A student recently told me about her experience taking an important test. She ran out of time before answering all of the questions and left the testing room in tears. She felt, not incorrectly, that she had failed to give herself the best possible chance to make it to the next stage of her career.
Standardized testing pressures students to decode a textual passage as quickly as possible. In my education policy courses, students often share stories about taking national college entrance exams. On reading tests, they say, you should read the questions first and then find the lines that give the correct answer. You are not supposed to read a passage in its entirety, much less enjoy it or think about it. You have to answer the question correctly and then move on to the next question. Mastering this skill can make the difference between going to one’s first choice school or not.
Maryanne Wolf (2018) argues that skim reading leads to a “subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy.” In response, Maria Ferguson (2018) defends the new trend, exemplified by the Common Core education standards, of teaching students to dissect texts for information. The “need to quickly sift information,” she explains, is “highly prized in a society and economy obsessed with data and information.” So how important is it to teach children to read slowly when schools, testing, and the economy require students to read quickly?
Here I wish to identify a profound cost of an education system geared around teaching young people to skim read. Skim reading cuts humanity off from the history of civilization in ways that make it harder for us to envision a brighter future.
Human beings are “self-interpreting animals” (Taylor 1985), who form their identity through conversations with other people. Often these conversations are with living peers, but often they are conversations with dead people whose thoughts are recorded in books. Believers form their religious identities from reading canonical texts, citizens from studying documents from the founding generation, young people from reading literature about growing up, and all of us from reading poetry or prose that enables us to see the world anew. Without the ability to read books, particularly challenging books from different epochs, we become a poorer species.
In my first year at college, I read Plato’s Republic, Aeschylus’s Oresteia, and Martha Nussbaum’s The Fragility of Goodness. These and other great books require maximum attention to understand and appreciate. The problem that I faced as a first-year college student was that I raced through these readings. Studying for standardized tests did not prepare me for a liberal arts education. On the contrary.
Readers should assume that profound thinkers choose their words carefully when they write (Strauss, 1989). What would be the point of skimming Plato’s Republic? You could spend hours parsing each word of the first paragraph alone, which provides clues about the time, place, background, and argument of the dialogue. Minute for minute, there are few better ways to learn about politics than to read the Republic.
In order to preserve civilization, we need to teach a critical mass of young people the skills to ruminate over a challenging text. We need to teach young people to read, take notes on, sit quietly with, and discuss books with other people. By reading books, we enter an ongoing conversation among humans across time and place. Sometimes, it feels like there is no alternative to the present; reading old books helps us escape the mental confines of the present in ways that nurture utopian plans. To paraphrase Friedrich Nietzsche: we read old books to get a running leap into the future.
The urgent task today is to create space in K-12 education for the cultivation of slow reading of rich books so that we can thoughtfully address the problems of the present and the future.
Ferguson, M. (2018). Preparing students’ reading brains for the digital age. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (4), 64-65.
Strauss, L. (1989). An introduction to political philosophy. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.
Taylor, C. (1985). Philosophical papers. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Wolf, M. (2018, August 25). Skim reading is the new normal: The effect on society is profound. The Guardian.