Is Critical Reading Doomed?

As an educator and passionate reader, one of the most disheartening conversations I have with high school students is when I ask them what book they have read over the summer. Invariably, they stare at me with a blank expression on their face, not sure if I am joking or if I am just embarrassingly out of touch with culture.

Of course, when I ask my colleagues the same question, many of them sort of sheepishly change the conversation towards sports or joke about not liking to read in the summer since they have to read so much during the year.

I see too, what often passes for “reading” during the school year- excerpts of novels, a hodge podge of short stories, dull textbook entries merely skimmed to find the vocabulary words in bold print to copy the definition on a worksheet.

Sigh.

Sadly, my observations are not a mere outlier or blip in the cultural milieu.

The work of researcher Jean Twenge, shows that teens are spending far less time reading than at any other time in history. This summary from the American Psychological Association website reveals,” in recent years, less than 20 percent of U.S. teens report reading a book, magazine or newspaper daily for pleasure, while more than 80 percent say they use social media every day.”

How much time are they spending in the digital universe (not reading)? According to Twenge, high schoolers are spending about 6 hours a day in the digital universe.

Of course, the decision to not read books is not limited to adolescents, according to the Pew Research Center in 2019, “roughly a quarter of U.S. adults (27%) say they haven’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year, whether in print, electronic or audio form.”

Does it matter?

Well, a quote from one of my favorite writers, the great French historian and cultural critic says it far better than I ever could:

“No subject of study is more important than reading…all other intellectual powers depend on it.”
― Jacques Barzun

Reading is incredibly difficult work to be sure. Perhaps it is one of the most cognitively complex endeavors of the human mind; one that is poorly understood by even many educators.

How exactly, does one learn to read and read well?

Well, we don’t have all the answers to that, but we do know that background knowledge, vocabulary, relevance to curriculum, and fluency are important elements. These can all be developed, like all things, through practice.

Indeed, once a basic level of competence is developed-by most students in high school, reading more, reading slowly, and reading thoughtfully are likely to have a significant benefit.

That is one of the goals of this blog, to connect parents and educators to the important work being done by researchers and creators at the university level as a way to develop relevant background knowledge and vocabulary for their students, as well as to highlight the individuals, many young college students and professors who have committed themselves to solving the world’s problems through research.

Implicit in this exercise is that reading critically is the bedrock for all research endeavors.

Yet, even in these times where the vast majority of us have far more time than usual, I believe the visual digital culture is dominating. The video clips, the photos, the streaming services are all in ascendancy at the moment. Textual communication when done, is brief, effervescent and often sensationalistic.

I do not have data to prove it, but I am guessing that the digital services of most libraries are not currently running out of server capacity.

I understand the allure of the visual- it is ruthlessly efficient in its ability to convey an idea. Within seconds of seeing an image, a clip, a video, once emotions are aroused, passions aflamed and opinions formed and often calcified. It makes very few demands upon the viewer- the message conveyed, reacted to and click-onto the next; in the endless buffet of recommended or suggested content. To call it going down the “rabbit hole” is to insult Carroll and his verbal virtuosity and conceptual playfulness and illogical logic.

In Feed, the wonderfully prescient novel by MT Anderson, the world is populated by individuals with chips implanted in their bodies that allow them to have continual access to a “feed” of information; mostly advertisements. While this is the ultimate act of efficiency- being able to “look up” the answer to any question any time, it leaves the characters listless, bored and ignorant. They know nothing and seek superficial, fleeting moments of pleasure-the adrenaline rush of risky behavior, yet they are ultimately dissatisfied.

While I of course enjoy moments of watching old clips of the Replacements at First Avenue on youtube or the goats walking on brick walls in a village in the Cotswalds as much as the next person- I can’t say those experiences stick with me or provide a lasting benefit.

I have the benefit of living over half my life before the proliferation of the digital universe and so have the frame of reference of knowing the patience needed to wait for the paper to arrive on the front porch, or the reassuring tone of Walter Cronkite helping to make meaning of the important stories of the day, of re-reading Matt Christopher books and Marvel comics until I could get to the library or the new issues arrived at the comic shop.

I remember savoring books and phrases and words because they were scarce and in some ways sacred to me. I remember writing essays, not simply creating slideshows for explaining the main characters in Animal Farm as some students do today for their honors English classes- how much complexity can one have in “6 slides, with at least 3 bullet points per slide, for full credit?”

Perhaps that speaks to my temperament and disposition rather than a virtue or admirable quality, or perhaps I am at the point in my life when a natural re-assessment occurs and I am turing nostalgic?

Yet, if Barzun is willing to stake his claim on the essential importance of reading, who am I to argue?

Does any of this really matter, anyways?

Well, as I was re-reading Macbeth, surprised as always at the sheer violence and willful malevolence I reached the dreary sense that then as now ruthless ambition and relentless pursuit for power are the order of the day. Yet, I cannot explain the thrill I experienced of Shakespeare’s sublime writing such as Duncan saying, “My plenteous joys,/Wanton in fullness,/seek to hide themselves in drops of sorrow.”

At its best, reading is the reminder that we are citizens of both kingdoms-the joyful and the sorrowful, the powermad and the poet, and to critically read is to make a tentative effort to discern and decide, moment by moment, where ones allegiance lies.

Wishing that there is a magic pill that eliminates a virus, but knowing that science, like nature, like poetry, is a demanding judge whose fruits are borne through patience, failure, suffering, before the glorious redemption, is the ultimate test of a critical reader perhaps.

Stepping away from the shouting and sloganeering, the 24 hour barrage of experts spouting answers and plans, the videos and the twitterstorms, allows one to do something profound- to ask the question-is life a “tale told by an idiot/full of sound and fury,/signifying nothing?”

To a reader, of course, as long as there is one more word to read, the answer of course is a resounding no.

Witnessing the heroic and compassionate deeds of so many during this time of sorrow, through compelling images and inspiring stories, too, I think provides the greatest evidence for our dedication to critical reading- to know that we are not data points on a graph, or mortality percentages or stock prices-we are humans and our stories matter.

Each and every one.

Confronting our biases and lies, our distortions and naive opinions through a text that challenges us to go beyond the banner headline or the charismatic orator helps us develop intelligence, wisdom, and empathy.

Are these qualities in abundance in our current culture?

If the answer is no, then perhaps exploring an essay, a story, a poem, a book will be a torch in the dark shadows of these days, not seeking answers, but seeking ourselves.

Perhaps that is the great story of our time- that we saw the ring of power, named it for what it was, and then threw it in the fires of Mt.Doom. Isn’t that the one great story of all times?

Questions for Discussion

  1. Pre-reading- what questions do you have about the essay, based on the title?
  2. In the second paragraph, what does the author mean by “sheepishly.”
  3. What research does the author cite to support his arguments?
  4. What questions do you have about the research cited?
  5. What percent of teens are reading a book, an article or magazine on a daily basis?
  6. In describing the novel Feed, what does prescient mean?
  7. Why do you think the author use Shakespeare as an example in this essay?
  8. What are 3 elements of being a critical reader, according to the author?
  9. What are some of the benefits of critical reading, according to the author?
  10. What is the author’s tone in this essay?

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