Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Leaving Our Children Illiterate in Body and Spirit

I prioritize reading books. Growing up, our daughter got to know me as a father who read books in the morning and in the afternoon. My wife and daughter are book readers as well. Our homes have always had book-lined walls. I also read a lot as a young boy. I remember keeping a stack of the books I'd completed at the foot of my bed as if they were trophies. I obsessively read every Hardy Boys Mystery, then every one of the books of Oz. Sometimes I would just hold those books in my hands and meditate on the memory of the experience of reading it. I read fiction for pleasure, but among the side effects is a sense that I'm getting to know other human beings from the inside out, rather than the more distant outside in way of getting to know characters in a play or a movie. I read non-fiction to excite my thoughts, but among the side effects is a sense that I'm a part of the great conversation that humans have been having since there have been humans.

It may sound like I'm boasting, at least a little. I mean, reading books is generally held up as one of the few worthy, perhaps even noble, past times. Smart people read books, educated people read books, if only more people would read books our world wouldn't be in the mess it's in. Reading, and reading books in particular, has been elevated in our society nearly to the level of "pure good," like being kind to animals. Only anti-intellectuals scoff at book readers and we all condescendingly "know" that it's simply because they're jealous.

In 1870 our illiteracy rate in the US was about 20 percent, but with the expansion of access to schools and, more importantly, books, by 1900 we had cut that in half, and by the middle of the century we had that down to two percent. For the most recent seven decades our literacy rate has held steady at 98-99 percent, perhaps because there's not a lot of room for improvement. The nearly universal access to books and schools, without any other interventions, has created what must pass statistically for universal literacy, yet to listen to the literacy hawks out there, one would think we're in some sort of crisis. Our schools in many cases have become little more than literacy factories, places where children, even preschoolers, are subjected to unproven literacy curricula that have demonstrated, time and again, their capacity to strip reading of it's pleasure, making it a mere task one must do in order to earn a grade. The boogyman of illiteracy has become the obsession of our school system. These kids will learn to read, damn it, and we're going to make them readers even if it costs them their childhoods. It's not an accident that the only time in my life in which I didn't read many books for pleasure was between about 15 and 22, when my schools were pushing this method of teaching literacy. I didn't even read many of the books teachers assigned during that time: I learned that skimming and paying attention in class was usually enough to pass the tests and receive the rewards (grades). I'm lucky I regained my love of books. Not everyone does.

Most experts tell us that the "natural window" for learning to read tends to be around seven-years-old (although we shouldn't find it surprising that literate two-year-olds and illiterate ten-year-olds might also fall into the range of "normal") which matches up with first grade in our country. I distinctly remember when my own formal literacy instruction began in first grade back in 1968 when our literacy rate was 99 percent. This is likewise the approach for more progressive school systems today, such as in Finland and other Scandinavian nations, which also have 99 percent literacy rates. In the US, however, we've increasingly adopted an earlier-is-better approach over the past couple decades in which formal literacy instruction is being pushed upon younger and younger children, not even sparing two and three year olds in some cases. And still our literacy rate remains at 99 percent. It's not working, or rather, it's not working any better than what we were doing in 1950, but with some pretty ugly side effects.

Much has already been written about the cost in terms of anxiety and depression among children being forced to engage in developmentally inappropriate academic instruction. Likewise, there has been a great deal said about how we've stripped reading of its inherent joy, creating a generation of reluctant readers. But I've been thinking lately about the pre-literate brain and wondering why we evolved such a long period of pre-literacy in the first place.

The consequences of print-culture run far deeper than seeing linear perspective. It conditioned not only the physical eyes but also the internal one. Or rather, it created the internal eye by conditioning thought into a visually dominant form. Under the influence of print, western thought became increasingly linear and specialized. And just as mass reproducibility was the hallmark of the press, so replicability became the basis for the scientific method. In short, print-culture produced the form of thinking we would recognize today as rationality . . . No longer enmeshed with the environment through every bodily sense, the environment has become something to be looked at -- and controlled -- at a distance.  ~Andre Dao

What if it's necessary to master other forms of literacy before subjecting our brains to the linear conditioning of print-culture? Maybe it's more important for the developing human to begin with literacy in a broader sense. We dance before we read. Maybe that's because dance literacy must precede print literacy. The same goes for drawing, pretending, storytelling, laughing, wrestling, digging holes to China, and pretty much everything else we do as children. All of these activities require a kind of literacy that must be embodied, that isn't linear, that can't be looked at or controlled at a distance. The fact that these sorts of literacy emerge first, should tell us that they are, at a minimum, the necessary foundation for print literacy. But it could also tell us that being enmeshed with the environment through every bodily sense is the primary form of human literacy. Or maybe there isn't a hierarchy of literacy at all. Maybe rationality isn't a superior way of thinking, but rather one of many vital and equal ways of engaging and understanding the world. And who better to teach us about these other forms of literacy than children who have not yet had their internal eye conditioned by print-culture. We rush them at our own peril.

When we watch and listen to children, we often don't understand them. They strike us as irrational. We struggle to reason with them. In part, this is because evolution has designed us to be pre-print-literate before we are print-literate. It is adaptive. It is necessary. When we force print-literacy on children before they are ready, we do so at the risk of leaving our children able to read, but illiterate in body and spirit.

And now I'm going to read a book.

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