Why should students read lengthy, demanding texts? and other fundamental questions about formal education

Why should a student read Dickens or Plato, a newspaper article about the NASA mission to collect data from Pluto, a biography of Robert E. Lee, a magazine article about the nuclear agreement with Iran, a textbook section on the various types of clouds, or research on the type and amount of radiation cell phones generate? Are some types of reading more important than others; for example, is an informational text about cell phone radiation more important for students than 17th century British literature? How do we know whether a text will teach students something important, or is it simply good to read anything, so long as it adds to what students know and it is developmentally appropriate?

This essay tries to answer why secondary students should read demanding, often lengthy, texts designed for an academic audience. My discussion of this and related questions is based on my observations as a classroom teacher, administrator, and lawyer, working with students from fifth grade through graduate school over the past 15 years. It is based on qualitative observational data with all of the types of texts I have described above, with students in a public charter school, a private secondary school, and a public university, including a teaching college.

Before thinking about why students should read certain texts, it is worth noting that most college-educated adults I encounter are not themselves avid readers of demanding, often lengthy, texts designed for an academic audience. This is one of those things educators are rarely honest about with students. We should tell them they will not be required to read Dickens, Plato, Shakespeare, McCullough, Pinker, Blanning, Manchester or Tuchman as an adult, and that only a few adults choose to do so on their own.

If educators and parents are going to be honest with students, we would also tell them that most important professional tasks are not timed, and they will rarely write lengthy research papers by themselves. School emphasizes individual work and imposes heavy penalties for unauthorized collaboration, but almost everything we do professionally requires collaboration. And, as adults, our students will rarely have to put their smartphones or laptops away and will likely be able to update social media or browse the web rather than paying attention to the person leading a meeting.

Maybe the most important thing educators hide from their secondary students is that admission to college is not the end of their efforts, it is only the beginning of a long process of hard work, personal discovery, problem solving, and connecting with other people who will shape your path, along with happy and unhappy accidents along the way that you won’t see coming. So, we should tell them, “Do not worry too much about where you go to college, or about your major, because life-long success depends on many other, more important, factors. And some of it is just blind luck.”

Back to the question of reading. I don’t see many adults read as widely and as deeply as my students do for school (granted, my students read more widely and deeply than most). As work schedules become more demanding, there seems to be less time for adults to read for pleasure or for learning. This is why there are services that will abridge or summarize books, so busy adults do not have to bother with what the original author produced and can, instead, get directly to the main points. Is the original book worth reading at all if someone other than the author can do away with so much of the original work? Do high school students really need to read Dickens or Shakespeare when there are CliffsNotesTM, or any number of similar comprehension aids or time management tools?

In fairness, there is also a great deal of reading now built into adults’ and children’s lives that did not exist more than ten years ago—emails, text messages, blog posts like this one, social media updates, tweets—and this new reading--often to communicate--competes for our attention with more traditional types of reading to learn: newspapers, long-form journalism, novels, and non-fiction books. Are we investing less time reading demanding texts to learn simply because we are reading more to communicate and are simply more fatigued when it is time to read to learn? Or, as some, like Nicholas Carr, have argued, has all of our short-form reading and internet browsing—the “shallows”—changed our ability to read lengthy, demanding texts that require focus and stamina? Recent research from Maryanne Wolf at Tufts University suggests that our new forms of reading are having negative consequences for our ability to read in a focus and sustained way, which is, in my experience, more important to learning than anything else.

In a recent article, Steven Pinker noted that a large number of his Harvard students did not actually attend his class. When I read his books, I cannot think of anything better than talking to him about them, but many of those Harvard students who have a chance, because they worked so hard to earn that privilege, choose not to do so. Pinker thinks this is because his students are so busy with non-academic obligations.

Would going to class with a leading scholar promote a Harvard student’s learning, or is the lecture component superfluous in an era of online notes, chats, and video lectures? Is there something about learning in a room with an expert that cannot be recreated in another format? More specifically, are a live teacher in a room and other students who engage one another in a real-time discussion necessary for novices to learn deeply from demanding texts, or will young learners get everything they need out of these texts without live, or any, additional human intervention? Are the days of lengthy, demanding texts themselves numbered? In my experience, humans need other humans to learn something that is difficult, whether that information is in a text, is in a multimedia form, or is a complex process to be learned.

We will also soon have a great deal of evidence to parse to try to answer these questions about asynchronous and other forms of online instruction. There are now credits, diplomas, and higher education degrees to be had entirely through online instruction. Online courses, which were originally introduced to save money or to add capacity in subjects where there was none, are now considered by some as a viable, even superior, alternative to in-person instruction. Pushing this line of inquiry one step further, is there a point to learning something that is not directly going to prepare you to earn money? Is a traditional liberal education in the humanities something citizens of a democracy must have, or something they can afford to do without? Is the future of formal education moving online to concentrated instruction in financially rewarding fields simply because the cost of the alternative--a liberal arts education at a university with tenured professors--is now too great for most to afford?

All of these questions deserve close consideration, and while they may not appear to be, they are all related. I am spending time going beyond the question of why students should read demanding, often lengthy, texts designed for an academic audience, because this question raises so many others, and we rarely make time for the deepest questions in formal education because the stakeholders—students, parents, teachers, administrators, elected officials, and voters—are either too busy or not sufficiently well-informed to ask these questions before change happens without anyone having weighed the costs and benefits in advance. There is not enough time for questions like the ones in this essay, maybe because they seem to be a philosopher’s luxuries. And, with the time pressures discussed earlier, there is great pressure to condense ideas and write short pieces that can be read on mobile devices while doing something else important at the same time; but these questions are too complex and important to abridge or skip, and our primate brains cannot multitask. I submit that without considering these sorts of questions first--before we write standards, hire teachers, pick books, select technology, and give tests--our learning goals, assignments, assessments, and ultimately our students’ academic, social, and civic outcomes will be irretrievably compromised.

So I return now now to the question that guides this essay: Why should secondary students read demanding, often lengthy, texts designed for an academic audience? I think there are at least six reasons we should share with students about why we ask them to read difficult texts:

  1. The human brain wants to learn, and reading is a great way to learn. The human brain wants explanations for why things are happening, to find patterns, to solve problems, and to know, and we get satisfaction when our brain succeeds. To accomplish these things, beyond the superficial understanding of a young child, requires learning more than you already know, and my position is that the best way to learn deeply and broadly is through rich, authoritative texts.
  2. Learning can bring happiness, especially when it is challenging. Humans find happiness in completing challenging tasks, so long as there is something important to be had for doing so (even if what is important about doing so is the personal satisfaction of having done so). So, reading something difficult can result in something like pleasure or enjoyment, so long as what you take away from the exercise is something you consider to be important and interesting, surprising, or somehow otherwise worthwhile.
  3. Knowing to the core requires reading demanding texts. You can know things superficially by reading short pieces and grazing information on the web, but knowing something to the core, in a way that is not empty and ultimately pointless, requires more time and effort, and requires reliable, authoritative source material. Only academic texts allow you to truly understand what is known about a subject, and only academic texts point you to what is not known, which is an opportunity for the learner to pursue the creation of new knowledge.
  4. Learning through reading leads to better decisions and personal outcomes. To avoid decisions that lead to personal outcomes you will ultimately regret because of foreseeable costs that could have been avoided or benefits that could have been realized requires knowledge, time, and analysis. The requisite knowledge comes from researching quality sources, which will most often be in the form of authoritative texts.
  5. Learning through reading ensures your intellectual and personal freedom. If you can find reliable, high quality information on your own about claims, issues, controversies, policies and all of the other matters that affect your personal, social, economic, and political well-being, you are far less likely to be misled or manipulated by acquaintances, officials, companies, and messages that do not withstand scrutiny. As a result, the quality of what you know, or what you can find out from quality sources, is the best protection of your intellectual and personal freedom.
  6. Learning through reading pays well, and is the best hedge in a constantly evolving marketplace.The more you know, and the more effectively you are able to learn to adapt to new conditions, the more valuable you are to prospective employers over the long term. Finding out where economic opportunities lie, or where they might arise in the future, is the first step towards financial reward and independence. The skills that are valuable now may not always be valuable, so you both need to have valuable skills and to be able to acquire those skills that become valuable. Reading to learn what is valuable and to stay current on important changes are excellent ways to ensure your professional success and longevity.

With this short list, and this examination of several fundamental questions in education, we come to a close.

The question of why we ask students to read what we ask them to read is a wonderful way to think about the many important questions we should consider when we think about learning goals and instructional design, and what we should be honest about with our students (everything!) so they understand why formal education is designed as it is. My experience is that the more you explain to students, and the more you consider their experiences and feedback, the more effective and inspiring formal education will be.