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The Malthusian Post-Potter World

Having done such a good job helping us into the Iraq War, the New York Times now has to take on not just Harry Potter but the entire literary world. Bad enough they should “prove” that kids lose interest in Potter by describing a boy who, at 15, will not immediately run out and read “Deathly Hallows,” but this article brightly concludes with this killjoy thwack on the head:

“Some reading experts say that urging kids to read fiction in general might be a misplaced goal. ‘If you look at what most people need to read for their occupation, it’s zero narrative,’ said Michael L. Kamil, a professor of education at Stanford University. ‘I don’t want to deny that you should be reading stories and literature. But we’ve overemphasized it,’ he said. Instead, children need to learn to read for information, Mr. Kamil said, something they can practice while reading on the Internet, for example.”

At least that’s blunt: education shouldn’t be some some artsy-fartsy waste of the taxpayers’ dollars, teaching kids dumb stuff like cultural appreciation, empathy, and the power of art; it’s about preparing a workforce of Silicon Valley drones. I can see the poor little tykes plowing through Census databases and SEC profiles as they furtively peek at books tucked in their laps. “No can haz Harry Potter?”

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18 Comments

  1. starstuff wrote:

    Wow, and this is coming from a “professor of education”?? My Reference professor last semester was an Education PhD, and I still have a bad taste in my mouth from the whole miserable experience. Assignments not graded, days passing without a word (this was an online class), snarky remarks about our perfectly legitimate questions and pleas for clarification of vague and conflicting instructions…. I had hoped she was the exception, but now I’m not so sure.

    Wednesday, July 11, 2007 at 7:35 pm | Permalink
  2. Diane Hillmann wrote:

    Good lord, what an idiot! He seems to assume that kids will become readers because they need information, not because they love stories and want to connect with them? He should be forced to memorize the amazing extended article in the NYTimes magazine (Title: The Gregarious Brain) where long held assumptions about what motivates language acquisition has turned upside down.

    Diane (whose learning disabled daughter was the ONLY kid in her special school who read voluntarily)

    Wednesday, July 11, 2007 at 8:38 pm | Permalink
  3. Pete wrote:

    Gradgrind lives ;)
    Why either/or? Can’t we have reading as functional skill and source of pleasure and growth. Yes, we can :)

    Thursday, July 12, 2007 at 12:49 am | Permalink
  4. kgs wrote:

    “Can’t we have reading as functional skill and source of pleasure and growth. Yes, we can” … I’m on your bus, Peter et al.

    Starstuff, I hope that is your only bad experience, because I had wonderful instructors for two masters (MSLIS and MFA). Never encountered an EdD, and now never want to. :-) I wonder if Education went to the Bad Place that English went, where theory overwhelmed common sense (right about the time I was graduating in ’83)? More than one pundit has observed that the PhD in Creative Writing is the “new” English PhD.

    Thursday, July 12, 2007 at 4:27 am | Permalink
  5. Wow, how can you be so wrong. Stories are all we have to make sense of the world. Storytelling is fundamental in all human activity, including business. A big chunk of project managagement is taking the semi-chaotic chronicle of events both inside and outside a project and making it into a coherent, but still true, story.

    Marc Andreesson, who knows a little bit about business, posted this in the middle of writing about how to make your company a place that people want to work:

    … a company in crisis often has a severe narrative or “story” problem that accompanies its business problems, and it can be hard to get people inside and outside the company motivated to reengage without you forcing a dramatic change to the story in some fundamental way.

    Stories don’t change by themselves. Change the story.

    See: http://blog.pmarca.com/2007/07/the-pmarca-gu-1.html

    Thursday, July 12, 2007 at 11:10 am | Permalink
  6. kate wrote:

    the Bad Place that English went, where theory overwhelmed common sense

    I was so excited to be an English major as an undergraduate and that’s what killed it for me.

    Also, I was recently talking with a MLS/MA in English about this very topic- as an English teacher, he got asked why we should bother with literature (in the “how will this help me get a job?” way that kids have). His answer (which I may be totally messing up, but it was very profound, i promise): Reading literature won’t necessarily help you get a job, but it’s how we know how to be human.

    Thursday, July 12, 2007 at 12:33 pm | Permalink
  7. kgs wrote:

    Wow, Kate, I had no idea that the nonsense about English had trickled down to the undergraduate level… that’s a crying shame!

    I like Walt’s point about storytelling. I have a story to share, but alas, I need to get an article out by late tonight, so I’m going to get cracking on it. It’s a story, too…

    Thursday, July 12, 2007 at 12:42 pm | Permalink
  8. Lisa Hunter wrote:

    Good post, but I need to point out that Silicon Valley workers are far from being drones. Thinking up new software and internet products is intensely creative. Almost everyone I know in that industry reads lots and lots of fiction. Sometimes a science fiction book even spurs them to make some technological fantasy a reality.

    Friday, July 13, 2007 at 10:53 am | Permalink
  9. kgs wrote:

    Fair comment!

    Friday, July 13, 2007 at 11:17 am | Permalink
  10. Matt Zimmerman wrote:

    The quote from the Stanford prof doesn’t say kids shouldn’t read fiction, jut that it is overemphasized. I don’t have enough experience in studying education and reading to know if he is right or not, but I do think “reading books” is linked too much linked with “being smart” when you are a kid. I hated reading fiction growing up and rarely did it, but I turned out ok (BA and MA in English and a job at a university). I rarely read fiction now. I always felt the emphasis on reading by adults is usually promoted by those who were in their rooms reading when me and my friends were out playing sports when I was a kid. I don’t think there is anything wrong with reading, but I think this prof might be right that reading fiction is shoved down your throat a bit too much when you are a kid when they are much more stimulating things to do: playing sports, games, etc. I don’t think you learn to be human from reading. I think you learn to be human be interacting with other human beings (taking, eating together, taking a walk), something you can’t do when you are reading a book. Like another post said, it isn’t either/or or black/white, but the focus on reading fiction could be eased up a bit on kids. They’d probably read more if it was!

    Monday, July 16, 2007 at 4:44 am | Permalink
  11. kgs wrote:

    Actually, he said “stories and literature” — which is far broader than fiction. And Matt, I have to disagree with you. Most narrative is really an argument, and studying arguments is how we learn to reason.

    I am a survivor of childhood sports activities, and literature saved me.

    Monday, July 16, 2007 at 7:56 am | Permalink
  12. Jonathan Blackburn wrote:

    Just out of curiosity, what’s the connection w/ Malthus?

    After 4 years of hearing many of my “philosophy and ethics” friends complain of the dangers of Malthus, I have only an inkling of his views – or its dangers.

    Monday, July 16, 2007 at 3:28 pm | Permalink
  13. kgs wrote:

    My impression of Malthus is Dickensian (and therefore, somewhat inaccurate and unfair), but I do recall researching Malthus when I learned Dickens had based Scrooge on him. When Scrooge says things like, “let the poor die, and decrease the surplus population,” he’s being Malthusian. Malthus had theories of population growth that included the benefits of letting the poor, indeed, die.

    For this entry’s title, I stretched that more broadly to a rather joyless world where children are not educated but processed into workbots. So I’m exaggerating an exaggeration. And poor Malthus is dead, and only has Wikipedia to defend him!

    Monday, July 16, 2007 at 3:59 pm | Permalink
  14. Matt wrote:

    You’re right Kgs. The Ed prof did say stories and literature– I misquoted that. I think the Times article does hit on this fear parents have that their kids aren’t reading enough and things like T.V. etc. compete for their (the kids’) time. I’m not a parent, but I always felt that fear was misplaced. I always felt, for the most part, if it isn’t fun when you’re a kid you really shouldn’t do it, but parents seem to want to force it. My weakness here is I’m not a student of education or literacy studies so I don’t know the research, but is there a lot of empirical evidence to illustrate that reading teaches you how to reason or be human? I’m not being smart, here, I just figured you learned reasoning as a kid trying to convince your parents to let you stay up late or have one more piece of cake — or fighting with you best friend, putting a model plane together, making up the rules to a game, stealing your sister’s hairbrush and then lying about it, etc. And it has only been fairly recently in human history that literacy rates are as high as they are today, right? I think people were pretty good humans and reasoners before they could all read. I’m not against reading. I think it is a lot of fun and lots of times useful (like being able to use this message board and read the Chronicle, it just seems to be a real middle class, social climbing fear that your kid should be reading all the time and I am not sure if the fear is worth it. Did you read Freakanomics? It isn’t the most academic book in the world, but there are some interesting statistics in there about children’s future success in school (albeit grades and test scores) in relation to how much their parents read them. The author found no correlation between the two. All of this though is based on my own personal aversion to reading as a kid and a bit of a pet-peeve I have about people who seem to relate the amount of reading one does to ones intelligence, which, in all fairness, noone in article, or on this message board has said explicitly — I just know it is hiding around implicitly somwhere :-) Nice thread, btw. Very civil. I am a new Chronicle subscriber.

    And as I go on rambling there, the one thing I think the prof is wrong about is there being “zero” narrative in reading for one’s occupation. I work in IT and we typically present a lot of our reports etc as “use cases” and “scenerios”.

    Malthus was most famous for arguing that populations grows geometrically [1 person has 4 kids who have 16 kids who have 64 kids] while food supplies grow arithmetically. This year I can grow 100 bushels of corn, maybe 150 next year.. maybe 200 next year. He predicted the population would eventually outgrow the food supply so felt the population had to be controlled. He didn’t suggest genocide or anything horrible like that though… just “moral restraint” (aka, don’t be so frisky!) which I think is why he is seen as a pretty glum guy. Needless to say his predictions were wrong, as I think we have enough food to feed the world population.. just not doing a great job spreading it around.

    Monday, July 16, 2007 at 6:32 pm | Permalink
  15. David Fiander wrote:

    From what I understand of my third-hand interpretations of Malthus, his big complaint was that population grows exponentially (two people have four kids who have sixteen kids, etc), but the food supply can’t grow that fast, and there’s only a limited amount of area to place under agriculture anyway. Thus humanity dies by overpopulating and starving or fighting wars of food.

    The (also third-hand) response to Malthus is that he could never have predicted birth control (or even the fact that affluent societies seem to have fewer children even without birth control), or the explosion in agricultural yields that came with the invention of modern fertilizers and farm equipment.

    But little of that relates to your original allusion. Unfortunately, while Jonathon Swift’s allusions to Malthus’s theory are quite amusing, they are also highly anachronistic, since Swift died twenty-one years before Malthus was born.

    Monday, July 16, 2007 at 7:23 pm | Permalink
  16. kgs wrote:

    Er… I said Dickens, not Swift… did I miss a comment or something? (Though the idea of conflating “A Modest Proposal” with “A Christmas Carol” does intrigue me)

    Monday, July 16, 2007 at 7:29 pm | Permalink
  17. David Fiander wrote:

    No, you said Dickens. But I thought that Swift might have been suggesting that the Irish were contributing to the pending Malthusian crisis, and was quite disappointed to find that that was chronologically impossible. But giving a Malthusian reading to A Modest Proposal does seem to be fruitful.

    Tuesday, July 17, 2007 at 4:10 am | Permalink
  18. Dick Morris wrote:

    Matt wrote:

    “Malthus was most famous for arguing that populations grows geometrically [1 person has 4 kids who have 16 kids who have 64 kids] while food supplies grow arithmetically. This year I can grow 100 bushels of corn, maybe 150 next year.. maybe 200 next year. He predicted the population would eventually outgrow the food supply so felt the population had to be controlled. He didn’t suggest genocide or anything horrible like that though… just “moral restraint” (aka, don’t be so frisky!) which I think is why he is seen as a pretty glum guy. Needless to say his predictions were wrong, as I think we have enough food to feed the world population.. just not doing a great job spreading it around.”

    What predictions were wrong? As far as world population is concerned, Malthus never said that the world was at, or anywhere near is population limit 200 years ago (a common misconception). So the events of the last 200 years have not disproven anything he actually wrote.

    Saturday, July 21, 2007 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

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