May 20, 2007

About that suggestion of mine that reading classes should use nonfiction books.

This post has really stirred people up.

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."

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.
I wrote:
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.)

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.
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:

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 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.


katiebakes said...

When I was in elementary school a writer named Elvira Woodruff (link) came to our school and in conjunction with her visit we read many of her books. They are veautifully illustrated historical fiction/fantasy books - in one, a group of children meet George Washington, and in another a boy becomes pen pals with Napoleon.

When I got older - say, fourth or fifth grade - we read an excellent book called Dickon Among the Lenape Indians. (link) It's a work of fiction, but goes into vivid historical detail about the daily lives, customs, etc of the local Lenape Indians. We even made clay pots in the ground as a side "crafts" project in accordance with the way the Lenapes did it as described in the book.

I think these sorts of books are excellent hybrids between historical context and learning to read. The American Girl doll books are similarly engaging.

Bob said...

Well, Glenn Reynolds has been flogging The Dangerous Book For Boys, which is the sort of book boys do appreciate. Give boys books on adventure and survival, even classics like The Swiss Family Robinson, and they will probably read them. It's just a matter of giving them subject matter that interests them.

Dan S. said...

More to say later, maybe, but one thing:
The Dangerous Book for Boys does sound marvelous - see also flea's post on it - but there are girls who like that sort of thing, too, and boys that don't. When bob says how we should "give them subject matter that interests them", that's excellent advice. The one problem with ideas like 'boys like nonfiction and adventure/survival' and, say, 'girls like fiction and relationships/horses' is that to the extent it's true - and I'm not saying it often isn't - one shouldn't forget that at best this is an on-average thing, and that there will be exceptions.

And now I have an image of Reynolds beating a poor innocent book . . .

-Dan S.

Palladian said...

Well, the military sort of things didn't interest me (except things about Napoleon, who I loved reading about), but was a lot like the emailer Althouse quotes in the update; I voraciously read solely non-fiction books, the only exception being several afternoons reading "Henry and Ribsy" and the Ramona books. Mostly I read books about ancient Egypt, plants, animals, art history books, anything I could get my hands on. I had the advantage of spending a lot of time with my grandparents, who had hundreds of old books on shelves in the basement.

Anyway, as I said in a recent discussion here, non-fiction books of all kinds and poetry is what schools should concentrate upon.

Synova said...

The charter high school that my daughter will be starting this fall doesn't have a separate English class. They have one humanities mega class, History and Social with English worked into it. There are electives available where the students will read novels but in the humanities class it will be reading subject matter texts and writing papers.

George M. Spencer said...

To repeat a post I wrote for Dr. Helen's blog, the "Dangerous" book is a sop for worry-wart surburban parents.

Here's a sample of the contents (via Amazon):

Cloud Formations
The States of the U.S.
Mountains of the U.S.
The Declaration of Independence
Skimming Stones
Making a Periscope
The Ten Commandments
Common US Trees
Timeline of American History

Oooh, Dangerous!

It's just a Victorian rainy day activity book tarted up with a clever title. In short, it's a yet another marketing scam.

Finn Alexander Kristiansen said...

I agree wholeheartedly with the idea of using real subjects to encourage reading.

I remember the book fairs we had in elementary school, and the books my friends most often bought were little fact books about cars and planes. Also books on world records and such.

I also recall Soldier of Fortune popping up in our reading around 6th and 7th grade, when the lure of pocket knives, chinese stars, and African blow guns became irresistible.

Often enough, in schools and elsewhere, people are less concerned with getting children to read as they are in forwarding a social agenda by positing an "equality of interest" among boys and girls.

Maxine Weiss said...

Take a look at what made the Bestseller lists in the 1950s and 1960s, when the book-buying public was largely men.

Who is today's William Styron, Herman Wouk etc?

The problem with literary fiction is not the genre itself, but that it's made up entirely of general.

Now, take a look at today's bestseller list. Can you easily see which book are being bought by women, and which by men?

Everything is very stratified and polarized, nowadays.

Kathy said...

When we were first thinking of homeschooling, the educational philosophy we would follow was a big question. So many options! But when we found the curriculum we eventually decided to use, we (my husband and I) were immediately hooked. In the early years especially, education is centered around great books with rich ideas, not twaddly readers or textbooks. In some cases we use textbooks because they're the best available options, but many times there are other choices that convey the information and ideas with much more style. Interestingly, the curriculum is based on the philosophy of a late 19th century woman named Charlotte Mason who believed education was about forming relationships (with the material and the subjects of the material, not your classmates!) and feeding the child's mind with ideas.

Ambleside Online

jimbino said...

My girlfriend dutifully attends a book club. All the members are women, all the books are fiction, and none seem to be either read or loved by the majority of the participants.

I think women like fiction because you just won't find women in non-fiction, like in the list of the world's greatest non-fiction writers, philosophers, popes, scientists, mathematicians, homebuilders, discoverers, woodworkers, welders, etc.

In fiction, an importance can be attributed to a woman character that she would never have in a real-world, non-fiction life. Any fiction, if truly a mirror held to life, would have women characters who spent all their time worrying about their figures, playing with children and pets, and dutifully attending book clubs.

George M. Spencer said...


You ask who is today's Styron.

I don't know....but...

Here's a devastating manly novel that's also high art....

"The Road" by Cormac McCarthy

Stark and terrifying.

Ann Althouse said...

Book clubs! What a time sink. I used to do these things, out of a sheer love of conversation. But, oh, the choices, and the time spent keeping the commitment to read the damned thing. Then half the time, the conversation would be about how the book wasn't very good. You'd spent hours preparing, and in 15 minutes, we'd establish that the whole enterprise wasn't worth doing. Long ago, the group I was in picked a book that I considered so obviously not worth reading -- I tried to talk them out of it -- that I had to face the fact that it wasn't going to get better. The next time I was in a situation where a book club was proposed, I suggested that we do nonfiction books. No one wanted to.

Synova said...

"Any fiction, if truly a mirror held to life, would have women characters who spent all their time worrying about their figures, playing with children and pets, and dutifully attending book clubs."

Two words.... Chick Lit.

I disagree with the primary thesis that women read fiction because fiction contains powerful women and non-fiction does not.

The largest genre with the most sales is Romance, which, yes, has strong female characters but also is about sexy, desirable guys and sex all the way from sweet to erotic to porn.

In fact, the same sort of stuff guys like just words instead of pictures.

Other novels aren't so easily divided male/female, as just about anything men read, women read as well. Science Fiction or Mysteries or Suspense... with the exception of subsets of those that are essentially *romances*... it's pretty mixed.

Not everyone cares for novels though. I do, very much. But my brother and one of my sisters don't read novels and never have.

Same home environment, same teachers, same just about everything, and I read genre compulsively and they do not.

The idea that *all* students should somehow want to read novels and should be made to want to read novels is just... weird.

Of my oldest two children, my son will read novels rapidly, back-to-back. My daughter begs for the next issue of Scientific American Mind.

Joe said...

The biggest problem when discussing getting people into reading is that it is often, if not always, carried on by people who like to read. New flash; most people don't.

I grew up an avid reader in a reading household. Every week we probably checked over three dozen books out of the library. Until about ten years ago, I had at least four or five books out at any given moment.

Now, I've lost interest in reading. The problem is that most books are complete crap. We're not talking just bad writing, but bad story telling.

Now I have two daughters who read, though not as much as I once did, and a sixteen year old boy that hasn't finished a book in ten years. He hates almost all reading. The last book report he did, he just skimmed the book and wrote a bunch of crap and got a passing grade. The irony is he read the manual for World of Warcraft from cover-to-cover. Every word. In terms of being functional in society, the latter is obviously better so why can't he do a book report on that?

The answer is simple--intellectual elitism. I had one English teacher that fully understood this and one who partly understood it. The would pick books that would appeal to the non-readers. She got kids who had never read a full book to read! It didn't matter if most avid readers would turn their nose down at the stuff--THEY READ! (The second English teacher would explain all the vulgar parts of Shakespeare, though she still skipped some--the entire soliloquy in Twelfth Night about oral sex, for example.)

TMink said...

In my reading life I have gone from extreme to extreme. In graduate school I only read about psychology for 3 or so years. Well, only hardcover books, I still read magazines on varying subjects.

I loved Colby books as a young boy, Arsenal of Democracy and such! I read all the cyberpunk I can find. Just finished Cannery Row, I think I am do for some non-fiction. Maybe a music bio.

Balance is good, even if it is achieved through alternating jags.


WING said...

I don't misunderstand your stance; but I still disagree very much.

You say, "I'm saying that it can be held for after hours pleasure reading. Frankly, I think this would increase the love of fiction."

That's great and all, and would make sense in a different context, like say, the 1970's.

But we're living in a different time. TV, video games, and internet all compete for attention in today's world to the point that the future of books is looking bad; and if fiction wasn't even taught in school, children would doubtfully reach for fiction on their own at home, when they could just watch TV and play a video game. Many young kids up to teenagers today never ever bother to read much. "Reading is boring," they say; or, when it comes specifically to fiction, they'll ask, "Is there a movie version?" and if there isn't, they're not interested. Your idea may sound great on paper, but I think it's highly unrealistic to assume that children these days would have an "aura of excitement" to read fiction outside of school, an excitement that would somehow magically exceed their excitement for playing video games. You really have to observe kids a little more closely today; they spend so much time before these mediums that fiction is too slow-paced for them. I tutor high school kids for English, and I can't tell you how many times I've been told that "books are boring" and "I'd rather watch youtube" or play a video game. Sure, some would be interested in fiction, but that would probably be the kids whose parents endorse it; however, this is a dying breed, and with your suggestion, will die out even quicker.

"So what?" you may ask. "Let them choose what they want to do for pleasure. Why should they have to read fiction if they never want to anyway?"

Good point. But I'll tell you why; because it is one of the few mediums remaining that force the reader to take an active and imaginative role in thinking. TV, games, internet, require little creativity or right-brained thinking. The mind is passive here (even with much on the internet).

I believe that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to pleasure reading. You say it has little to do with success, and you may be right to a degree; however, you might be overlooking the power that stories have on human development, especially that which enables creative and open-minded thinking necessary to think forward and actively and thereby reach success. It may seem like a longshot to you, but I would not underestimate the importance of fiction in the growth of the human mind, and in giving children the tools they need to think adaptively and creatively, which are as important skills as being able to think logically and mathematically.

Your idea feels eerily utilitarian. I understand that your point and intent is not to kill fiction; I understand that you believe fiction ought to be savored all the more, and as you believe this would be the case if left for pleasure reading. However, like I said, this ignores the fact that kids of the future do not have the attention span and interest to invest in literature.

WING said...

It might be worth adding that literature has brought sometimes more insight to humanity than psychology or philosophy; fiction often explores an aspect of humanity, and the sciences only much later seek to analyze and break it down. There's nothing wrong with that, but I think it's important to stress that fiction is more than pleasure; it teaches us something unique about our lives and our human nature that we can never learn from TV, internet, or most nonfiction books. We can read all about how the mind works, but nothing compares with the insight a novel gives us, and the way a good work of literature compels us to think differently.

Dan S. said...
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Dan S. said...
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Dan S. said...

I hope people will read tomemos' response, Aristotle was not Belgian, which is quite good, as are jonathan's remarks above.

Additionally, I urge Maxime to visit her local bookstore or library to double-check whether literary fiction is made up "entirely of women" ("in general" - in other words, I guess, that modern literary fiction is written overwhelmingly by women). This reminds me of cases where the mere presence of women participating in classroom discussion in roughly equal numbers is seen as near-total female dominance . . .

And jimbino, I must say, you're pretty good at this here fiction-writing thing yourself, judging by your comment. Or rather, I should say, you're top-notch at making things up.

Synova said...

The problem, Jonathan, is that forcing kids to read fiction by giving them an assignment doesn't solve the problem.

Now they won't just think that books are boring, they'll *know* it.

Then, worse yet, teachers tend to assign books that are "good for you" or important in some way because they know kids will never read them on their own and... well... that sort of works to make *sure* they will never read them on their own. School work is to be avoided. I can't imagine a single child has learned to love the classics by being force-fed them in school.

Synova said...

I say this as someone who reads... a lot. I got in trouble in school for having a paperback open behind my text book... I'd start one book on the bus on the way to school and finish a second book on the bus on the way home.

I resented every reading assignment I ever got. An assignment was like saying, "We know you'll hate this and would never read it if we didn't force you to, so we're forcing you." The after effects are so bad that I can't even make myself buy books for the kids that are approved by or endorsed by teachers or someone else giving it a "good book" award.

And I'm still mad about being forced to endure Truman Capote and all the sick, unpleasant, feelings that his work evoked when what I *wanted* to do was a report on Edgar Rice Burroughs.

These psychic wounds just don't go away. ;-)

More seriously... if someone doesn't want to read fiction, forcing them to read it will only strengthen their resolve to hate it.

tomemos said...

Dan, thanks very much for the link and the compliment!

Synova (and Ann), you use the rhetoric of coercion a lot to describe the way schools teach fiction reading to children: "forcing," "force-feeding." This seems misleading to me, for two reasons.

First, fiction reading is no more "forced" than everything else that takes place in a school, including history and science (and, for that matter, juice and nap time). Kids are required to be in school, and they're required to learn from a curriculum. That doesn't make it the Bataan Death March.

Second, if you're going to claim that children generally react to assigned fictional stories with revulsion and a dislike of reading… well, I'm sorry, but that just isn't true. You've already heard from a number of teachers commenting here saying that fiction is the best way to get kids interested in reading and thinking; that was certainly my experience. And it makes no sense to believe that kids will respond to assigned history or science books with fascinated wonder, but will groan and turn away when you hand them Roald Dahl.

tomemos said...

Synova, just read your second comment. All I can say is that the extreme resentment you felt as a child was not typical, and isn't justification for turning our entire educational system inside out, as Ann is proposing. You can find kids who will resent being assigned anything—for me it was art, for my sister it was math—and you can certainly find kids who will resent being assigned everything. If a negative reaction from some kids is grounds for eliminating an area of study, we should just go ahead and close the schools right now.

Jenny D. said...

The previous post on this was mostly about school reading, and I want to go back to it.

First, there is lots of good fiction for boys now, stories with an adventure or history slant. Gary Paulsen has written many of these.

Second, reading researchers have noted that elementary school teachers do not often use nonfiction in reading classes and have shown that they should.

Kurt said...

The other day I found myself in a conversation with a fellow who teaches English in middle school. I got to thinking about the assigned books we read in middle school English back in the late 1970s and how dreary and boring they seemed to me ("young adult" novels like The Light in the Forest and No Promises in the Wind), and how much I didn't want to have to read or write about them. Had you told me at that age that I would have ended up going to graduate school to study literature, I would have thought you were crazy. What changed, of course, was that in high school, I read much more quality literature, and that sparked my interest in the subject. It does seem quite a waste of time to try to get students interested in reading by assigning them novels geared towards young adults which are neither great literature nor particularly educational. More nonfiction reading might just have the benefits suggested in this post (and the previous one).

Synova said...

—for me it was art, for my sister it was math—

Then, tomemos, I suppose the question is... are you now an artist and your sister a mathematician?

Synova said...

What is the educational purpose of fiction reading? Of the novel?

I *did* require and do require my children to read novels of their own choice because the structure of a novel length story is unique. The brain needs a different shape to it than for non-fiction which doesn't have anything like the same arc structure to the narrative. For that the worth of the story itself is irrelevant.

Reading fluency is, of course, important for any student or anyone at all.

So my son reads my SF and fantasy novels while my daughter reads Jung or science magazines. If the purpose is to help young people learn to think, both things are valuable. People are different, they think differently and process differently.

The idea that young people ought to be compelled to love fiction is recent... and odd.

WING said...
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WING said...

All of school is "forcing" students to do things they don't want to. If we're afraid that kids won't enjoy things, why make them to go to school to begin with? Why not just let them hang out all day and watch TV or play on myspace?

Kids are forced to do science and math classes as well; how does this explain the fact that there are far more students pursuing math and science-related degrees in college? They must love it, right?

In this light, fiction books are like vegetables. Kids may not like them, but adults make them eat this stuff anyway--because they know it's for their own good in the long run. We could just opt to not make kids eat healthy things with the hope that not "forcing" will induce a natural love and urge... but let's be realistic. We'll just have more kids with cavities and obesity problems. They won't bother.

Perhaps the analogy is a bit extreme, but my point is, whether fiction seems forced or not, it is no less forced than any other content and school, and with that, it is no less important. It's just one of those things that is healthy for them in the long run; and fiction fosters inward thinking and self-examination like no other subject. Many subjects teach us about the world, but fiction helps us touch and taste the world in a way that expands the mind and furthers our compassion and understanding of those different from us.

Synova said...

I homeschool.

Synova said...

I disagree with the exclusivity of fiction as a vehicle for creativity.

I suppose locked up children have few other avenues, but it would seem that dialog (typical of the dreaded internet) does more for the creative formation of ideas and the incorporation of those ideas into a larger framework. Non-fiction only has meaning, not in remembering dates and facts (though that has value as well), but in examining relationships of those facts to people and the world.

Reading for acquisition of relevant information involves creativity and I don't know how a person can say that fiction, which does examine the human condition, is unique since non-fiction *must* examine the human condition as well.

Ideally non-fiction, beyond basic exposure, is also student motivated and relevant. That so very much of it is not may be why I'm being told, here, that non-fiction doesn't do the things that I know that it does.

WING said...

"What is the educational purpose of fiction reading? Of the novel?"

- You learn how to think and analyze critically (and I don't mean in a scientific sense).

- It fosters the ability to think on a deeper conceptual level.

- It teaches how to write well and communicate well (sure, nonfiction can do this, but a textbook doesn't really give students a knowledge of language style).

- It inspires invention and creative thinking; I believe there is much educational value in this.

- It makes sense of the world. Nonfiction explains what and how; only fiction really discusses why. It helps a child better understand the way things work in the world.

- Symbolism and metaphor teaches children to search deeper, think more methodically.

- It teaches us about human nature. When we talk about educational value, we tend to stress facts and figures, things that we can test. But isn't there as much an educational value in the growth of human character?

- It enlarges our view of the world, and opens our minds to other ideas and cultures.

- Novels (especially before the last twenty years) have always been culturally important in monumental ways. We learn as much (if not more) about history or a culture by reading its novels as we would reading about it in a nonfiction, fact-based textbook. Novels have changed entire societies, spawned movements, incited revolutions. Just look at what Upton Sinclair's The Jungle did for workers, and Harriet Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin did for slaves.

- As with above, everything from Greek myths to the plays of Shakespeare to Milton's Paradise Lost have had profound impact on philosophies, languages, cultures, ideologies, theologies, and worldviews; to ignore literature is to ignore the power it has had in shaping the world as we know it. Some have called this the "power of the pen," and while this may seem irrelevant in today's world, we cannot forget that fiction writers have had as strong an impact on the shape of the world as have politicians, kings, scientists. Nonfiction and fiction must go hand-in-hand in order to gain a fuller understanding of the world; there is no educational value of nonfiction without its counterpart.

At the same rate, we could ask "What is the educational value of learning algebra or chemistry?" I mean come on, how often do we use those things? We still do write and communicate and think critically on a daily basis, all of which fiction has probably helped in even some small way in our mental development. However, I am not questioning the educational value of math; I am merely pointing out that fiction is no less educational.

WING said...

You're right, non-fiction does examine human condition, but fiction explains and reveals it. It's really hard to explain. But it's the difference between showing and telling. To use something simple, we can talk about greed all day long, or we can show a character who wants everything for himself. Nonfiction may discuss aspects about humanity (and I would agree in very insightful ways!), but it is important to couple it with fiction, as fiction exemplifies such things and students are, though not always, inspired or motivated to think inwardly. Of course nonfiction can do this to--but there is something about the way fiction explores these things that nothing can come close to. I mean, concerning the human condition, one like Shakespeare has so much more to say than any textbook or psychology study I have seen.

Synova said...

It's not that hard to explain, or perhaps not to me because I *write* fiction. (Not literature, but that's because I'm a snob.) I might quibble that most of what is... necessary to fiction is transparent to the reader. But the conversation is a collaborative one, certainly. The author brings part of the narration and the reader brings part of the narration. The author brings symbols, the reader brings meaning.

I'm not disputing the value of fiction but the value of fiction for a resistant audience.

This fall my daughter is going to go to school (for the first time) and as I understand it English is incorporated into a Humanities block. As I understand it, History, Social, Civics, etc., will involve writing papers and reading, including at least some fiction.

This seems an excellent approach to me (and a popular one among homeschoolers) where reading and writing skills, non-fiction, fiction and research all ties in to something like the civil rights movement or World War 2. (The homeschoolers would just figure out how to stick math in there for icing on the cake.)

There might not be the range of literature that would be typical of an English or American lit class, but there will be novels that explore the subjects being taught.

There are electives, according to the catalog, that are more literature or philosophy focused for those students that want them.

We'll see how it goes.

mythusmage said...

Most books are crap. Most books are written to be important or to teach important lessons. Either that, or they're written to impart as little information in as many words as possible.

I've run across writers who think they're entitled to an audience, because they're writers. You so much as hint that they'd do a lot better if they wrote for an audience, they have all sorts of tizzies.

Folks, you can't engage the reader, you don't deserve any.

Write well. Write coherently. Write in a way that tells your reader you care about the subject, and show him why. Write with the knowledge that you are in competition with other forms of entertainment, and other writers, and that engagement and entertainment are good things and not sins against God and your university literature professor.

Elizabeth Bear's Blood and Iron says more about human nature, and the nature of the fantastic, than most any text on Celtic legend I've run across.

As to requiring the reading of certain works. Don't forget to follow up. Check to see that the children are reading the assigned book, and let them know that you would appreciate them doing so. Don't tell them that they have to read it, tell them you would appreciate them reading it. Kids like to please people in authority over them, take advantage of that.

Sometimes you have to make kids do things they don't want to do. When they do as you require a simple "thank you" isn't going to hurt you.

WING said...

"I'm not disputing the value of fiction but the value of fiction for a resistant audience."

I understand, but you asked what is the educational value of fiction. But to a resistant audience? It's just the same with every other subject. Again, we might as well ask the same: what is the value of math or science to a resistant audience? What is the value of teaching anything to a resistant audience? To reuse the analogy, what is the value of vegetables and vitamins to a resistant audience?

I hated math in school. I was very resistant to learning fractions and equations. But hey, I'm probably the better for it. Should they have just thrown out math as valueless because I was resistant?

I had a friend whose six year old son once told me he wanted to run away (his parents weren't around at the moment). "Why?" I asked. "Because they make me do stuff I don't want to," he said. As it turns out, they make him eat vegetables, go to bed early, read, and take baths. Normal stuff. Well, what is the value of any of this to a resistant audience, right? The point is, kids are going to be resistant to things. They want candy and TV. But there is value to things that stimulate their mind even when they don't want it--it's best for them in the long run. I believe fiction qualifies.

I believe that if anything, one of the most important educational values that you receive from studying fiction is the ability to think critically and analyze implied meaning. History classes give you the facts, and sometimes discuss the human nature behind it, sure. But fiction is about learning how to look deep, to argue and communicate well, to think critically. Nonfiction offers this as well to a degree, but when studying fiction (especially in high school) it is all the students really engage in... that's the bottom line of what they're learning. And there's plenty value in that.

Ann Althouse said...

I keep seeing this theory that reading literature is the best way to learn critical thinking. Any real evidence of this? I've never noticed that novel fans are the ones who do the most critical thinking. They way they talk about their love of fiction reading, it seems to be mostly about the emotional high, the pleasure. That's great, but not everyone gets a big emotional rush from literature, and those who do have the motivation to do it on their own time. If the goal is to teach critical thinking, I would recommend reading nonfiction.

Synova said...

I've noticed that the people most vigorously promoting the value of reading fiction don't seem to like reading non-fiction very much. Straight facts are dry and... boring.

But for some people it's the other way around. Fiction doesn't relate while learning about something real holds their interest.

Even when it comes to fiction, come people like character stories and some prefer different sorts, lord knows I've spent a lot of time lately skimming over endless description of naval warfare tactics to get to the people part of the book that I like but I know that those long technical bits are there precisely because those long technical bits are what make that author a best seller.

tomemos said...

"I keep seeing this theory that reading literature is the best way to learn critical thinking. Any real evidence of this?"

Well, sure. Look at the debate over Huckleberry Finn. Twain never says, "Oh, by the way, slavery is wrong," and neither does Huck--in fact, he writes about how moral it is. People with no critical reading skills think, "Aha, Twain is for slavery, and this is a racist book." It's by studying fiction and understanding character and irony that we understand the difference between literal meaning and implied meaning. This critical reading extends beyond the fictional realm, and helps students understand how (say) the Healthy Forests Initiative is not necessarily about healthy forests.

(For the record, I don't say that fiction is "the best way to learn critical thinking"; it's the best way to learn a certain kind of critical thinking, but newspapers and nonfiction books are vital to understanding other kinds of it as well. Or, to put it another way, students will learn critical thinking best if they're required to try it from all angles.)

tomemos said...

I've noticed that the people most vigorously promoting the value of reading fiction don't seem to like reading non-fiction very much.

Synova, again, I have to take exception to your characterization of most people. I happen to find well-written non-fiction books and articles fascinating, as do most educated people I know. In fact, as an English grad student, non-fiction (in history, psychology) serves as pleasure reading, a break from all of that literature I have to read. A good thing, I think, that I was taught using both.

Kurt said...

Most people today don't know that in the nineteenth century, history was commonly regarded as a branch of literature. That's one reason why historians like Parkman were considered to be literary writers and why Thucydides is considered to be one of the great writers of classic literature. Well-written histories can be as entertaining to read as great works of fiction, so there's no reason to assume that they would give students any less room for imagination and they could develop the analytical and critical skills just as well--if not better--than the study of fiction could.

One of the problems with current educational theory is the insistence of teaching skills and devaluing content: as long as students are interested and entertained they'll be more likely to learn the skills, the theory goes. But young minds crave information as much as anything--and developing those through the reading of well-written non-fiction can serve the purpose of teaching skills as well as imparting useful information.

One of the problems is that for too many students "literature" has come to be regarded as only the study of fiction and not the study of written texts of value. Many college instructors have encountered freshman who refer to everything they're asked to read--including essays and treatises--as "stories" because they have no grasp of the range or nature of different genres. And this can continue into adulthood. When I was in graduate school, I once went to a party hosted by a former housemate of mine. When I told one of the women at the party I was working on a graduate degree in American literature, she asked what my interests were in that field. When I said I was especially interested in the work of Emerson, she responded, "I didn't realize he wrote literature. I thought he just wrote essays."

Kurt said...

Or to think of another instance: one of the great ironies of reading Plato's complaints about the poets is recognizing that for all his complaints about literature, Plato is writing great literature.

Kurt said...

But since you bring up Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, tomemos, you should also consider that, because of the controversy, that book is considered off-limits in most school districts today. Students are more likely to encounter it on their own than as an assigned text.

tomemos said...

Kurt: Well, that's a crying shame (re Huck Finn). We read it in my high school and they continue to read it today (as far as I know), teaching both the book and the controversy. The national lack of literacy with books like Huck Finn certainly doesn't seem like an argument for teaching less literature.

Incidentally, no one has said that non-fiction books aren't valuable, or aren't literature. I agre they are, and I'm open to the idea of increasing the use of non-fiction. Althouse isn't talking about the changing the balance between fiction and non-fiction in school; she's talking about switching to non-fiction exclusively.

WING said...

I love reading non-fiction. Most fiction readers I know do too. In fact, I find a lot more non-fiction readers who refuse to read fiction than the other way around.

As I said before, it's an important coupling... they go hand-in-hand.

If fiction were just for pleasure, they would save it for the reading clubs. Of course it teaches critical thinking; just as, say, algebra in its applied sense is relatively useless for most everyday tasks, its purpose is to mostly teach logical and mathematic skills. Most of what we learn in school is not about the content itself; it is about the skills we learn in using the content. We don't study fiction just for fun, we study it because there is an underlying educational value and skill to be had that, I feel, some of you are overlooking.

If it was just for pleasure, then yes, I would say it shouldn't be apart of required curriculum. But stories teach, and isn't that the purpose of schools?

I think that art is as relevant to understanding any culture as anything else. The most enriching history classes I have ever taken used a combination of nonfiction and fiction, and we observed paintings, sculptures, poetry, music, etc. To ignore these things is to ignore the big picture. Fiction, as much as it may seem a pleasureable side activity, has--as I said above--shaped ideologies and cultures; and in the study of nonfiction, such works must be taken into account. I could use the Bible as an analogy; while some may see it as mere religious reading, it holds a lot of insight and information to those who want to study about any Western culture, to see how it has shaped thought. My point isn't to say that the Bible is or isn't fiction (that's another argument right there), but that while something may seem to lack educational value, it may in fact be a key to understanding the bigger picture of this world.

So while kids can learn critical thinking elsewhere (I won't deny that), it is important to note that fiction is more than armchair entertainment. It is a necessary ingredient to the complete development of an aware human being and to the growth of a healthy mind.

WING said...

And might I note, that "novel fans" and pleasure readers are not necessarily employing critical thinking on their own just by reading a book, which is why it may not seem like they have any specific skill. It's because there is a difference between reading a novel and studying a novel. Schools attempt to teach the latter, because studying a novel requires certain critical and analytical skills that go beyond the surface. This is exactly why I say this is what fiction teaches, but I should have been more specific in saying that it is the applied study of fiction, not the works themselves. Again, much of the content we learn in school is irrelevant at the end of the day; it's about those skills.

WING said...

(And before anyone jumps the gun, I am not saying that I personally believe the content is irrelevant.)

Kurt said...

To answer your latest comment, tomemos, my point is related to the one Althouse is making, but somewhat different. I'm more concerned with the quality of the literature students are expected to read, and in my opinion, too much of it is of questionable value.

I don't think Althouse is necessarily saying that Shakespeare should be banished from High School curricula. I read her argument as being more about the kinds of texts that elementary and middle school students are asked to read. Maybe I'm just projecting my biases on her argument. But I would say that elementary and middle school kids would be better off reading good nonfiction than questionable young adult fiction--and that assigning fiction simply for the sake of assigning fiction--is not necessarily of great intrinsic value.

One of my favorite classes in high school was a combined English-History class called American Civilization. We read fiction in the class, indeed, but it was presented in the context of understanding the cultural history of the periods we were studying. Prior to that year, my interest in English classes had never been as high as my interest in other areas because so much seemed to hinge on whether or not I liked the books I was assigned to read. My point is that context as well as content is important.

WING said...

Kurt, your class is a great example of what I was getting at. There is no more satisfying learning experience than when both nonfiction and fiction are married.

Ann Althouse said...

tomemos:"'I keep seeing this theory that reading literature is the best way to learn critical thinking. Any real evidence of this?' Well, sure. Look at the debate over Huckleberry Finn. Twain never says, "Oh, by the way, slavery is wrong," and neither does Huck--in fact, he writes about how moral it is. People with no critical reading skills think, "Aha, Twain is for slavery, and this is a racist book." It's by studying fiction and understanding character and irony that we understand the difference between literal meaning and implied meaning. This critical reading extends beyond the fictional realm, and helps students understand how (say) the Healthy Forests Initiative is not necessarily about healthy forests."

Tomemos, I consider your answer nonresponsive. You're just saying here's a novel that could be used for teaching critical thinking skills. But you've been asked to show why novels are best. Now, you've come up with a theory why they might work well for teaching critical thinking, but you have no proof there. Have there been any scientific studies, where students are divided into two groups, taught with fiction and nonfiction, and then tested for critical thinking skills? You've just said that in a novel, some things are only implied and you have to figure things out, but you are not comparing your example to a counterexample. You're really only parading your preconception.

Moreover, much depends on the teaching, and I suspect many teachers do not empower students to find meaning in fiction stories, but choose books that teach the approved moral lesson and require the students to see it. This is one of the main reasons I think fiction is better read on your own time. It often challenges authority, and critical thinking of this kind is not encouraged among young children. We don't get a story of the rambunctious boy who is dosed with Ritalin and rebels and takes revenge, for example. We get stories, I suspect, of feisty girls who decide to pursue their socially acceptable dreams.

Synova said...

I think that is close to my objection to assigned reading. It's picked to be "good for you" one way or another and while a few fabulous teachers may allow students to be critical, the subtext to it all is "this is good, you should like it."

In correlation, whatever I *did* like was of no value. When I'd go to a teacher and say, "This is what I like, this is who I am interested in, this is what I want to do my report about," it was very clear that my judgment was not... correct.

The idea of reading a classic and writing a report trashing it was unthinkable. The fact that the teacher would probably have thought that wonderful makes no difference because as far as the students were concerned, the book was assigned because it was valuable and good. Our judgment was therefore irrelevant.

On a writer's forum I read one of the members (during a somewhat similar discussion - high school reading assignments) was persuaded to try *again* to read Wuthering Heights. I wish I could post her whole "book report" because it was fabulous.

"It's because the genetic fatalism makes me gag so much I can't focus on anything else. I read it as the author hammering into me over and over that life sucks and then you die and quite possibly death sucks too, and then all of a sudden she ups and says, "Okay, everything's hunky dory now."
"What's the point of that? What's the point of all these chapters and
chapters of unending inhumanity and suffering and thwarted hopes? --I
speak of my own feelings, having grown insensible to the characters'. "
"The one redeeming quality of the ending is that nearly everyone is dead. (The one redeeming quality of some of them still being alive is that there are no more pages and I'm not forced to read about them anymore.)"

If I'd felt free to be that snarky and honest about the "good for me" books, they might have even been fun.

tomemos said...

"Tomemos, I consider your answer nonresponsive. You're just saying here's a novel that could be used for teaching critical thinking skills. But you've been asked to show why novels are best."

Once again, reading comprehension rears its ugly head. Ann, right after the passage you quote, I say the following:

"For the record, I don't say that fiction is "the best way to learn critical thinking"; it's the best way to learn a certain kind of critical thinking, but newspapers and nonfiction books are vital to understanding other kinds of it as well."

So I'm sorry if I was cryptic, but no, I don't think that novels are best; I don't see why anything has to be "the best." I support continuing to use fiction as well as nonfiction to teach reading. You're the one talking about eliminating an aspect of reading education entirely; I'd say the burden of proof is on you.

A number of people have said that we should use more nonfiction than we do; I don't have an opinion on that, but I'm open to it. It's disingenuous to pretend not to see the difference between that position and your original position, which was, "leave fiction out."

tomemos said...


I don't think Althouse is necessarily saying that Shakespeare should be banished from High School curricula.

You're right; she was clear on that. She said that it could remain, in optional literature classes. So, no big deal there, right?

I read her argument as being more about the kinds of texts that elementary and middle school students are asked to read.

Right again: she said that they're asked to read any fiction at all, and they shouldn't be. Specifically, she said, "Leave the storybooks for pleasure reading outside of school." Is there something in there that leads you to interpret that as, "Don't make children read bad books"?

Ellen Kozisek said...

"Teach them about history, science, law, logic -- something academic and substantive -- and leave the fictional material for after hours." (from the previous post)

and "I'm not saying fiction isn't worth reading. I'm saying that it can be held for after hours pleasure reading."

BUT "Another thing I'm not saying is that we shouldn't have literature classes"

Seems like a contradiction to me.

Kurt said...

tomemos: Well, if you're going to be that literal about it, you might have at least read the sentence I wrote after the sentence you quoted: "I read her argument as being more about the kinds of texts that elementary and middle school students are asked to read. Maybe I'm just projecting my biases on her argument."

Part of what I was doing with my response was reflecting on what I regarded as the strongest elements of the proposal, which, you must admit, is a "modest proposal" in many respects, because no one expects it to have any chance of being enacted--except maybe in some charter school someplace (where such experimentation is the norm).

Does the proposal that students might learn more from reading more nonfiction than from reading fiction have merits? Absolutely, and I was reflecting on some of the reasons why I think that might be the case. Do I personally favor banishing all literature from schools? No, but I think that a proposal like this one represents an important step towards reconsidering the uses for which fiction is employed in schools.

tomemos said...

Kurt: Thanks, I did read that. I guess I'm telling you that, yes, you are projecting your biases on Althouse's argument, and then claiming that your biases are her argument. Do you think that's a productive thing to do?

"I think that a proposal like this one represents an important step towards reconsidering the uses for which fiction is employed in schools."

No, not at all. There's a reason "A Modest Proposal" was satire. Ann's proposal is a reductio ad absurdum of the position you're advocating, and as such it isn't doing you any favors. It can only reinforce people's suspicions that the motivation for reducing the amount of fiction in our schools is simple distrust of literature and culture. (To be clear, I don't think that's true of you--just Althouse.)

Synova said...

More likely a distrust of teachers and the gatekeepers of culture.

Hey said...

Given the intellectual capacity of nine tenths or more of my peers who have become teachers, as well as the questionable abilities of most of the teachers I had in exceptional schools, I'm dead set against having teachers be the gatekeepers of culture. They're not smart enough, imaginative enough, or empathetic enough to do this, since they come from a fairly small set of backgrounds but need to reach across gender differences, intellectual differences (outside of the 50-75% raneg that produces school teachers), and interest differences (public and middle school teachers focus on nurturng to the exclusion of interest in the wider world - they're not even literature teachers in HS, never mind Calculus, Physics, or Chem teachers).

I saw Ann coming down on "required" fiction reading. In literacy focuse classes, just get the kids to read ANYTHING and analyse it. The analytical work comes after. One of the problems is that assigned readings tend to be 50th percentile focused. Your higher end students are even more bored than normal, the boys are turned off by the insipid prose, and the lower quartile just has it sailing over their heads. you end up reaching 25% of the class with 75% doing a forced march and not getting any value out of it.

As a student I wasn't a problem, since I pinned the dials on all subjects and my rather bewildered mother was doing lots of home enrichment. I read LOTR in grade school, along with 3rd year ancient history texts. 5th Grade enrichment classes (few hours of removal every day or two to distract the 98-99th percentile kids which tended to be about 10-15% of my classes thanks to demo and special program issues) covered Flowers for Algernon as both a book and movie, Brave New World... Regular classes helped me understand how other people outside of the core understanding of the teacher felt - it didn't hurt me much that my teachers weren't doing much of anything for me, but it's horrible for people lower down the percentile chain.

English classes in HS should be literature & writing classes like mine were, where the basics have been covered in primary and middle school. 9th grade was a horrible experience as they had a huge merged class of all ability levels - what a difference from an enriched only class in 7&8.

This whole issue underlines the idiocy and futility of current public education. There is no one curricula that works, and trying to pursue one for political/ideological purposes hurts huge majorities of the population. You need lots of different approaches between and within schools, geared to ability levels that are split up into several separate classes. An equalitarian focus on getting everyone to the same level by the same path is evil on so many levels. We need to establish a minimum level but shouldn't be holding back higher performers nor forcing one path. Teaching to the test sucks, but at least it gets teachers and schools into an achievement mindset, throwing lots of approaches at students rather than just one method and expecting everyone to appreciate it.

Yet one more reason why all my children will be going to private schools. Better teachers with better motivations, rather than horrible intellectual orthodoxies (my cohort suffered "whole language" where we weren't taught spelling or grammar and many friends still haven't recovered... only saving grace was French Immersion where we got all the grammar you could handle, latinate languages absolutely requiring a solid focus on grammar and spelling to get anywhere, hence the popularity of conjugation dictionaries that are entirely unknown in English).