Friday, March 27, 2015

Middle School Reading: Then and Now (Or Old Books and New)

An interesting post hit my FB page earlier today, with a link to this list of middle school reading in Minnesota today and Minnesota of 1908. (And all Betsy-Tacy fans will almost immediately think, "Margaret Ray would have been in middle school just a few years after this!")

The accompanying article, which I confess I only had time to skim, addressed the significant differences in the time periods, thematic elements, and reading levels addressed by the books in question. Under time period, she was chiefly pointing out that the 1908 list didn't hesitate to recommend reading to students that had been published 50-100 years before, while the current list mostly features contemporary work of the past 20 years.

While I think the article makes some valid and important points, especially on reading levels and on our current trepidation about giving young people older books, I think the discussion could be even more fruitful if we allowed ourselves to notice that at least some of the contemporary books appear to contain literature that provides some cultural perspective beyond Anglo-American. I agree with the writer of the article that we need to give our young people literature that helps them understand the foundation of the United States and of western civilization. (And I totally agree we need to give them language and sentence structures that challenge them.)

Without addressing the merits of the individual books in question on either list (some of which I know pretty well, and others I don't know at all) wouldn't it be wonderful if we could both give them the foundational literature of our country and culture and the more contemporary literature that tries to broaden our understanding of the complexities of American history, the riches of the American melting pot, and the responsibilities and joys of global citizenship? Just a thought, but wouldn't having the grounding in foundational American and English literature prepare them to better read (and appreciate in context) some of the literature that is being produced in the English-speaking world today?

Seems to me that we would all be well-served by C.S. Lewis' idea of varying our reading diet to include three old books for every new one (not a challenge I always meet, but one I appreciate). If you haven't ever read Lewis' Introduction to Athansius's On the Incarnation, where he explains this idea and the reasons behind it, it is well worth your time. In fact, the whole book is worth your time, and one of those delightful exercises in reading something "relatively new" (the Lewis introductory essay) and then something very old, the Athanasius work. As someone who has sometimes questioned my own ability to read, comprehend, and absorb older literature, I occasionally read Lewis to bolster my courage and enthusiasm. He helps me want to dive and dive deep, even if I end up getting in over my head. (Was it Karl Barth who once used the metaphor of surfing to describe reading theology? It sometimes feels just about that vigorous!)

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