“We Shouldn’t Teach Great Books…”

B.F. Skinner, a psychologist and behaviorist, once wrote: “We shouldn’t teach great books, we should teach a love of reading.” Skinner’s words ring true. As a high school reading teacher, my heart aches when I encounter a student who lacks the enthusiasm, much less the desire, to read. Mind you, I completely understand that there are those who prefer not to read, but I’m of the school of thought that the ability to read, and to appreciate what one reads, empowers.

Unfortunately, so many teachers, both at the elementary and at the high school level, tend to place the importance of a book before the importance of the skill. As a teacher, one quickly learns that the “many” reasons students “hate” reading  trickle down to two main factors: (1) people lack the fundamental reading skills needed for comprehension (2) books are seen as unimportant in the overall scheme of life.

Weak Fundamentals

Reading is not innate. It is not something we are born doing. We do not enter this world with our own Shakespeare collection or a 1st edition of Frankenstein. You are not born a good or bad reader. Reading is a collection of skills we learn throughout our young life and attempt to master with age and practice. However, far too many individuals are not taught the basic skills when it comes to reading and comprehension, thus a connection between reader and text is never formed. And let’s face it. We love to do what we’re “good” at. If we feel comfortable, or even proficient, with a certain trade, hobby, or discipline, we find ourselves constantly doing it.

“Weak” readers – I see it far too often at the high school level. Students shy away from reading because they are “weak” readers. These shy readers either struggle to read because they lack the practice and/or the strategies needed to comprehend what they read which, if you ask them, stems from their elementary years. Once again, this is not to place blame on any teacher, though I will briefly state that there are those in the world of education that should find a different occupation. I’ve even asked some of my students to explain why they don’t like reading, and I get similar responses – they were never taught to read correctly or books weren’t part of their daily life as children. For one reason or another, children never pick up on reading skills, and they grow up to become teenagers and adults that fear or hate reading.

Need of Bibliophiles

I was blessed to have had a childhood surrounded by books, or should I say surrounded by lovers of books. I fondly remember walking to the library with my father to check out my weekly reads. My father was a speed reader, but he never let speed reading get in the way of truly enjoying a good book. And boy did he read. He would walk the aisles at the library, grab a book, and just consume it. What I remember the most was his lack of discrimination when it came to choosing a book. This man would literally grab which ever book from the shelf and read it. I remember him reading everything from monographs (he loved history) to DIY books (come to think of it, we had a lot of wood-worked projects at home after that little period). I always found it interesting how he could pick up a book on any topic, read it thoroughly, and either say “it’s a must read,” or “I would’ve done without that.” My mother also modeled what it meant to be a great reader. I can recall the many times I’d catch her with a new Dean Koontz or Tom Clancy. She would just devour those books. To this day she eagerly awaits my book recommendations. I know that she ran to the bookstore as soon as I recommended The Kite Runner and Reading Lolita and Tehran. Come to think of it, I need to tell her about Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers. But I digress. It was in this home of avid readers that my love of reading was forged.

This of course, does not happen for all. Many might argue that poverty plays a role in not having books around. Yes, a difficult childhood can lead to fewer opportunities for readers to flourish; however,  there are many free places to get books, even if it’s on loan. I grew up in a house with a single low-income, but when there’s a will, then there’s a way. And with all the available technology now a days, free books are available with a few keystrokes and downloads. I have many students who try their best to visit the university or city library to a get a copy of the next up and coming young adult text. There are also stories of individuals rising above their harsh environments to become educated and meaningful members of society, so one cannot solely place the blame of a rough childhood on their disinterest in reading. Many of my students who come from impoverished, or even worse homes, actually confess that a good book helps them escape the rough realities they face at home. Which is true…at least for me. I tend to dive into another world when faced with situations, not to ignore the problem, but to find solace for a time being. So with that said, it is important to surround children with books, and to let them see us reading. It is a good habit to emulate, and in emulating it, they will hopefully find pleasure in it.

I urge you my fellow readers, parents, and teachers to take to heart the wise words of B.F. Skinner. Let us stop teaching great books. Let us instead “teach the love of reading,” and if we teach the love of reading, the rest will all fall into place.



6 thoughts on ““We Shouldn’t Teach Great Books…”

  1. You bet! The libraries are the best. I started out reading at a young age. Fell in love with the book series, Little House on the Prairie and the Boxcar Children series. Nothing like a good series to get young people interested. I always keep an eye out for good children’s books for my young reader friends. I just love the look on their face when they get a new book!

    Liked by 1 person

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