First, let’s talk about libraries. My family went to the library recently and I discovered two things:
1- Books that showed on the library website as not available at the library were actually *right there* on the shelf, in front of me. I got two books from my list checked out that way.
2- I have revolving library strategies: first, look through the list I brought to the library. Find some of those to check out, if I can. Second, stroll about, wander, browse, and strum a few fingers over the spines to slow me down. My gaze landed on a series of books I hadn’t known were there: books about books, books about authors, and books about story telling. That was where I discovered the Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature: the translations in English.
Norton is to anthologies as Asian is to elephant. These books are big, thick, wide, and full of memory. This is a 2005 edition, and since I have a couple Nortons at home, I was pretty interested in this one. In fact, since it was about children’s lit, I think I’m more interested in this one than in, say, The Norton Guide to Literature or The Norton Anthology of English Literature. This particular one has some great chapters in it. There’s a chapter on alphabet books through history, a chapter on primers, and even a chapter on comics, which surprised me.
Something else surprised me: a fair amount of opinion. I find it a relief to read a human opinion, particularly ones I tend to agree with. So many books (or other information sources like the media, etc.) have grand delusions of objectivity, which they absolutely fail at. Instead, they call what they write objective, and then react strongly to someone else who simply responds to the opinion held within their writing. And yes, there is a lot out there to have opinions about. And a lot out there where opinions don’t carry much weight. Anyway, here is a quote from Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature: the translations in English. Page 85, at the bottom, has these sentences:
“Today as demands for accountability dominate discussions of education and standardized testing is advocated at every level, the factory models of the early nineteenth century appear to be returning and are threatening to circumscribe our understanding of literacy. Literacy is again being defined narrowly as a skill rather than more complexly as the ability to gain access to a long literary tradition and to engage with a text’s interpretive possibilities.”
Below that I read an interesting passage that taught me about an incident I had not been aware of before. In 2003 a group of ninety British authors signed a petition protesting rampant state testing and stating “children’s understanding, empathy, imagination and creativity are developed best by reading whole books, not by doing comprehensive exercises and short excerpts and not by ticking boxes or giving one- word answers.”
Our public school is a CEO-run cyber school. It has a business model and runs on contract with the state. We want business models, because business models often work very well. A Business can make money and succeed in society. But education is neither just a business model nor a government program. If it must be one of those, I would choose the first, because then, as a consumer, I at least have some chance of being heard where the voice of the people in government is so much more sadly lacking. But business models don’t always work when we are growing children. We are not, I must emphasize, not building children. We raise them, like cows. We grow them, like fetal cells that become walking talking human beings. We train them like puppies and we interact with them like the each other that we are. A certain amount of testing and accountability is necessary. Measuring has its uses. But beyond that, we have an entire world at our disposal of personalities, interests, strengths, and weaknesses. The Norton in question discusses how one can not talk about children’s literacy without discussing education, and this is often true. Our educational system determines much of the perception of how children learn, what will be taught them on a daily basis, and how they may end up perceiving the world around them, including books and the worlds therein. Our educational system is not doing this well. Neither is some of our publishing business world, either. In some areas of these massive organizations, reading is a skill to measure by word number, word length, basic reading comprehension, and so on. This requires experts who research children and draw up generalities that can then be pressed onto the individual child like a cookie dough cutter. The same happens to many books: they require set lists of vocabulary words be used rather than creative story telling of a rich and natural sort. Storytelling as a formula, only more processed, like Velveeta world building. You may even be able to microwave it. Creativity tends to be the first casualty in this model, and then children are the next. If I look back at the quote from the petition of those British authors, I see words like ‘empathy’, ‘imagination’, and ‘creativity’. These are far too human to fit in a processing plant of human conditioning. When stories are no more than training for a person to follow instructions, then we have lost access to essential aspects of being human. This is not done by accident. No expert who recognizes these things will say, “Oh, I wasn’t aware that every society that has done this in history did it to the detriment of the humans involved”. Or “They must have oppressed the human spirit by mistake”.
Unless we have no spirit. Would that make it ok to lose our heart?
I kept out of our house those books that tended to instruct children on how to prepare to follow instructions. It was a weird pattern I became aware of as I accepted books from friends, joined book clubs, or went to the library. Some books didn’t just use simple words because they were written for very young children learning their words; they used simplistic vocabulary and stories to dampen down the questioning young mind. Questions are part of what drives the human mind. Books and education can stimulate that questioning, or repress it. Our current society does a lot of suppressing these days in language and thought. Well, it encourages harsh language of one kind while oppressing honest opinions or questions of another kind. I mean, while we have become anxiously aware of how we refer to various other people or we worry about offensively expressing our deepest beliefs, we have also become a coarser nation using the worst swear words in more commonly traveled social circles than ever. In books, definitely. And more often in children’s lit than ever before.
Perhaps the business model is part of the problem. Our cyber school was bought by Pearson, a textbook publishing group. Yes, our school is now run by the corporation that prints our textbooks. That’s like pharmacies buying hospitals. It isn’t wrong for a company to buy another company, but it may be wrong for a company to buy certain other companies. No system is perfect, of course, but some things just seem like a really bad idea. I’ve been watching the beginning of the effects following this acquisition, and there has been one surprise, so far, at least. The lit books have actually gotten better. I’m waiting to see how this plays out in 10th and 11th grades, which in the past had particularly horrendous literature for fresh young minds to digest. I’ve got my eye on you, Pearson.
So in my ramble I’ve mentioned coarse society, literature texts, and suspicion of government and business together. And libraries. I can hope, can’t I, that the libraries will continue to serve the general populace? Banned Books Week aside, libraries tend to be about truth, not just information. Even if as a school assignment one has to go mine information at the library, the truth remains there for us to stumble upon, in the stacks, online, in conversation, in personal thought, in a fairy tale. This Norton’s is over 2,400 pages long. It is nearly an entire library unto itself. Can’t wait to step in and strum my fingers through the pages, pausing at a picture here, reading a story there. It gives me lots to think about.