Monday, May 20, 2019


Bookless Wonders
Will Fitzhugh

The Concord Review
The Ides of August, 2013

Someone told me that Muslims honor “People of the Book.” They have the Quran, the Jews have the Old Testament, the Christians have the New Testament, the Hindus have the Bhagavad-Gita, and so on. Perhaps the Analects and the Tao Te Ching belong in that group as well. But those are sacred books (not scared, sacred—just google it, if the word is unfamiliar...)

American students, in contrast, seem on their way to becoming what might be called Bookless Wonders. Not only do they not read the great religious texts, but they are more likely to read Catcher in the Rye (written at the fifth-grade level) than to read a single complete history book while they are in high school. Perhaps many educators now feel history is really passé in the 21st Century—after all, it is just about the Past, no?

In fact, Renaissance Learning, in a 2013 report on the books most commonly read by American high school students, found that the top forty books they read are, on average, at the fifth-grade reading level (that is, four to seven years below their current grade level).

Since the 2003 National Endowment for the Arts study of the reading of fiction among young people and others, I have wanted to do a study of the assignment of complete nonfiction books (e.g. history books) to U.S. public high school students, but no one else wants to know about that, and no one will fund our study, so no one knows, Q.E.D..

On the bookshelves of one of our history classrooms in the high school in Concord, Massachusetts, was a set of Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy (or perhaps Ted Sorenson). I asked my colleagues about them sitting there, and they said they used to hand them out to classes, but no one read them, so they had stopped handing them out.

As a high school history teacher back in the day (1980s) I quickly learned that my students had no need to read the pages I assigned, because in class I would ask a few questions and then, of course, go over the material in the reading assigned anyway.

As Chester Finn reminded us many years ago, students are not stupid, and if they don’t have to do certain school work (like reading and writing), they won’t do it.

Perhaps Korean students, and American students who want to go to CalTech or Stanford might do the work anyway, but most high school students, who, according to the Kaiser Foundation, are spending 53 hours a week with electronic entertainment media, and of course another big chunk of time with their friends, do not want to do any reading or writing they don’t absolutely have to do.
The Summer college reading lists, studied again this year by the National Association of Scholars, seem to favor books written since 1990….They report that 97% of the 309 colleges and universities they studied chose books published in 1990 or later for their students to read in the Summer. The most popular book by far was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010).

“There were no classics of history; nor biographies, speeches or writings by American political leaders (1620-2013); no works by ancient philosophers; no works of the Enlightenment; no classical works of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or Confucian thought, and no scientific classics.”

Other than that, there were lots of books on hot political topics of sustainability, race, diversity, class and gender. In the 17th century, one of the reasons for the high literacy of Americans was that just about every family read the Bible

Perhaps one of the reasons for the almost universally condemned inability (illiteracy) of our current college students (and many employees) to read very well and to write clearly, may be that we have given up on having students read good books (and write serious term papers) at every level of our education system. You think? 

As Mark Twain said: “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.”