I recently read a piece by Annie Holmquist on the incredible disparity between reading lists of middle schools 100 years ago in 1908 and reading lists of middle schools today in 2014. The article addressed a few key differences between the two lists; two of these concepts that stood out to me the most were the difference in authors and sentence structure of the books listed.
To start off, the authors of the books from 1908 are considered “classic authors,” whose books have persisted in their status of classics for many centuries. Robert Louis Stevenson, Longfellow, Thoreau, and others were included, while the authors included on the reading lists for 2014 were much more transient in their impact on literature. The only two authors I really recognized from the list were Mark Twain and Ray Bradbury.
Furthermore, the grammatical and literary differences between the two reading lists were, quite frankly, appalling. Holmquist includes in her post a sample of the text from one of the books in 1908, Longfellow’s Evangeline, and juxtaposed it next to one of the contemporary texts. Longfellow writes beautiful lines, filled with incredible imagery like “the forest primeval,” and “the deep-voiced neighboring ocean//Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.” Simply beautiful literature.
In contrast, the contemporary book seemed to be written by a fourth grader. Multiple exclamation points, short and simple sentences, and a disturbing lack of simple literary concepts like successful imagery and metaphors characterized the section Holmquist quoted. What happened to the stories of Stevenson and Twain that used complex literary themes and concepts to tell a compelling story and rope the reader in?
The main protests to listing books written by “old, dead, white men” seem to be how hard these books are for children of those ages. Therein lies the problem that we have today in the education of reading.
Trying and failing is a key part of learning, especially when learning to read. We should not teach children to read, but to enjoy challenging themselves to read. How can we expect them to read complex and difficult texts when we baby them with easy-to-read young adult fiction in schools? We expect too little of them early, and then suddenly jump to expectations of “why can’t you read this incredibly dry text that’s jam packed with information?” If we challenge them early, they will rise to that challenge, and continue to grow their appreciation for literarily excellent texts, and will, from there, branch out into every area of reading.