Actually, it only makes lasting sense to require reading of ourselves.
Of course, secondary schools and institutions of higher learning do require off-term reading when it suits their purposes and they find value in it. Students, enrolled in these institutions or such programs as honors, independent study, or advanced placement would know in advance and willingly embrace the requirements to read. The question is whether all learning institutions ought to require collateral reading. Practically, not all can; a reading requirement will not fit all purposes. But I will say, schools of any sort should expect their students to be readers and therefore encourage them in the reading life.
At basis, reading is a desirable skill, but that skill is varied. How we employ reading depends upon what we mean by it. Reading Wikipedia articles is one thing; reading War and Peace another. Reading, we should realize, is developmental; that is, we improve our reading ability and range of reading skills by reading. Yet, we leave to each individual learner to pursue the skills they identify as needed to succeed in life and those that they most cherish as enjoyable, enlightening, and meaningful to their psyches. From a humanistic point of view, reading energizes and furnishes the whole person and to read at the widest range is the ultimate practice of the learning life.
Success in reading may be defined as not only the ability to decode text, but the habit of using reading to continue reaching out to knowledge and experience through reading. As with my parents, one read mostly novels, about two a week most of her 90-year reading life, the other read primarily newspapers and magazines, but daily. Both were “well read” in their own terms, the book reader less outreaching than the reader of periodicals.
Someone once said, if you want to be a reader, chose grandparents that are readers. Many of us can credit the reading of family members to our own enjoyment and habits of reading. In my own study of hundreds of biographies to discover successful readers, I found the family example can help but does not even have the same influence on all brothers and sisters. Highly successful readers like the innovative travel writer Bruce Chatwin or the photographer Diane Arbus and poet Howard Nemerov, sister and brother, all became successful in spite of their parental examples. Reading often seems a highly personal phenomenon, one likely more suited to certain psyches and lifestyle preferences than to sheer ability.
For the successful reader in ability and habit, the ideal learning environment would be a broadly-stocked library with a few tutorial asides. Teachers, well-read themselves, would question, challenge, mentor and suggest connections to the readers they tutored. Readers would gather with one another under a tutor’s facilitation to probe questions and exchange thinking based upon the reading they had made their own.
Why is it then that though not all schools and colleges require collateral reading when almost all require attendance at lectures? Universities began in the days when books were expensive and rare. With the invention of movable type and commercial printing, the cost of books and other texts has fallen. Why then has the lecture system proliferated? Does the expansive lecture tradition mean that reading as the flexible and individualized vehicle to learning is for those few willing to do the work of reading? Reading is, after all, work.
Reading takes time. Since we all have the same 24 hours a day, reading time means scheduled time. The problem is not that we are busy; we can all be busy and most are. The question becomes busy at what. We choose to read by scheduling time to read which means giving up something else, often something distracting from the necessities of self-development and learning. For this reason, most readers will read by choice, not by requirement, and the poverty of contemporary life is not the inability to read but the refusal to follow through on the ability one has.
So read. Besides, you might as well be discriminating. Over 60 million books have been published since the invention of movable type.
© 2008, 2009 by Roger Sween.
This piece first appeared on Helium.com in answer to the question, “Should Colleges Require Outside Reading of their Students?” I have broadened the response in this revision.
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