This paper was an invited Andiron Lecture given at the University of Evansville on September 3, 1997
Misreading Reading, Reading Misreading: An Anatomy of Symptomatic Illiteracies in Education Today
Steven C. Scheer
1. The Ultra-Religious Right and the Sin of Reading
A couple of years ago in another lecture here at the University of Evansville I began a talk about the liberal arts by reciting the lines of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall." I did not sing the lines then and I shall not sing them now. After all, you are not here as a form of punishment. In any case, the lines go as follows:
We don't need no education,
We don't need no thought control,
No dark sarcasm in the classroom,
Teacher, leave them kids alone.
Teacher, leave them kids alone.
All in all, you're just another brick in the wall.
All in all, you're just another brick in the wall.
What I pointed out then, and what I shall point out again, is that what is being protested here is not so much education as indoctrination or, rather, indoctrination in the name of education. So much for what I had said then. What I would like to say now is that there is a sense in which thought both can and cannot be controlled by forces outside the self. There is, of course, such a thing as collective vs. individual thinking (of which more later), but when a person identifies with a collective, the identification in question may antedate the advent of rationality. Some of our thinking, in other words, may be influenced by a prior emotional commitment to certain ways of thinking. And such a prior commitment to certain always already established systems of thought can, of course, be an obstacle to learning. This, I take it, is what's behind Josh Billings's famous dictum according to which "[i]t is better to know nothing than to know what ain't so." What I usually tell all my students these days is that the enemy to critical thinking is habitual ways of thinking and that in order to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of conventional wisdom and/or received opinion, we must unthink our thinking lest our thinking become unthinking thinking. The trouble is that by the time we are students in college or high school or even long before that, it is always already too late and/or impossible to go back to the beginning in order to start all over again. Even if such a new start would be possible, there's no guarantee that it would not begin with what "ain't so," thus necessitating once more the unthinking of our thinking in order to keep our thinking from becoming unthinking thinking.
Now unthinking thinking is not non-thinking even though it is a form of thinking best characterized as non-thinking thinking. Let me cite an example. In Robert Frost's "Mending Wall" the speaker speaks of his neighbor as someone who "walks in darkness" because of his unwillingness "to go behind his father's saying." And this unthinking neighbor is, in fact, given the final say in the poem. He is so happy of having "thought" of the idea that all he can do is repeat it yet again: "Good fences make good neighbors." Earlier in the poem he has already been unwilling and thus unable to think about the reasoning behind the statement. He has made his emotional commitment and he is going to stick to it, no matter what. Our neighbor in Frost's poem is, in fact, an example of Lévi-Strauss's famous dictum, according to which it is at times not people who "think in myths," but "myths that operate in [people's] mind without their being aware of the fact" (The Raw and the Cooked, 12).
Clearly the purpose of an education is to lead us out of the many possible ways of unthinking or non-thinking thinking. Education should liberate us from the tyranny of conventional thinking and/or received opinion. Indoctrination, on the other hand, is literally the opposite of education. It would make our thinking unthinking or non-thinking thinking. It would lock us into a perpetual form of re-thinking what has always already been thought before, and it would imprison us in a system of thought that fears other forms of thought because all other forms of thought are a threat to its self-inflicted certitude and authoritarianism.
In the subtitle of this lecture I speak of "symptomatic illiteracies." I would now like to take on examples of this, first on the right and then on the left. Then I would like to offer some solutions. Let me begin with a piece of e-mail. On the morning of May 2, 1997 I wrote the following to a friend:
"I read something infuriating in this morning's paper. A high school in California has banned The Catcher in the Rye. This in itself is infuriating, but what really takes the cake here is the way this was done in this case and what this way reveals about education in America today. You see, the parent who initially attacked the book was actually prompted by her own child who said 'You better take a look at what they want us to read in school.' The parent then took a look and quickly found offensive language (although the Catcher doesn't go beyond 'damn'). Then she announced that the book shouldn't be required reading. She also said that she is not a censor. After all, this is America where people are allowed to like 'garbage.'
"Now that takes the cake. She thinks The Catcher in the Rye is garbage. One of the things truly wrong with education in America today is that absolutely clueless and stupidly narrow-minded idiots are allowed to interfere with it. In a land where otherwise perfectly normal-seeming people can think that a book like Catcher in the Rye is garbage, education has, of course, failed dismally. And what's behind this failure is a certain form of religiosity. Notice I am not blaming religion here, only a certain form of religiosity. This religiosity is also a form of stupidity that simply cannot see the difference between the proverbial baby and the bath water. In fact, these people can be so misguided (by their narrow and idiotic reading of the 'word' of God) and deluded that they are likely to throw the baby out and keep the bath water which then they'll probably declare to be holy water now that the baby is dead."
Well, remember this is e-mail written to a friend in anger, a bit of a fit of rage. I don't, of course, talk like this in a formal lecture, but I did want you to see me for a moment as I really am when my utterly dignified professorial mask is peeled off and I am my real and unabashedly sincere self. All kidding aside, I do find the religious right and its book-banning and book-burning activities rather infuriating. I do, in fact, see them as gross misreaders of every conceivable text, including their beloved Bible. I shall now turn to others for help, as it were, to explore a bit the way or ways in which the religious right symptomatically misreads texts of all sorts in the name of education which is clearly a form of would-be indoctrination.
First I shall cite some examples from Joan DelFattore's What Johnny Shouldn't Read: Textbook Censorship in America. DelFattore recognizes the thorny question of parents vs. public schools. She makes several important distinctions along these lines. The first reads as follows: "Parents may choose to live a particular lifestyle themselves and may recommend it to their children, but public schools cannot cooperate in teaching children that anyone who thinks or lives differently from their parents is wrong" (53). Yet these same parents may go to extreme lengths. For example: "Believing that alcohol is forbidden by the Bible [which it is not!], they wanted to prevent school buses from going near taverns, and they did not want their children on field trips to stop for pizza because pizzerias usually sell beer" (21).
If this strikes you as the height of absurdity, just wait. You ain't heard nothing yet. Here's another example:
Among non-Christian religions, the protesters included any faith that is not based exclusively on a literal interpretation of the Bible, even if members of that religion think that they are Christians. Catholics, for example, believe that the body of the Virgin Mary, after her death, was taken into heaven along with her soul. That idea comes not from the Bible, but from the teaching authority of the Catholic Church itself. As far as the [protesters] are concerned, belief in such doctrines means that Catholics are not Christians, no matter what the pope says. (54)
And if that's not quite narrow-minded for you, how's this? "At the Tower of Babel, the protesters asserted, God made different people speak different languages to protect American Christians from the vile ideas of foreign cultures. Humanistic attempts to circumvent God's will by improving international communication or, worse, by bringing about universal communication can only lead to disaster" (55). Now you would think that even fundamentalist Christians would approve of stories that teach children to be kind to animals. Not so, in their opinion such stories "could bring about the end of the world." Just how do they figure this? Rather simply, as you shall see:
The connection between kindness to animals and the end of the world was not, however, immediately obvious to the defense lawyers. When they pressed for an explanation, the protesters pointed out that animals are different from people. Urging kindness to animals is, therefore, yet another way of promoting tolerance for diversity, which could lead to religious tolerance. Without religious barriers, world unity could become a reality, producing the one-world government that would be the reign of the Antichrist and lead to the destruction of the world. And that, the protesters concluded, is how teaching children to be nice to animals could bring about the end of the world. (58)
It is clear that if these fundamentalist Christians had their way, education as we know it would simply disappear from the face of the earth. Only a very narrow brand of biblical interpretation fed by an extreme paranoia would be permitted. And all children would simply be indoctrinated in this particular form of what I cannot help but call a gross misreading of everything under the sun. Yet DelFattore is cognizant of the poignantly two-sided nature of this issue. At one point, for example, she states:
The whole question of parental rights is a knotty one. On the one hand, allowing children to be taught unthinking hatred and fear of everything that is different from themselves is not just irresponsible but downright dangerous in today's world. On the other hand, if the government starts telling parents which beliefs they can pass on to their children and which will be 'deprogrammed' by the state, where does that stop? (69)
I shall now turn to a few more examples from my second authority, James Moffett. His Storm in the Mountains: A Case Study of Censorship, Conflict, and Consciousness goes beyond DelFattore's What Johnny Shouldn't Read in that it explicitly addresses itself to the question of "reading comprehension." Moffett pinpoints a "characteristic tendency" in the objectors to classic, modern, or contemporary works of literature by noting that they actually "read into" the texts they read precisely those "ideas" that they "are prepared to defend against," so that the conflict is not necessarily a conflict between "differences in values," as between "differences in interpretations." It's almost as if they were hell-bent (no pun intended, I am sure) on "playing with texts as pretexts for inflaming themselves" (160). Moffett is also quick to point to an irony here: the objectors don't even want to consider the possibility that different texts may be read differently, for that would lead to relativism, to the idea that a text can mean anything you want to make it mean, which is precisely what the censors want to censor. Moffett is, however, quick to spell out for his readers another irony of ironies, namely, that
[o]bjectors to the books frequently misunderstood selections throughout the program where ironic meanings were involved or where created characters held the textual stage. What shows this is the attributing to the author - or even the compiler of the anthology! - of thoughts uttered by [the] characters. It's as if we were to ascribe to Shakespeare the sentiments uttered by all the dolts and rogues and murderers in his plays . . . So behind the objection of 'trash' . . . lay not only revulsion to the content of some selections but great discomfort with the technique that makes the reader judge for him[or her]self.
"To be irritated by irony," Moffett continues a little later on, "goes with an intolerance of ambiguity . . . [which] partly characterizes the highly restricted thinking that emerges as the hallmark of book banning" (161-162). Again, the irony of ironies is that one case involved T.S. Eliot's "Journey of the Magi." The objectors thought the "poem is saying that the birth of Christ made people want to die! [They] did not recognize the born-again aspect - spiritual rebirth after the death of 'the old dispensation' - because in their view the born-again Christian doesn't suffer afterwards: Christ redeems you by taking past sin and suffering on his own head, and you become light and free" (164). The born-again Christians who object to a poem which thematizes their own condition fail to see that there is more than one way of reading the condition in question. Here their obtuse misunderstanding of what the poem is saying is clearly ideological as well as an example of a kind of illiteracy. As Michael Holquist in "Corrupt Originals: The Paradox of Censorship" says, censors do not so much want to prohibit as they "wish to make a certain kind of text, one that can be read in only one way" (22). Thus, censors fear the literary text in that they see it as "a menace to certainty" (23).
Since I have broached Holquist's introductory essay to a special issue of PMLA (January, 1994) devoted to the subject of censorship, let me point to the example in his essay which gives rise to Holquist's main title. The case involves a sixteenth-century Augustinian monk, one Fray de León, who committed the crime of translating the "Song of Songs" into Spanish from the Hebrew original. The Inquisition charged him with using "'the corrupt original,' . . . as opposed to the authoritative Latin" (18). Again, an example of the absurd lengths to which censors are willing to go not to deviate from the status quo, from what they have always already predetermined as an absolutely non-falsifiable "truth." As you can see, it should go without saying, of course, that fundamentalist Christians aren't and/or haven't been the only censors in the world. Forms of censorship have existed in one way or another, for religious, moral, or political reasons, from time immemorial. They existed in ancient Greece and Rome, in medieval Christendom, in Islam, and in totalitarian forms of government of both the national and the international varieties.
And there have, of course, also been heroic attacks on censorship by such great thinkers as Plato in ancient Greece and Milton in seventeenth-century England. Of course, neither of these succeeded. Socrates was put to death and the English Parliament refused to revoke the Licensing Act of 1643 against which Milton's Areopagitica had argued so eloquently. And let us not forget the notorious Index librorum prohibitorum (or Index of Forbidden Books) of the Catholic Church (though this no loner exists, thank heaven), which did not prohibit the publication of certain books but which did exhort the faithful not to read them.
What is different about contemporary examples of censorship (book-banning or book-burning) in America is that they are grass-roots movements initiated for the most part by fundamentalist Christian parents who do not want their children to receive what passes for public education in the United States today. As I have already indicated with the help of Joan DelFattore and James Moffett, there is, on at least a certain level, a dilemma here, a possibly legitimate conflict between the authority of the state and the right of the people to exercise freedom of thought, even if that freedom of thought takes the form (as it does with fundamentalist Christians) of absolute illiberality. What we have here, of course, is a conflict between different types of authority - secular vs. the sacred or the sacred vs. the profane, if you will. Though most of us who consider ourselves reasonable human beings would hold the secular sacred and think of the sacred as in some sense totally profane (please excuse my mischievous play on these words here), I think we ought to take a quick look at what Moffett has to say about collective thinking towards the end of Storm in the Mountains.
In a chapter entitled "Group Rule" Moffett introduces the term "agnosis," a "not-wanting-to-know" (187), and indicates that this is a more or less universal phenomenon. The difference between fundamentalist Christians and the rest of us is a difference in degree rather than in kind. The difference can be crucial, though, in that the fundamentalists want to "hold on to their children" whereas the rest of us want to release them so that they may grow up to become their own persons, their own selves (206). Here's how Moffett formulates the fundamentalist version of group rule:
The connection between knowledge and group identity is critical. One does not acquire knowledge, one inherits it from the group. The individual does not learn on his or her own and know things others of the group do not. People know collectively and know the same things (a standardized curriculum). Not wanting to know means not wanting to know more than the inheritance, than fellow members know, than fits into the group knowledge. What is fit to know is known already. Anything else spells danger and disloyalty. This limitation places a premium on collective unity [and] uniformity. Individuals who know other things may act other ways and go other ways. They 'err' and 'sin.' They lose identity and endanger the continuance of the group. The purpose of all this is to ensure group survival within which to provide individual security. (207)
The censors do not want their children to know how other people live and think, because they do not want them to know about alternatives of any kind - other customs, other beliefs, other values, and other courses of action.
Nor about other interpretations. 'Situation ethics,' 'relativism,' pluralism, ambiguity, symbolism, and irony all violate agnosis-[they, therefore] suppress alternatives because [alternatives] present more than one point of view or possibility or message or meaning. It is in the nature of knowledge based on group . . . authority that it detests and resists alternatives, because alternatives permit individual decision making, whereas the whole point of limiting thought is to limit behavior. Dogmatism may be defined as admitting no alternatives; its goal is to enact and enforce conformity. (208)
The break between the would-be censors of the contemporary American scene and the rest of society in the modern or postmodern world is radical. I have no solution to this problem except the hope that those on the other side of the great divide see the light one day and undergo the necessary conversion to be . . . what? To be like the rest of us? To conform to our way of thinking? I know this sounds highly ironic but I shall nevertheless assent to the possibility. And I shall close this part of my argument with another quotation, not from a book that deals with education at all, but from one that deals with Error and Deception in Science, written by Jean Rostand, a French scientist and the son of the author of Cyrano de Bergerac. This passage should be the motto of every teacher worth his or her weight in gold: "Instead of holding ourselves up as examples to be imitated, instead of inflicting our own ignorance, errors and prejudices upon them, instead of thwarting and deceiving them at every turn, let us try to respect in our children what we ourselves may lack, for there, in any case, lies our only hope for the future" (148).
2. The Amorphous Left and the Sins of Misreading
So much for the right. It is now time to turn on the left. At this point some of you may try to second-guess me and assume that I am about to attack political correctness. That is not what I am about to do. I am going to aim at a much larger and a much more diffuse target. Bear with me as I unfold this issue for which I will offer some practical solutions. Let me begin then with a bit of a report about a test I have been giving most of my students for a couple of years now. No need to go into details except to say that I have given this same test to practically every class I have taught since the fall of 1995 at three different schools, here at the University of Evansville (in the Bachelor of Liberal Studies program) at USI (the University of Southern Indiana) and at Saint Meinrad College. The test is utterly simple. And it is a really real test, even though I have never even thought of grading it (except perhaps the very first time). If I had, everyone would, of course, have flunked it (with one single, solitary exception).
Without further ado now, here's the test: I pass out copies of Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess" to each member of each class, and I ask them to simply tell me what happens in the poem. Just the basic facts of the case. That's all. The result? Less than half the class (leave or take a few) ever sees the fact that the Duke has had his wife killed. And those who do notice this clearly think that he was justified in having her killed because she had cheated on him. The truth is that he was not justified in having her killed at all and he never even implies that she had cheated on him. The truth is that because of his overwhelming arrogance and inordinate pride he didn't like the fact that his wife was apparently friendly to people in general, that she seemed happy in the presence of others as well as in his own presence, that - in short - she loved life.
By the way, some of the interpretations I get in response to this test are so utterly incredible that if they didn't exist it would be impossible to invent them. I shall only mention one here. According one student, an adult male, the poem takes place on board a ship in a storm. That's it. That's all this particular student had seen in the whole poem. I can only speculate why. He kept reading and what he kept reading apparently made no sense to him whatsoever. At the very end, where the Duke mentions the statue of Neptune taming a sea-horse, the student suddenly saw something he could latch unto. Ergo, this is a poem about a ship in a storm at sea. This would be extremely funny (and it is) if it at the same time it wasn't so ridiculously sad. But what I find most disturbing is that in over several hundred responses by now only one student ever had the facts right. She was a freshman at USI who had the poem in question in high school.
What is also amazing is that once I collect the tests from the students and then proceed to read the poem out loud to them, stopping to paraphrase the action here and there as I go along, there is almost no controversy whatsoever about what the poem is about. The students can suddenly all see it clearly. Just about the only thing that happens is that those who have noticed that the Duke has had his wife killed, try to defend the misreading that she was cheating on him. For textual evidence they usually point to such lines as "She had / A heart - how shall I say? - too soon made glad, / Too easily impressed," but once seen in the context of the whole, the lines in question dissolve in the dissolving ego-investment of the students themselves, I am happy to report. I try to be gentle, too (of course), and point out to them that they gave the Duke the benefit of a doubt, an understandable error. But I also want to make sure that they do understand that they have overlooked his overwhelming arrogance and inordinate pride even though there is unmistakable and ample textual evidence for this in the poem.
What giving this test has specifically taught me now over and over again, what giving this test has confirmed for me, really (for from the beginning of my teaching career this was more or less clear to me all along), is that our students, let's face it, simply can't read worth a damn (pace fundamentalist Christians). The question is, who do we blame for this sorry state of affairs? Our students? It's clear that they have acquired some rather sloppy reading habits along the way, but who has inculcated these admittedly sloppy reading habits in them? Wasn't it their teachers? And aren't some of us their teachers? I am afraid that we are all in this together. At the risk of sounding overwhelmingly arrogant and inordinately proud myself, though, I am not going to take too much blame for this sorry state of affairs personally. Though it took me, too, a long, long time to see what has been going on for decades and decades now.
I blame, first of all, the wrong-headed use (or abuse) of the so-called Socratic method. Free-floating discussions in which students simply exchange opinions and the teacher leaves anything and everything at that may make the students feel good by creating the illusion that they are learning or that they have, in fact, learned something, but that may not be the case at all. Allow me to describe a typical scenario. Teacher: "Well, what did you think of such and such?" After a bit of silence a few hands go up. The Teacher then calls on Student 1 who offers an opinion. No matter how far aflield of the text's immediate concern(s) the opinion in question may be, it is usually praised and accepted as a valuable contribution to an overall statement of the text's meaning. Other students get into the act. Other opinions are offered. They may be pretty much pointless, but that seems to make no difference. They are all praised and honored and accepted. This sort of sloppy, I would almost like to call it anti-interpretation of the text may be all that happens in a given class. Some teachers may summarize the various views that have been offered and the discussion is considered completed. The students feel good. They feel good about themselves. They feel pretty smart, too. And they think very highly of the teacher who has just enabled them to shine with such brilliance.
But let's get more practical and talk about a concrete example. Suppose the students are discussing Wallace Stevens's "Anecdote of the Jar." Suppose a student offers the opinion that the poem is about littering. Suppose the teacher, happy that he/she got any response at all, praises this idea. Suppose a second student offers a different opinion. This particular student may want to make something of the fact that the poem "takes place" in Tennessee. Suppose this particular student suggests that Wallace Stevens may have been trying to make fun of the Tennessee Valley Authority. I, for one, would find such a suggestion amusing, but I would still maintain that there is no clue in the poem to make us give this particular idea too much validity. Let's finally suppose that the discussion ends somewhere between littering and making fun of the Tennessee Valley Authority, and that no one, not even the teacher, has ever said anything about the possibility that Wallace Stevens is talking about the fact that once a human artifact is placed somewhere, anywhere, in a wilderness it jars nature, that the poem is, in some sense, a playful commentary on the fact that all human culture is a subjugation of nature, and that this subjugation is not seen here as something catastrophic but as something inevitable, and that what partly indicates this is the playful way in which the jar itself, which is described by the poet as rather plain and ordinary, seems to take on vast attitudes of overwhelming arrogance and inordinate pride as it seems to reflect on its own power to thus jar nature.
Now what I have just described here is a very abstract form of a procedure that could take on innumerable variations. I am, in general, nevertheless accusatory with respect to procedures of this ilk (short of the final teacherly intervention I have just described) in that the general inability of our students not to read accurately impels me to deduce some such procedure as being a more or less regular feature of what happens, of what has happened in many a classroom throughout these United States for decades and decades now. And don't think I am simply attacking the Socratic method for when it is used well it can work wonders. "There is no method, except to be very intelligent" (T.S. Eliot). I must admit, though, that I have never had much use for this method myself. I didn't like it as an undergraduate and I have only used it minimally as a teacher. And I must also tell you that I think that lots of attacks these days on the so-called lecture method also strike me as wrong-headed if not downright inane. We hear a lot these days about a shift from teaching to learning. A shift from our awareness to what we are teaching to an awareness of what our students may actually be learning from us is a sound one, of course, but the lecture method per se is not the enemy here.
Those who like to attack the lecture method nevertheless keep telling us that our students, who clearly grew up on audio-visual media, have short attention spans, that we can no longer just talk to them. I will be the first to agree that the lecture method can be just as abusive as the Socratic method, that it can be lethally boring, and that the scene early on in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, for example, where the teacher's deadly dull droning on and on is putting the students to sleep is not the way to go. For one thing, the lecture method should never be used to simply convey information. It should be used to explore ideas, to present the intricacies of complex interpretations. In the classroom it shouldn't ever be a reading either (particularly a reading form yellowed notes - though "reading" is what "lecture" means literally), but always an example of the teacher thinking on his/her feet, hopefully with a great deal of passion and enthusiasm and preferably with lots of humor thrown in for good measure. Such a lecture is not boring. If certain students are nevertheless still bored, then we have to intervene. We have to teach them to listen. When I hear a good lecture my entire body is alert. I am just as engaged as when I am reading, for listening is to talking what reading is to writing.
I have also heard it said that students don't retain much from the lectures they hear. Granted, but this is true of all of us. Nevertheless, if we do learn to listen well, we will retain, at least in short-term memory, the gist of the good lectures we hear. Which is surely the first step towards putting the main points of any lecture into long-term memory. But storing anything in long-term memory presupposes that we have, in fact, understood what we have heard, which we couldn't possibly have done had we not listened to it with our utmost attention. Listening well is the same as reading well.
And this is what I want to emphasize here. I have, ultimately, no quarrel with any methods of teaching, Socratic or lecture or anything in between, for each and every one of them can be done well (or badly). What I do have a quarrel with is not making a conscious and conscientious effort to teach our students quite explicitly what good reading is all about. For the remainder of this lecture, then, I would like to outline, however briefly, what I myself have come to think of as a kind of minimum in this regard.
First of all, our students must come to understand that writing is a kind of reading and reading a kind of writing. They must come to understand that every text is produced by an actual writer who in the process of writing creates an implied writer (who exists in the text and in the text only), and that the implied writer more or less automatically invokes an implied reader and that it is the business of the actual reader to play the role of the implied reader just as the actual writer automatically plays the role of the implied writer. This complex interaction between two real persons and two imaginary and/or imagined personas is implicated in every act of writing and/or reading (and the possible variations and/or permutations of this complex interaction are, of course, endless).
Furthermore, our students must come to understand that there is a universal difference between what a text says and what a text means. In other words, you never get what a text means, you only get what it says. You have to figure out what it means on the basis of what it says. Another way of putting this would be to say that what a text says is not identical with what it talks about. And this is more or less true of all language use. A crude example would be a comparison between the following two expressions: "they kicked him upstairs," "they put him out to pasture." Very different things are being said here, but more or less the same thing is meant, more or less the same thing is being talked about in each case. What this adds up to is the recognition that the act of reading is an act of construal. The reader must construe the meaning of a text on the grounds of what the text says (though texts don't actually talk, you know).
What our students must come to further understand is that neither writers nor readers operate in a vacuum. Each comes with all kinds of ideological baggage that has a bearing on the text being produced or consumed (I don't particularly like this production/consumption metaphor, but it will have to do). So that there is a sense in which writers are themselves texts produced by the social texts of their immediate time and place and that their readers may or may not be the products of the same social texts. This doesn't mean, though, that either as writers or as readers we are simply the willy-nilly products of a given culture. We can and do understand things well enough to occasionally see through our respective cultures and to advocate and/or produce changes in them. In fact, when it comes to literature, our students should come to understand that most exceptional and highly valued works do, in fact, attack and/or subvert the status quo, question conventional wisdom and/or received opinion. Nevertheless, both as writers and as readers we must be on guard against our own biases. While it is not always possible to be fully cognizant of these, of course, it is possible to become good readers.
So, what characteristics do good readers have? How can we tell them apart from bad readers? Well, to begin with, good readers are what they read whereas bad readers read what they are. Good reading, in other words, is unselfish and an act of love whereas bad reading is selfish and an act of self-love. Bad readers always remake the texts they read in their own image and they reject what is not always already part of their preconfirmed repertoire (remember the fundamentalist Christians?). Good readers, on the other hand, keep on reading even if the text says something that challenges them or disagrees with their previously held views. Good readers always read with the risk of changing their minds. Bad readers never change their minds. They just reject texts that don't say what they thinks texts ought to say. I think this picture is pretty clear.
But what else do students need to learn in order to become good readers, provided that that's, in fact, what they do want to become? I usually give them the following specific advice: empty your ego. Pay attention to what the other is saying. Don't jump to conclusions. Pay attention to anything and everything in the text. Watch our for recurrent ideas and motives. Above all, see all that's in a text but do not see what's not in a text. If you make a mistake at this level, if you read something into the text you are reading, you are likely to distort the context of the whole. Should this happen, you will probably make an ego-investment in your mistake and defend it vehemently while possibly making a fool of yourself in the process.
Next, and this is just as important as it is paradoxical, remember that the evidence for a given interpretation is in the text itself but it is, of course, the text itself that requires interpretation in the first place. This is a dilemma, but it is, in a sense, merely the repetition of the idea that what is being said in a text is not identical to what is being talked about in it. The trick to a good reading or a successful interpretation of a text, then, is somehow or other to overcome the problem posed by this dilemma. Again, we are dealing with some aspect of the context here. By letting the text speak for itself, as it were, by letting it suggest the context within which it is to be understood, the good reader can avoid misconstruing the text. Finally, you must see all the trees and somehow or other come to see the forest anyway. Not being able to see the forest for the trees is a good old adage that applies to reading with a vengeance. Good readers manage to see the forest, of course, not in spite of but precisely because of the trees. Again, the most important thing is not to jump to conclusions prematurely, not to pick up on some possible irrelevant association and then run with it off on a tangent.
It is sometimes said, and rightly so, that those who don't or won't read are not better off than those who can't read. What I would like to add to this is that those who misread, either because of extreme biases or because of extremely careless reading habits, are also participating in certain forms of illiteracies today. Rejecting texts because they don't say what we think they ought to say is to lock ourselves away from the world in which we live, is to live in a make-believe world of our or of our group's own making. That's a high price to pay for certitude. But the fact that the world is endlessly variable and indeterminate and uncertain is no excuse for not reading well, for not really being in touch with that which is other than our own selves. Somewhere between total solipsism and hopeless relativism there is a real world in which it is possible at times to understand each or one another. And, according to another old saying, to understand is to love. And that's much better than that other thing, for hate and rejection never seem to get us anywhere where it is good to be. And education should take us places where we may find ourselves, if not always happy, at least in harmony with one another and with the rest of the world. Good reading is not icing on the cake, it is the cake itself, icing and all.
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Copyright 2000 - 2001 © by Steven C. Scheer.
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