I think this sort of thing demonstrates the inadequacy of our educational discourse. First, it really should give pause to anyone who is among the “blame teachers first” crowd; how can a teacher be blamed for the results of processes that begin, at the latest, during the toddler stage? But more to the point, it demonstrates that our educational outputs are conditioned by a host of factors that are really beyond society’s control. We don’t take children from their parents, and of course we shouldn’t. But a growing body of evidence suggests that parental input at the earliest stage of life have a huge impact on the success of children. How do we square that with our egalitarian aspirations, when we know that not all parents are made equal? I don’t have an answer, except for this: to protect all of our people from disadvantage through a robust and generous social safety net.
I can’t tell you how important it is to be able to write. Not from an artistic perspective, but from a practical one when searching for jobs or doing those jobs. If your e-mail is entirely AOL kiddiespeak, or misuses words, you don’t get to the next stage of the interview. If you can’t fill out a form in plain language, or read a paragraph to understand insurance benefits or a doctor’s instructions, or write a request letter, it stymies you in ways that go far beyond just the inconvenience of not expressing your thoughts clearly.
Part of solving this is equalizing the opportunity for exposure: better funding for libraries and musuems, especially in economically disadvantaged communities. Part of this is also making sure we close the digital divide; there are whole libraries online and I know the joke is that today’s technologically connected kids don’t read but reading on a screen is still reading.
And part of this is making sure there is time in which to read. It’s easy to bag on parents who don’t read to their kids, but if you’re working two jobs and aren’t home for bedtimes, if you’re so exhausted when you get home that you’ve got nothing left to give to your family, if you’re miles from a university or school of any quality or ambition and don’t get paid holidays to take trips, if your every thought is about the rent and the phone and electric bills, where exactly are you supposed to find the reserves to pick up Dickens, or even Judy Blume?
I joke all the time that as the oldest of three I was the starter kid, and my dad, though working full-time, did stuff like taking me to see Star Wars when I was two and reading me The Hobbit when I was five and generally treating me like an equal when it came to culture from the time that I could talk. He just sort of popped me into a backpack and went on about his day, and as a result I got exposed to a lot of things we now consider luxuries, or think of as adult pleasures. We would take annual trips down to Chicago and spend the day wandering around the Art Institute looking at paintings. One night we stayed over in a hotel (exciting!) and after dinner happened upon a play that was just starting in a cramped theater upstairs in a college. It was To Kill a Mockingbird, and it blew my tiny little mind.
We could do things like that not just because we had (relative) money — museums have free days and there’s all kinds of low-cost theater options available even in small towns, and libraries too — but because we had the time. Vibrant literature is evidence of free minds, and a great society is one that can support the freedom to expose oneself to great writing, the mental and physical space in the day to take it in. Quality child care, sensible family leave policies, living wages, all of those have as much to do with creating generations of readers and writers as anything that happens in a classroom.