Why is reading a required school activity and just what are classics anyway?

My son is going into the seventh grade and, as a parting gift from the sixth grade, he and his classmates were given an assignment over the summer to complete for the new semester:  read.  They were given a journal to record what, when and how much they read.  There are also activities they need to complete as well as at least one assigned book:  The Wind and the Willows.   He’s an incredibly fast reader, so when he said he still needed to read the assigned book, I was not too concerned since I knew he could read it pretty quick.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have the book.

So, over the weekend, I took him to Barnes and Noble and we bought the book.  Not remembering much about this exercise in boredom, we had to ask where this ‘classic’ might be found.  Well, without hesitation, the guy at Barnes and Noble took us right to a table that had lots of titles.  And a sign.  The sign says ‘Assigned Reading Books’.  My son asks ‘why do have to read THESE anyway?’  I had to put on my "DAD” hat and think.  Problem was, I didn’t have a good answer.  ‘Because that’s what they want you to read’ was the best I could do.  See, I think it’s rather counter productive to assign books, especially THESE.  They were the ‘classics’, I suppose.  But, it made me wonder.  And here’s where teachers and some parents will no doubt, disagree with me.

Once upon a time, not too long ago, getting a child to pick up a book and read was regarded as a good thing and a necessary thing for them to do, second only to playing outside.  Now, the merits of the latter can be debated, especially if one lives in a city, but the former really should not even be an issue.  As long as children CAN read, it is not necessary for them TO read novels.  The idea behind having them read a novel is to exercise the mind.   Sharpen the imagination, that sort of thing.  Well, today, there’s just too many alternatives to reading a novel.  Today’s kids are not stupid.  Some may be more informed than others, but they are not stupid.  Even the ones who have no clue as to who the president is or where Canada lives on a map can still read.  Illiteracy, while still a concern, is not what it was a hundred years ago.  And, contrary to what some would have you think, American children are not mindless drones that are glued to the television 24 hours a day. 

I would put out there this little nugget:  things that many of the older generation would say is a waste of time is what makes these kids smart and, dare I say, more social.  Things like text messaging, social interaction via the web, online gaming and internet connected devices.  Even reading a book does not have to involve paper and binding.  Children today have so many different ways to charge the brain-without drugs, I know what some may think-that people of my generation or older never had.

And, lets face it.  Some of those ‘classics’ really are much of the same mindless drivel that people just love to criticize on television.  Books like ‘The Wind and the Willows’ is nothing more than a cartoon in book form.  There’s a ton of drivel out there in book form, but, because they are books, they are fine.  Put them on a screen, with people acting them out and, suddenly, that’s bad.  What’s the difference?  Yeah, when you read, you can imagine them anyway you want.  And that’s true.  However, the words-the meaning-are the same. I once worked with a school teacher at a video store.  The store began to carry a small but nice little collection of audio books.  This woman had a real problem with them.  She said they were not real books and we should not be promoting them.  I asked why she thought that.  She says ‘well,  someone is reading them to you.’  ‘Yeah, so?’ I replied.  Her hypothesis was that you were not getting the ‘benefit’ of reading.  What?  Whether you read it or have it read or acted out in an audio book still results in you ‘imagining’ the story.  Same thing. 

Now, I’m not saying reading is wrong.  I love to read.  I have a Kindle and use it everyday.  And I’m not saying that children should not read.  My son loves to read.  I know lots of kids who love to read.  That’s not the point.  I’m just not sure it needs to be REQUIRED, especially during a child’s downtime, time away from school.  That time is meant, among other things, to do the other activity that people seem to think is wholly necessary: playing outside.  That’s another thing I have an issue with these days, but that’s also a topic for another time.

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