As I read the
lamentations of librarians over library closings, budget cuts, and
student indifference, I wonder what ever happened to the old book
Librarians seem to feel that they must provide sufficient glitter and
entertainment to lure students into the library to help keep library
funding and their jobs. They have become "media specialists," which, in
this time of re-branding, is thought to have higher appeal than mere
"librarians" ever did. They can't rely any more on students needing to
go to the library to do their assigned reading, book reports, and
The National Endowment for the Arts has done major studies of reading
for pleasure among our young people, and found that it has declined. A
study of their reading of complete nonfiction books in school remains to
Some in the self-esteem movement finally realized that feeling good
about oneself usually follows rather than precedes having done something
to feel good about, for instance the accomplishment of a difficult task
(like reading a serious history book?).
But many of our educators seem to believe it is their job not only to
please their students but also to see that they don't have too much work
to do. The problem is that doing little to no work is really very boring
for students, most of whom, after all, want to grow up and become
literate and competent.
The crux of the matter is that in too many cases compulsion has vanished
from our educational methods. If students are assigned books to read
(from the library, for example) and book reports to write, and they
don't feel like doing it, it is more likely that such assignments will
be dropped in the future than that the students will face any real
consequences for their refusal to do the required work.
We all want to avoid Mr. Gradgrind's 50-student classrooms with their
endless make-work and dull routines, but haven't we drifted way too far
off to the other side if a student can respond to any academic work
request with "You Can't Make Me," and be right most of the time? Some of
us, like Horace in Theodore Sizer's Horace's Compromise, have
surrendered even before the thought of tough requirements begins. We
have traded peace in the classroom for less rigor and less required work
in the library.
Imagine a United States Marine drill instructor trying to prepare a
trainee in a boot camp for the rigors of combat, only to be told at some
required drill, "You Can't Make Me Do That!" There would be
consequences, of course, so that is very seldom, if ever, heard.
Of course U.S. high schools are not, for the most part, preparing
students for battle soon, they think, but they are supposed to be
preparing them for further education and for jobs that increasingly ask
for good literacy skills, and they are not doing it. Our reading scores
not only compare poorly with those of students in our competitor
countries, but they also decline the longer our students stay in school.
The way to build literacy skills, in my view, is to require students to
read more complete books for school, especially history and other
nonfiction books, and to write serious academic research papers, but if
we are no longer willing or able to demand such academic work from
students and if we even feel that we shouldn't do it for fear that they
might be made "unhappy," then it may be time to throw in the towel and
say that we don't want to compete or to prepare students for real
challenges in the future.
Some years ago I got a letter from a student at Harvard, who had arrived
from a public high school in California poorly prepared, and she said:
"This lack of forethought on the part of high school educators and
administrators is creating a large divide among college graduates—and
it's one that helps neither the students nor their alumni institutions.
Modern public high schools have an obligation not to simply pump out
graduates at the end of the year, but also to prepare their students for
the intellectual rigors of college."
She called it, charitably, lack of forethought. As an old curmudgeon, I
would call it lack of courage—our unwillingness to compel students to do
much serious academic work in school, for fear that if they respond,
"You Can't Make Me," we will have to agree with them, and so we can
watch more libraries in schools close, and see more of our graduates go
on their a-literate way into the wider world, victims, to a great
degree, of our own professional timidity and irresponsibility.