Yesterday I listened to a discussion, aired by the radio station of the University of Guadalajara, on how to get Mexican children to read more, which it seems theirs don’t either. A group concerned with the question had compiled a solid list of suggested reading for Mexican students (including Dumas and Robert Louis Stevenson). I wish them well.
What caught my attention was that, as Mexico tries to raise its standards, we have sought to lower ours, with notable success. It seems a perverse thing to do. My daughters recently graduated from high school (and do read) so I have an idea of the state of bookish affairs. By all reports, even smart children today read little, and still less that is worth reading. I have seen the science fiction and political correctness required of them. It is sorry stuff. They have missed, I think, an important boat.
The wonderful children’s books of the past were not merely for children, and were not in the least dumbed down (I prefer “enstupidated”) or unsophisticated. Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner are delightful things, notable for the sheer quality of the writing. Through the Looking Glass and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are not easy books, unsurprising since Dodgson was a mathematician, and swim in deep philosophical waters. The Wind in the Willows likewise bears rereading by grownups and, may I emphasize, isn’t easy reading unless a child has truly learned to read. These required of children a mastery of the language that adults now do not have.
Kipling’s classics–The Jungle Books, Just So Stories, Stalky & Company–were neither sappy nor condescending, and taught an easy fluency of reading and a love of good prose. The only recent work of the same stature is Tolkien’s trilogy with its quietly elegant English and fine story. It is a good read for a fourteen-year-old; and also for a reader of fifty who can appreciate the unerring weave of Carolingian myth, the northern sagas, Arthurian legend, the Jewish golem and English rural life, all wrapped in a complexly ordered philological backdrop that delighted the literate.
The illustrations accompanying many of the old books were not the grinning pabulum of Hollywood, but as good as the writing. The illustrators, if commercial artists in that they earned money by their work, were also fine talents who cared about their work and evoked worlds that those who read them never forget: Tenniel, Rackham, Shepard. To read The Jungle Books, to savor Shepard’s illustrations, and then to see what the cultural cockroaches of Disney have done to them, is to yearn for a horsewhip.
We pay a price for enstupidation. There floats around the Internet what purports to be, and probably is, an eight-grade exam from a school in Kansas in 1895. Most graduates of today’s universities could not pass it. One of the questions requires the giving of the principal parts of the verbs “lie” and “lay.” I can do it instantly: lie, lay, lain; lay, laid, laid. I know what both mean and when to use them. I don’t have to think about them.
I can do these things not because of any particular acuity, but because I went to Robert E. Lee Elementary in Virginia long ago, and then to the junior high of Athens, Alabama in 1957. We were expected to know what principal parts were, to memorize vast numbers of them, and to diagram (I was sure at the time) every sentence ever written.
Diagramming is now equated with deadening mindlessness. No. I learned how my language worked, what a subjunctive was, the difference between a direct object, an indirect object, and a predicate nominative. One reason why Americans in Mexico have such a terrible time learning Spanish is that they know none of these things.
The effect of learning how a thing ought to be done is that it becomes painful to see it done badly. The misusage one hears today is awful: “I was laying down.” “For he and I.” “There’s six on the table.” The abominable and increasing, “Me and him was talking.” “If someone comes into the ladies’ room, tell them to fix their hair themself.” The appalling confusion of “its” and “it’s,” “your” and “you’re.” Once is a typo. Five times in a few paragraphs is semiliteracy.
Grammar is not the only decedent. Words that meant different things no longer do. “Sensuous” does not, or should not, mean “sensual,” or historic, historical, or militate, mitigate, or tragedy, disaster; or stoic, stoical; or oversight, supervision. The result is that writers have to use circumlocutions if they want to be sure that younger readers grasp their meaning.
Those who cannot read cannot write. A common complaint of professors old enough to be fully literate is that their students aren’t. They cannot spell, or organize a coherent paragraph; they think that a verb agrees with the object of the nearest preposition, and lack a gerbil’s grasp of the simplest principles of composition.
They don’t know, and don’t know that they don’t know. Here is the nut of the matter: once a generation loses all cultivation, no one remains who remembers what it was, and there is no one either to teach it or remember why it was a good idea. We are there.
The promiscuous reading that once was common among intelligent children provided an unordered but broad schooling that the schools couldn’t, and were not expected to. Much of it was of no lasting value, as for example the literally dozens and dozens of Hardy Boys, the old and new Tom Swifts, the Nancy Drews, the Plastic Man and Wonder Woman and Classics Illustrated comics that we inhaled by sheaves in drug stores. They taught speed and fluency.
Yet much of it in its sheer un-thought-out profligacy did teach things of value. At perhaps age seven I went on a fairytale kick, reading Grimms, Edith Hamilton (I regarded myths as fairy tales), Andersen, Bulfinch, The Tanglewood Tales, the Jatakas, and a book of Hawaiian mythology in which I encountered Pele, the goddess of volcanoes. (I understand that she later played soccer for Brazil.) It was worth doing.
A peasantrified population is, among other things, politically malleable. A bright child of seven who reads turns into a kid of eighteen who thinks, at least during moments of hormonal respite; who graduates to serious history and literature and, when lied to, will go to the library and check out a book. Those who live for television will believe what they are told, having no inkling that they are being bamboozled. Is this intended, or just incidental to the larger aims of our cultural vandals? I don’t know.