Monday, December 3, 2012

Reading for Wisdom

Today's Washington Post carries an article on the new Common Core State Standards, and their effect on the teaching of high school English. I am not sure why the students are not getting their "informational texts" in the history classes or other humanities, though the requirement that non-fiction constitute 70% of 12th-grade reading does suggest that some of the material will need to be covered in English classes. What I most noticed in the story, though, was the reaction of a teacher:
English teacher J.D. Wilson agrees with much of what the standards aim to accomplish. But he is disturbed by the subtle shift the new standards are already causing in his classroom at Wareham High School in Wareham, Mass.
“Reading for information makes you knowledgeable — you learn stuff,” Wilson said. “But reading literature makes you wise.”
Perhaps I have not read enough literature, then. But my long-ago observation of those who read and taught literature for a living--professors and graduate students--makes me wonder how strong the correlation is between the reading of literature and wisdom. And I wonder whether high school seniors have the experience against which they might test what they find in books, and so perhaps gather some wisdom. I don't think I did at that age.


  1. The reason I ended up choosing to study languages at university rather than Eng Lit was that I found studying literature immensely interesting for myself - but I didn't think my thoughts were enlightening to anyone else; they enriched my understanding of my reading but I didn't think they enriched anyone else's understanding of anything. I therefore decided that, as I liked studying literature, I could go on doing it by studying the literature of other languages, while also trying to master those languages, which seemed a more justifiably useful way of spending my time (although, now I come to think about it, how my being able to understand another language is actually of any more common benefit than me writing an essay that helped me understand how brilliant Nostromo is, I am not absolutely sure). I suppose ultimately anything that involves individuals reading and then formulating their thoughts into written arguments is civilised at the least and possibly contributes to their wisdom.

  2. What Z is describing is why I became a medievalist, which led me to study philosophy, theology, history, and multiple languages. I enjoyed (and still enjoy) literature, but it wasn't truly enlightening until I saw it in the context of multiple disciplines that, for lack of a better term, mutually buttress each other.

  3. Clearly both of you made sound choices. I have previously quoted Alvin Kernan on why some of us studied literature (, and the study of literature, if undertaken properly, does involve history, multiple languages, and perhaps theology and philosophy; I say perhaps for the last two mostly because a lot of critics seem to be much worse at them than they imagine themselves to be--they want to be T.S. Eliot without the training Eliot had.

    No youth, however intelligent, is going to come out of 12th grade a medievalist. A very few may know three or four languages competently, say English, a cradle language, and a school language. Nor, I think will they graduate from high school wise, even if some may eventually become so.

  4. Oh, sure--I don't think high-schoolers are going to emerge wise, but we can help them navigate the world a bit more shrewdly. For example, if they knew "The Lottery" and "The Most Dangerous Game," they might be a little less enamored of "The Hunger Games," or at least know that it's not quite as original as they thought. Then perhaps they'd start to wonder what other old books and ideas contain wisdom that doesn't need to be reinvented...