“High School Happened” : English Classes Should Assign More Independent Reading

Photo by Haris Durrani '11

Haris Durrani ’11
Senior Writer

A friend once remarked that he used to read for fun, but not anymore. As a result, he might not come to love reading as he once did.

When I asked what happened, he laughed and replied: “High school. High school happened.”

A variety of students are stuck in similar situations, in which the workload of high school—English class and otherwise—has resulted in a lack of independent, extracurricular reading. I’ve also heard students who still love to read say they just don’t have the time these days.

It’s probably a fact of life. There isn’t a lot of time for a lot of things.

But I still think it’s sad. It’s sad that the institution founded upon the encouragement of learning and individual thinking is, in some respects, limiting those values.

Perhaps we can build a student body more in love with learning than obsessed with doing.

While English classes are not completely at fault, they might provide a solution.

A vast majority of English classes assign book after book with little choice on the part of students. Instead, maybe teachers could assign students to read from “the canon” of literary curricula half or two thirds of the time, and teachers could assign them to choose their own books during the remaining portion. Every other assignment or so could be a student-driven one.

Kids would get an opportunity to practice their love of reading or at the most basic level to simply keep that interest alive. If students are discovering for the first time that it’s possible to actually read books teachers don’t assign, that’s an accomplishment in itself.

For educators, all of this means students learn more independently for a larger amount of time.

90 percent of English class, students read what they’re assigned in the classroom. And often those are good, quality works of literature that everyone should understand.

Nevertheless, if kids are always told what to read, how can they manage to learn on their own, to develop their own methods of critical thinking? Everyone’s reading the same “classics.” Consequently, students can become conditioned to think in similar ways about literature and the themes the line of “canonical” English class literature discusses.

The “canon” (as arbitrary and controversial and potentially flawed as it inevitably can be) is impossible to avoid and important to a degree, but humans aren’t humans if we can’t learn on our own. Science fiction writers and scientists have frequently emphasized that the key to reaching human intelligence may be a machine’s ability to “self-program,” teaching itself as it undergoes various experiences.

So self-learning is essential to human intelligence. Yet, there’s little chance for independent thinking if everyone is given the same books to read and scarce chance to act as individual readers, learners, and thinkers.

And there’s little chance to love reading either.

Again, none of this is the English curriculum’s fault entirely, but English class is where the problem of student reading can be solved most directly.

Leave room for kids to read their own books too. We need to encourage independent reading more often so that students will be more inclined to make time to read on their own when they encounter the busyness of college and work.

Maybe they’ll learn to keep reading for not just four years but their entire lives.