Tuesday, March 17, 2009

`A Systematic Misleading'

“And then I made the discovery that what I liked in reading was to learn things I didn’t know.”

This week thousands of 10th- graders are taking the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, a standardized test known by the acronym WASL, pronounced wassail. On Monday I served as a proctor for the reading portion, and was first assigned to work as a “scribe” for a boy with a learning disability. We sat at a table in the reference section of the high-school library, next to a poster announcing “Reading: Make It a Hobbit.”

“It is a truism that reading educates. What it does most powerfully is introduce the world outside us, negating the obstructions of time and place.”

The reading test consisted of brief narratives drawn from history. The students were to read the stories and answer three sorts of questions – multiple choice, brief answers and longer, mini-essays (three sentences or so).They could consult the stories, where all the answers were explicitly given, at any time. They were asked, in effect, to parrot information.

“I think I learned quite early that the judgments of my teachers were probably a report of their ignorance. In truth, my education was a systematic misleading.”

The boy I was assigned to wanted to write his own answers, so my services as a scribe were not required. He asked me to read several words he was unable to figure out – “preparation,” “mail,” “defeat” – and to help him spell several others – “statue,” “Abraham Lincoln,” “express.” His printing reminded me of my 8-year-old’s. All of his multiple-choice answers were wrong but I was prohibited from telling him so.

“[We have] a society that reads badly and communicates execrably about what we read. The idea persists that reading is an activity of thoughtful, idealistic, moral people called authors and that they are committed to protecting certain values vital to a well-ordered society. Books mold character, enforce patriotism, and provide a healthy way to pass the leisurely hour.”

I spent the next three hours in one of the school’s two gymnasiums – shiny plank floors, clocks in cages, curved ceiling like a Quonset hut. More than 100 kids were seated, two to a table, taking the same reading test. After two hours, more than 40 were still slogging away. Part of my job was to wake students who had fallen asleep on their tests. I saw a kid flashing what appeared to be a pile of small white papers at another kid, both of whom were laughing. I reported this to another proctor, a retired English teacher, and she said, “He’s already failed the test twice for cheating.”

“If, now, I had at my disposal as a teacher only what I learned from the formalities of education, I could not possibly be a university professor. I wouldn’t know anything. I am at least still trying. I’ve kept most of my textbooks and still read them (and am getting pretty good at botany).”

After three hours, 16 kids were still working at their tests. One boy asked permission to use the restroom, and the retired English teacher asked him how much longer he thought he would need to complete the test. “About two hours,” he said, grinning.

“For the real use of imaginative reading is precisely to suspend one’s mind in the workings of another sensibility, quite literally to give oneself over to Henry James or Conrad or Ausonius, to Yuri Olyesha, Bashō, and Plutarch.”

The italicized passages above are drawn, in order, from Guy Davenport’s “On Reading,” collected in The Hunter Gracchus, the book I brought to school on Monday.

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