Last week, The New York Times published a piece concerning childhood reading–in this case, of Gone With the Wind. It appeared, oddly enough, while I was in the midst of re-reading a book I don’t think I’ve read since I was nine or ten, The Grapes of Wrath. I read it then with such attention that, even now, over fifty years later, I feel almost a sense of homecoming, of familiarity–and I am learning a great deal about where my beliefs come from, at least in part, beliefs about religion, ethnicity, politics, responsibility. I am also, oddly enough, beginning to understand through it just why I react so poorly to things like the Common Core State Standards.
While writing my last book, I thought a great deal about three fictional families–for the book was sparked by my own background in the culture of those families, the American Borderer culture that grew from 18th-century “backcountry” experiences of a predominantly Scots-Irish people who had come to the colonies after a generation or two in Ireland’s Ulster Plantation. These three families are the Joads of Steinbeck’s novel, Faulkner’s Snopes clan, and the Stampers of Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. Each family had a distinct impact on me, and they show me now the importance of reading as a personal experience in the development of all individuals given a taste for it when very, very young. And they show the danger of a broader society trying to impose a standardized conception of “reading” (or anything else) on an extremely varied population.
The importance of reading should be universally understood but, sadly, is not. Too few of my students have ever been as engaged with a book, even a single book, as I was, almost constantly, growing up. In college, then, I find them unable to explore with the same gusto I enjoyed–and I try to make it my task to help them develop that. For reading with engagement, and not the ability to “return” facts on Scantron sheets, is the real center of education. No testing can help me develop that in my students, nor can any standards… but the problem with the Common Core goes far beyond an inability to help me build enthusiasm. Its problem is that, like democracy, education has to start with the self and with the family. Like enthusiasm itself, either can be imposed by outsiders, no matter how well-meaning. Continue reading