subject as the case.)
Finally, I'm not saying that young kids should be given badly written, boring text books as their early readers any more than my critics think they should be given badly written, boring storybooks. That assumption, at the core of many of the criticisms I've read, is so perverse that it makes your whole argument seem to be in bad faith. Or perhaps you have only read nonfiction when it was imposed on you by a teacher and you have never discovered its intrinsic rewards by reading it on your own free choice. I'll bet if you had a shelf of books for kids to choose for their free time and it had some nonfiction books like this one, lots of kids would pick them over fiction. And I think a lot of boys would be grateful and some girls might be inspired to go into careers that are more common for boys.
Writing this post, I discovered that I'd written on this topic before, inspired by a WaPo article called "Educators Differ on Why Boys Lag in Reading":
"A lot of teachers think of reading as reading stories," said Lee Galda, professor of children's literature at the University of Minnesota. "And in fact, a lot of boys, and not just boys, like nonfiction. But we keep concentrating on novels or short stories and sometimes don't think of reading nonfiction as reading. But in fact it is, and it is extremely important."I wrote:
Teachers and parents have said boys generally prefer stories with adventure, suspense and fantasy and tend toward reading nonfiction stories and non-narrative informational books, as well as magazines and newspapers.
Maybe it would be easier to say that everyone wants to read what interests them and quite properly rebels at being told what to read. (Maybe boys just rebel more conspicuously than girls.)And here's another old post of mine, describing a group of 3 boys I saw at Borders, getting more excited about a book than I've ever seen kids get. But good luck getting your local teachers to include this one on their pleasure-reading shelf:
It's one thing for the biology teacher to insist that you read a biology book, but if teachers are just trying to get kids to read, why shouldn't they provide a broad selection and give kids a chance to discover what they find interesting? It looks as though the biggest problem is that teachers are pushing too much literary fiction on kids. English teachers tend to be people who enjoy that sort of thing, but most people don't read it on their own. Why should we have an appetite for stories? And why should our appetite for stories be about elegantly described characters and their relationships (as opposed to adventure and fantasy)?
I used to take my sons to the bookstore and let them find whatever they were interested in. We used to hang out at Borders nearly every day, and I usually ended up buying a book or two. What did they want? Humor, especially in comic form (like "Life in Hell"). Collections of amazing science facts and other things that did not have to be read in linear fashion. (This was a big favorite.) Books about movies and music and other subjects they were interested in.
ADDED: Some email:
As a very young boy (7-11) I never bothered reading one book of fiction (Lord of the Rings changed that for me at the age of 16). All I read as a child were books on dinosaurs and books on the middle ages.
When I entered 7th grade and we began studying the 13th century, I knew more about early feudal crop rotation and the politics of southern France than my 8th grade teacher....honestly. I also knew the difference between the paleozoic and cretaceous periods. I also read books about lasers...college level books that I had no business reading (and despite not understanding any of it I enjoyed the reading.)
I had the pleasure of teaching English in South Korea for 3 odd years. I ditched the "learn English" type books in favor of beginning science and history books early on. I tell you, the boys AND girls had a fantastic time learning English while reading about how the early Greeks figured out the Earth was round, or how photosynthesis works.
I also made the poor kids memorize poetry, but that's neither here nor
UPDATE: Among my many critics, I want to give the prize to this guy for writing "Althouse correctly notes that reading comprehension skills among high-school students are on the decline" -- not because he gave me credit for something but because I never said anything about reading comprehension skills among high school students! I hope he does an update, something like: Althouse correctly notes that reading comprehension skills among bloggers are on the decline.