When Reading is a Negative

When Reading is a Negative

Karen Gross 07/02/2019 5

I spend a good deal of my current professional life writing books (including children's books -- see @kidbooksbykaren) and helping children and their families appreciate the enormous power of reading. Indeed, reading is one key skill for ascertaining educational success. Starting in infancy, we recognize reading develops vocabulary, imagination, memory and creativity.

Who could be against reading? Surely not me.

I get that we don't want public speakers to read their notes -- we prefer they speak not read. We have all had professors or attended lectures or workshops where the presenters read --- they read their papers and their comments. Far better in these situations not to read but to share their thinking less formally and with more engagement.

I get that there is a hierarchy among books; there is high and low literature. I've always thought that getting children to read is what matters. Sure, some will read haute books and others will read comics or sports magazines. What really is important, at least from my perspective as an educator not a professor of English Lit, is reading -- anything (well except pornography if you are a child).

I get that we've banned some books as too controversial for a school library or a class. We can debate what is and is not acceptable reading for children in schools or public (or private) settings. But, let me be really clear: reading matters and content of the reading matters way less than the actual reading. Reading develops our minds in a myriad of ways. Period. Full stop.

I get that a child reading at the dinner table (a book or their cell phone) is disruptive and more than a touch disengaged. Kids can get so engrossed in a book (forget their phones for a moment) that they don't even look up. Perhaps not ideal but as bad habits go, not so so bad. Better than other bad behavior, right?

I get that we sometimes read surrepticiously, say at a concert or boring lecture. I can't even count the number of times of I have read a program at a play or concert or opera in the dark. But, I don't have a light on and I don't draw attention to my reading. I actually hope the artists do not see me reading.

Last night was different when Speaker of the House Pelosi kept reading large sheets of white paper during the State of the Union. Sure, she is not enamored of our President. Lots of folks aren't so keen on him if the polls are telling the truth. But, reading from a perch where the nation is looking at the person reading and another person speaking in the same visual frame (forget that it was the President for a second) is deeply disrespectful. Reading is not a political tool to show distain on a national stage, is it?

I recall many Speakers of the House being tepid while listening to a State of the Union address. Their faces have reveal their feelings and we can debate the value of that. But reading? I don't think I've ever seen a Speaker reading during a SOTU. Perhaps I have missed it. What if one of the Justices were reading (a book) during the SOTU?

The Speaker wasn't fact checking, was she? Was she reading along to see how far the speech had progressed and whether an end was in sight? Was she reading to amuse herself or show her distain or to keep awake? (She looked pretty awake unlike the child in the balcony.) A tweet remarked that it looked like she was reading a menu in a restaurant where she disliked every item listed.

Whatever the reason, Nancy Pelosi's reading at the SOTU was disrespectful and gives reading a bad name. How poor a role model was she? And, I get that we don't want kids to look to athletes and politicians as role model but they do. What message (for any children watching the SOTU) was given about reading? Not a good one.

Reading matters. It matters a lot. When we do it and where we do it generally doesn't matter. What matters is that we read. Last night was an exception. Reading during the SOTU wasn't wise when someone else was speaking before the Nation. I get that Speaker Pelosi is a political creature. I would have felt way better if she didn't use reading as a method of showing her disaffection. There are lots of other ways to show distain.

Reading is too important to be used as a political weapon to show dissatisfaction with our President while the Nation and world is watching. Period.

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  • Jamie Bennie

    Thoughtful piece

  • Nicola Cameron

    Knowledge is the strongest foundation of someone's success.

  • Jamie Fletcher

    Well said Karen

  • Sam Laidlaw

    I was smiling the whole time. The timing of this post is perfect!

  • Peter Hallsworth

    Excellent article

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Karen Gross

Higher Education Expert

Karen is an educator and an author. Prior to becoming a college president, she was a tenured law professor for two plus decades. Her academic areas of expertise include trauma, toxic stress, consumer finance, overindebtedness and asset building in low income communities. She currently serves as Senior Counsel at Finn Partners Company. From 2011 to 2013, She served (part and full time) as Senior Policy Advisor to the US Department of Education in Washington, DC. She was the Department's representative on the interagency task force charged with redesigning the transition assistance program for returning service members and their families. From 2006 to 2014, she was President of Southern Vermont College, a small, private, affordable, four-year college located in Bennington, VT. In Spring 2016, she was a visiting faculty member at Bennington College in VT. She also teaches part-time st Molly Stark Elementary School, also in Vt. She is also an Affiliate of the Penn Center for MSIs. She is the author of adult and children’s books, the most recent of which are titled Breakaway Learners (adult) and  Lucy’s Dragon Quest. Karen holds a bachelor degree in English and Spanish from Smith College and Juris Doctor degree (JD) in Law from Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law.


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