By: Head of School Michael Dewey
While Frances Bacon is largely known as one of the fathers of the scientific revolution, what is generally not known is that he developed one of the first cataloging systems for libraries. It is safe to say he liked books. Bacon famously noted, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few are to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”
I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately, Bacon’s approach to reading has become a lost art. If there is one thing that can be said for certain of American culture, it’s that we don’t take time to read. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that in the United States, people aged 15-44 spend 10 minutes or less per day reading. Given the proven benefits of reading, this portends a bleak future for our nation. Since this doesn’t include reading that takes place for academic purposes, one might be tempted to think that our children are reading at school. Not quite. According to the Department of Education, 54% of Americans over the age of 16 lack proficiency at reading above a 6th grade level. That alarming statistic would seem to indicate that while our children most certainly do read a great deal at school, it is more of the tasting variety, as opposed to the chewing and digesting Bacon commends. This needs to change.
In How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, Mortimer J. Adler concludes that, as far as schooling is concerned, reading is focused too often on quantity, and not often enough on quality. Rather than teaching students how to read for learning, we seem to be teaching them only how to read for information. Adler, writing about students in his own college classes in 1940, made the following observation.
All their years in school they had been reading for information only, the sort of information you have to get from something assigned in order to answer quizzes and examinations. They never connected one book with another, one course with another, or anything that was said in books or lectures with what happened to them in their own lives.
The statistics seem to indicate that not much has changed since Adler first wrote those words some 80 years ago. But as scripture reminds us, there is nothing new under the sun—our problems with reading have been around much longer than a few generations. In the first half of the 17th century, Thomas Hobbes sarcastically quipped, “If I read as many books as most men, I should be as dull-witted as they.” It is not how much one reads that truly matters, but how well one reads. If we are going to adequately prepare our students to be future leaders, the kind that can rise above the cultural undertow and be transformative agents for Christ, then we must do a better job of teaching them to read.
For Evergreen Christian School, this begins with providing each student a copy of Adler’s 1971 edition of How to Read a Book and asking them to read it prior to the first day of school. Adler does a phenomenal job of breaking down what it means to read well. He provides rules that guide students in how to analyze, evaluate, and critique written works. We reinforce these time-tested strategies within our classes, asking students to become active readers. Our students chew and digest the great texts of literature, history, theology, and philosophy, annotating what they read, asking questions of the text, and coming to class prepared to discuss it. We do this because we believe that better readers will necessarily result in better leaders. Adler makes this very connection when he observes that leaders too often act with some knowledge of history, but not enough. “With the world as small and dangerous as it has become,” says Adler, “it would be a good idea for all of us to start reading history better.”
If our students learn how to interact with the great minds of the past, Hobbes and Bacon, Darwin and Hume, Aristotle and Plato, then they will be equipped to engage the prevailing voices of our own time. Of course, there is still one thing which must be added—the tools needed to properly read and interpret Scripture. Only then will such engagement take place within the framework of the Christian worldview, making God’s truth known for his everlasting glory.