You are what you read (National Post March 14,2007)

You are what you read
Schools shouldn't let children pick their own books

Barbara Kay, National Post
Published: Wednesday, March 14, 2007

According to Reading at Risk, a 2004 report published by the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts, for the first time in modern history, less than half the adult population reads literature. And in just one generation, young adults aged 18-24 went from being the most likely to read literature to the least likely.

In my generation, a taste for good literature was formed at school. By good literature, I mean stalwarts of the Great Canon: Shakespeare, Dickens, Joyce, Hardy, and even some Canadian writers -- Stephen Leacock, Hugh McLennan and Gabrielle Roy. But those were the pre-multiculturalism and pre-relativism days, when a European provenance did not condemn a writer out of hand as being presumptively hegemonic, racist, imperialist or whatever. The elite writers of our now suspect cultural past, however, who so enriched my generation's lives, find themselves in bad ideological odour amongst contemporary pedagogues.

Still, given its distinct and survival oriented culture, you might think that Quebec would have bucked the postmodern trend to jettison the past, and that nurturing intimacy with Quebec's literary patrimoine would be a special priority here.

Au contraire. Recently, Quebec Minister of Education Jean-Marc Fournier confided to Le Devoir reporter Antoine Robitaille that of "great novel[s] that all generations should read," he could not think of a single one to recommend to young Quebecois. I can hardly imagine a more troubling admission from an education minister. Fournier further elaborated that schools should "propose books that interest young people?and that adhere to their reality" whether "written 40 years ago or 40 days ago." In short, "young people don't want to read what others used to read before."

So let the children, not educators, decide? Poutine or broccoli? Perhaps, M. Fournier thinks if students read Harry Potter today, they'll be motivated to go on to Moliere (at right), Zola, the Bible, Cervantes and Shakespeare tomorrow.

But if children are not exposed to classic and historically significant books in school, they are very unlikely to take them up later, an enormous loss to them as individuals, but also to society as a whole. For as Reading at Risk notes, literary readers are more than twice as likely as non-literary readers to perform volunteer and charity work, three times as likely to attend a performing arts event and four times as likely to attend an art museum.

Publishing for young people has become a huge industry since the sixties. If left to their own devices, children naturally gravitate toward its lucrative core product, what educators call "mirror books," as opposed to the "window books" that were the staple of previous generations' education.

Mirror books are me focused, usually narrated in the voice of a disaffected adolescent: They reflect the experiences and the inner emotional state of the reader and his peers at school, typically lingering over conflicts involving social pressures teens face, like sex, parental divorce and drugs. They validate the young reader's inclination to set himself at the centre of the universe. The Urtext for mirror books is J.D. Salinger's 1951 novel, Catcher in the Rye.

Window books look outward: They offer imaginative access to their own and other cultures' histories. They reconstruct societal shifts, including their own, but also illuminate what is fixed and eternal in human nature. Window books connect children to the world beyond their narrow experience, and serve as a bridge to the reader's cultural roots. How ironic that I, in 1950s Toronto, was made to read window book The Tin Flute (Bonheur d' Occasion) by Gabrielle Roy, evoking an unforgettable 1930s world of impoverished Montreal French-Canadians, while today many young Quebecois are deprived of this, their cultural legacy, because it doesn't "adhere to their interest."

Window books need a guiding hand. As one U.S. educator put it: "If students can read a book on their own, it probably isn't the best choice for classroom study. Classroom texts should pose intellectual challenges to young readers."

But intellectual challenge seems to be the last thing Quebec's education minister wants to offer students. And that's just plain wrong. Whatever the provincial election outcome on March 26, I invite all three party leaders to do the right cultural thing: commit their respective parties to a renewed educational program welcoming classic literature back into the schools.

© National Post 2007