Reading Reconsidered In the Homeschool—Chapter 1

This chapter is about text selection, something near and dear to the homeschool community.

The authors begin with “The Decline of the Canon.” First, let me say that as a fan of Susan Wise Bauer’s work, I subscribe to her idea that no list of the Great Books is canonical. I also am sympathetic to the idea that there are lesser-known works by authors who were not in positions of power that have been overlooked as possible candidates for inclusion.

After positing that there are “universal and fungible [reading] skills, applicable and applied to almost any text,” Lemov nods to the idea that “reading … depends heavily on knowledge.” So far, so good. Perfectly compatible with Bauer’s idea that:

a classical education follows a specific three-part pattern: the mind must be first supplied with facts and images, then given the logical tools for organization of those facts and images, and finally equipped to express conclusions

reading has two parts: ongoing instruction in how to read and the actual reading of worthwhile books

The Well-Trained Mind

Next the authors run through what is essentially an argument for classical education without any of the key words. The choice of texts matters, student need cultural literacy, the point of education was the Great Conversation, universal education produces good citizens, a shout-out to the McGuffey Reader, etc–and then stop to emphasize that they’re not arguing for this, of course not, because old = bad.

They stop to discuss Dead White Males, YA fiction, and texts selected less by posited virtues and more by one’s inner child. Noting that the free-for-all text selection allows for more diverse perspectives and voices, but loses shared discourse, the authors point out that “intertextuality” (Adler’s “syntopical reading”) requires texts in common.

With a subtle nod to E.D. Hirsch, Jr., they make the point that Sayer’s “educational capital,” like Piketty’s, accrues to heirs, rather than wider society. Where Jessie Wise writes that “sooner or later, the capital gets used up,” the authors throw in a reference to the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Finally, the authors recommend an “internal canon” determined locally, whereas Well-Trained Mind style classical educators tend to rely literature linked to history studies. One reads “classics” because they’re the literature of the time period. A nonsectarian approach to history will necessarily result in a more diverse set of literature choices.

Next, the authors address Lexile scores and leveled texts. Note that there is no quality research for leveled texts. While we all know there is more to a text than its Lexile score (Night by Elie Wiesel is a perfect example), the authors make the excellent point that:

[a well-chosen book] builds students’ knowledge base about books and storytelling in a way that will be useful to them in understanding how texts work, throughout a lifetime of reading

Susan Wise Bauer and the authors agree that books should not be read in snippets–whole books are best. Then, the authors point out five distinct difficulties to overcome when tasking students with “complex texts”–what Sayers would refer to as not “twaddle.”

  • archaic syntax and vocabulary–remedy by carefully scaling up in difficulty. “Pre-complex texts” are listed, with a suggestion to read them out loud, heartwarming to any classical educator
  • nonlinear time sequences, including “unclear timing of an event, shifts in fixity of time, layers of memory, shifts in rate of time elapsing, recurrence of events”–remedy with suggested texts for introducing nonlinear time sequence
  • complexity of narrator, including the idea that the narrator could by lying or hallucinating–remedy with suggested texts for introducing complex voice
  • complexity of story (plot and symbolism)–remedy with intentionally exposing students to such a book.
  • resistant text–remedy with exposure to other difficulties, poetry, and close reading
  • nonfiction–see chapter 3

Where the authors lean on long-term, non-obvious benefits, Bauer quotes Steele.

Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.
-Richard Steele, The Tatler

The fourth part of the chapter points out the scarcity of time to read, not unlike the meme about 960 Sundays from birth to age 18. This is something that I think is less key to classical homeschoolers, who have chosen to have more time to devote to reading good books. Most classical homeschoolers I know are fans of reading deeply and widely.

Like many homeschoolers, the authors say that children can handle reading something that they don’t know if they’ll like, that it’s an advantage to be able to read and discuss books, and that some books matter more than others.

The next bit might as well be an ad for the Well-Trained Mind, in that children learn by reading, especially good historical fiction about unfamiliar cultures and settings. One thing that children can learn is the procession of ideas through the ages, and how different write reference them.

The last section is about how to select texts. This bit is mostly irrelevant to homeschoolers, as it assumes a school wide setting.

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