Reading is Still the Key to Education

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 26, 2005

By now, most of the readers of this column, no matter how limited that number may be, just might be thinking that with all my blathering about technology I might have neglected education’s single-most powerful and significant pillar – reading.

Believe me, that is not even within the realm of possibilities, since it is my position that the ability to read is the pinnacle of humankind’s cognitive communication process.

Reading transports the reader to distant times and spaces, allows for a free expression of interpretations of the worlds in which we find ourselves, ties people together in the development of ideas, and lays the foundation for continued expansion of the technology which has freed us from the physical harshness of our environments.

When trying to conjure up the most important element in my education, I can think of no other activity so imbued with the spirit of learning as reading.

When we reflect on its efficacy, we can see that we can learn nothing without reading.

In the realm of literature we lend ourselves to the imaginations of the writing artists.

In the realm of history we see events through the eyes of the recorder of those events.

In the realm of mathematics we reason in the tradition of Euclid’s geometric deductions. And in the realm of philosophy we are lead through the sometimes labyrinthine caverns of abstract thinking.

With it all, we are compelled to participate in the writings, the thoughts, and the conclusions of the various authors who have captured our attentions.

Since the development of written language through whatever symbols we may have devised for our particular societal configuration, we have advanced from using actual pictures of events or persons who framed events to a more universal and flexible system of symbols which are capable of being translated into other similar symbol systems, say from English to Spanish.

We have come to see that a symbol system which is malleable and open can add to its lexicon and become more universal and “user friendly”, to put it in contemporary “tekkie” terms.

This fact has been the fulcrum, if you will, of the advancement of educational efforts.

Hence, one of the first major learning efforts is the alphabet, which is the mortar for our language/symbol system.

And once we have mastered the alphabet, we have a grasp of the very language itself.

Reading takes us to the next level of learning in that it introduces us to the thoughts of others.

How others who have preceded us have seen the world gives us a head-start, in effect, in grasping the next level of understanding in a kind of building-block process.

Hence, we don’t have to re-invent the wheel to use it.

Gertrude Stein, American author, has said, “Writing and reading is [sic] to me synonymous with existing.”

Reading is the life blood of our awareness of the world in which we exist.

Sir Francis Bacon offered the following quotation with which we are all familiar: “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.”

It is no coincidence that he begins with “reading” when outlining the elements of well-bred (read “educated”) person.

Still, today we are inundated with all kinds of vehicles for new ideas, not the least of which is television.

But a group of stimuli which appeal to more than one of our senses leaves little to the imagination, and, thus, to cognitive growth.

Former U.S. Diplomat George F. Kennan has said, “Reading, in contrast to sitting before the screen, is not a purely passive exercise. The child, particularly one who reads a book dealing with real life, has nothing before it but the hieroglyphics of the printed page. Imagination must do the rest; and imagination is called upon to do it. Not so the television screen. Here everything is spelled out for the viewer, visually, in motion, and in all three dimensions. No effort of imagination is called upon for its enjoyment.”

So what we see when we witness our youngsters glued to Game Boy or other recent video games is not the expansion of the thinking process, but rather an inhibition of it.

To substitute it with reading a book is to save that child, in reality, from being indoctrinated into the culture of that particular “game” and its confined worldview.

The reading activity allows each reader to impose that reader’s personal thinking process on the selection being read.

While the conclusions of the author are there, the reader actually has the option of editing, modifying, or seeing it through the lens of personal history and observation.

And as British author Angela Carter observed three decades ago, “Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself…. You bring to a novel, anything you read, all your experience of the world. You bring your history and you read it in your own terms.”

And in the classroom, while we, including this columnist, propose using the most recent technologies to enhance learning, the fact is that reading lays the foundation for our contemporary educational efforts.

It polishes the conclusions reached in guided discovery for young minds, and it opens an entire world to those who would otherwise be limited by time and space.

Thus, while reading is fundamental to all we do with our educating efforts, we must keep in mind that in guided discovery, it still is the seasoned pedagogist who gives meaning and makes sense of the reading effort.

Or as the old Chinese proverb explains, “A ton of reading does not equal one good teacher.”

Dr. Arthur Ogden is the Campus Director for Alabama Southern’s Demopolis Campus and holds all his degrees in philosophy.

He can be reached at aogden@ascc.edu.