The Case for Reading Widely

An article about teachers not reading came to my attention the other day. You might remember that I have bemoaned the fact that not enough people read enough of the classics. But even with that, I sometimes think I have to make the case to read widely, not deeply.

Academia – in general – does not support a wide reading base, favoring depth over breadth. Wide knowledge comes mostly through interest and self directed learning.

Read Widely not Deeply

I am not a deep reader. I rarely read technical manuals – no surprise there. But I do read widely. I cannot name a favorite book. Most times we go to the library or the book store, I will wander the aisles and bring home to read whatever strikes my fancy.

I am not fussy when it comes to books.

As a result, I don’t know very much of any one thing, but I do have some knowledge of a wide range of things.

Now, lest I sound like I’m tooting my own horn, here’s my disclaimer. I only mention this because I see this in the reading habits of children.

Children Already Do This

My kids, I have noticed, will do exactly this.

They will wander the aisles of the library, find something that captures their attention and then grab the entire bookshelf of books about it. Next week, it’s onto something else. Or they will pick a book here and book there, not settling on any one subject.

As a result, they know a little bit about a lot.

Why Is Reading Widely Important?

Two instances illuminate the need for reading widely. In The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean – an excellent book, by the way, and highly recommended – he mentions Gilbert Lewis. Chances are, you’ve never heard of him.

Lewis never secured the Nobel Prize because his work was broad
rather than deep. He never discovered one amazing thing, something you could point to and say, Wow! Instead, he spent his life refining how an atom’s electrons work in many contexts, especially the class of molecules known as acids and bases. In general, whenever atoms swap electrons to break or form new bonds, chemists say they’ve “reacted.” Lewis’s work on acids and bases did as much as anyone’s to show what exchanging electrons means on a submicroscopic level.

So without Lewis, we would know about acids and bases, but not much about how they actually exchanged electrons.

Here’s another example

In Kon-Tikianother fantastic book, the writer Thor Heyerdahl narrates his 1947 journey by raft across the Pacific Ocean from South America to the Polynesian islands. Heyerdahl believed that people from South America could have settled Polynesia in pre-Columbian times. His aim in mounting the Kon-Tiki expedition was to show, by using only the materials and technologies available to those people at the time, that there were no technical reasons to prevent them from having done so.

But he ran into problems – partially because his theory covered a few academic areas, because he thought broadly, not deeply. Here’s a quote from the book, where someone who joins him on the expedition explains why he had trouble getting funding:

“Your way of approaching the problem. They’re specialists, the whole lot of them, and they don’t believe in a method of work which cuts into every field of science from botany to archaeology. They limit their own scope in order to be able to dig in the depths with more concentration for details. Modern research demands that every special branch shall dig in its own hole. It’s not usual for anyone to sort out what comes up out of the holes and try to put it all together.”

Yes, we need the technical, deep readers and thinkers, but we also especially need those who will pull up any book that looks interesting, will let the ideas slosh around inside their minds for a while. We need people who will pull threads from various sources, see similarities and create theories where there previously were none.

We need innovators.

Be those people. Let your children be those people. Don’t be afraid to read widely, not deeply.

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Unschooling Made Me See The Real Reason For Mandatory Public School

Contrary to popular opinion, I wasn’t born with a silver curriculum in my mouth. My first words were not, “I’m going to grow up, have children and unschool them.” (In fact – hold the rotten tomatoes while I duck – I distinctly remember wondering what the earliest age for starting preschool would be.)

When the children were born, something changed. I have written extensively about that elsewhere, so I won’t go into it now. Suffice it to say that by degrees I became a staunch homeschooler.

I was still a homeschooler, however. My ideas of how children learn best were still heavily bound up in curricula, sitting around the table with me giving information to them.

I thought homeschooling would look a lot like school at home. Nowhere in my mind was the idea that unschooling, let alone classical unschooling as a model would be the one that would best work for us.

It was unschooling – when I finally embraced it – that made me see the real reason mandatory public school exists.

Here’s how.

Without school, the children are noisy & unruly

Children are loud. Period. Mine are no exception. They don’t hold back their thoughts in fear that they might hurt the person in front of them. A lot of them tell it like it is, so to speak. Biting one’s tongue comes with wisdom and wisdom comes with age and experience.

Children can be mean, noisy, rude, unruly and generally obnoxious to be around. Yes, mine are no exception here either.

Being around them all day long can get exhausting.

Correcting them, guiding them, teaching them to see things they don’t in their brash, veni, vidi, vici way can get very tiring.

It is infinitely easier to give them something – anything – to do, require them to do it and punish them for disobedience.

This is as true for homeschools as it is for government schools – how many times have we heard the term “keeping kids off the streets?” How often has that been directly linked to mandatory public schools?

But then again, giving them something to do shouldn’t come at the price of true living. Zak Slayback, in The End of School writes,

Education and work shouldn’t be easily divisible. Creating and enforcing an artificial barrier between the two just distances education from its application to our lives and makes us view work as a mere necessity. Both education and work are necessary and both have major impacts on how we structure our lives.   Balancing work with education makes it harder to compartmentalize both, allowing for applications from one to travel to the other. Studying Bertrand Russell’s philosophy of work can be great when you aren’t working, but it can have life-altering impacts when you are working. Getting a good grasp of economics can appear valuable in the abstract, but it can mean the difference between staying in your current job and launching your startup when you are working.

Yes, the children did need (and want!) to be occupied, but rather than give them busy work, why couldn’t they do meaningful work? Why was my idea of them doing something immediately go to being chained to the desk-and-dining-table? Because even as a homeschooler, I associated education with sit down schooling.

Without school, we are co-learners

Without a curriculum – heck, even with one, I get asked a lot of questions. I say, “I don’t know” a hundred times a day. I look things up.

My children pester me to ask Google how presidents make laws, how to spell an infinite amount of words, Minecraft rules and tricks, and if there are purple trees (not technically, but there are underwater life forms at the bottom of the ocean that are purple and tree-like.)

I don’t get to be the authority, only a guide.

Could anyone successfully replicate this in a mandatory public school setting? Ever?

Why bother with something as paltry as listen to children’s questions anyway? Why not hand them a solid curriculum that gives them all the answers and tests them on if they can remember them? That’ll do the trick.

But then how much is really retained?

I have mentioned that we memorize much of what we call our school work for want of a better word. We do this because we do like memorizing and also because I truly believe that memorizing is important, especially in this era of everything at our fingertips.

But although memorization is something, it is not everything. Memorizing gives us a basis for dialogue, which we take very seriously. This occurs at random times during the day. Recently, we were talking about Egyptian pyramids. It occurred to me that even though we had read about Egypt in various books and memorized the timeline, my children learned more after they had begun to wonder how pyramids were built and their general structure, and not before.

The questions and the dialogue is what made learning occur, not a preplanned, force fed curriculum.

(By the way, if you’re looking for a fantastic book about pyramids, check out David Macaulay’s Pyramid.)

Without school, we are forced to create meaning in our days

My children recently decided that they would take care of the formal part of their learning at night, before bed. That would leave them all day to play.

Perfect, I said. That leaves me with all day to play as well.

If they were in a mandatory public school, this problem would never arise. They would be given a script, a role and the best they could ever hope to achieve with that is the perfect grade.

Well, what’s the fun in that?

I don’t want to separate work and play. I want my children to get a deep satisfaction from their work as well as play. The idea that work is separate from play is redundant. (Refer quote above.) I want my children to achieve what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow” in their daily lives. “Flow” is impossible without personal effort, it is not passive, it is essentially existential but it is also hedonist. And it is beautiful.

Classical unschooling made me see the real reason for mandatory public school and we rejected it.

Is it more work this way? Yes. Does it require more of me? Again, yes. But does it make life worth living? Does it make me come alive? Does it seek goodness and truth and beauty in my daily existence and find it, even momentarily, every single day?

You already know the answer to that.

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