Reading Is Elemental

How to preserve the humanities

Helen Vendler

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In my dentist’s office, when I was a child, was a sign that ran:

Without teeth there can be no chewing.
Without chewing there can be no nourishment.
Without nourishment there can be no health.
Without health, what is life?

Its rhetoric of concatenation struck me even then as irrefutable. I’d propose a different concatenation for the humanities: without reading, there can be no learning; without learning, there can be no sense of a larger world; without the sense of a larger world, there can be no ardor to find it; without ardor, where is joy?

Without reading, there can be no learning. The humanities are essentially a reading practice. It is no accident that we say we “read” music, or that we “read” visual import. The arts (music, art, literature, theater), because they offer themselves to be “read,” generate many of the humanities—musicology, art history, literary commentary, dramatic interpretation. Through language, spoken or written, we investigate, describe, and interpret the world. The arts are, in their own realm, silent with respect to language; amply showing forth their being, they are nonetheless not self-descriptive or self-interpreting. There can be no future for the humanities—and I include philosophy and history—if there are no human beings acquainted with reading in its emotionally deepest and intellectually most extensive forms. And learning depends on reading as a practice of immersion in thought and feeling. We know that our elementary-school students cannot read with ease and enjoyment, and the same defect unsurprisingly manifests itself at every level, even in college. Without a base in alert, intense, pleasurable reading, intellectual yearning flags. 

In a utopian world, I would propose, for the ultimate maintenance of the humanities and all other higher learning, an elementary-school curriculum that would make every ordinary child a proficient reader by the end of the fourth grade—not to pass a test, but rather to ensure progressive expansion of awareness. Other than mathematics, the curriculum of my ideal elementary school would be wholly occupied, all day, every day, with “reading” in its very fullest sense. Let us imagine the day divided into short 20-minute “periods.” Here are 14 daily such periods of “reading,” each divisible into two 10-minute periods, or extended to a half-hour, as seems most practical to teachers in different grades. Many such periods can be spent outside, to break up the tedium of long sitting for young children. The pupils would:

  1. engage in choral singing of traditional melodic song (folk songs, country songs, rounds); 
  2. be read to from poems and stories beyond their own current ability to read; 
  3. mount short plays—learning roles, rehearsing, and eventually performing; 
  4. march or dance to counting rhymes, poems, or music, “reading” rhythms and sentences with their bodies; 
  5. read aloud, chorally, to the teacher; 
  6. read aloud singly to the teacher, and recite memorized poems either chorally or singly;
  7. notice, and describe aloud, the reproduced images of powerful works of art, with the accompanying story told by the teacher (Orpheus, the three kings at Bethlehem, etc.);
  8. read silently, and retell in their own words, for discussion, the story they have read;
  9. expand their vocabulary to specialized registers through walks where they would learn the names of trees, plants, flowers, and fruits;
  10. visit museums of art and natural history to learn to name exotic or extinct things, or visit an orchestra to discover the names and sounds of orchestral instruments;
  11. learn conjoined prefixes, suffixes, and roots as they learn new words;
  12. tell stories of their own devising;
  13. compose words to be sung to tunes they already know; and
  14. if they are studying a foreign language, carry out these practices for it as well.

The only homework, in addition to mathematics, would be additional reading practices over the weekends (to be checked by a brief Monday discussion by students). If such a curriculum were carried out—with additional classroom support and needed modification for English-language learners or pupils in special education—I believe that by the end of the fourth grade, the majority of the class would enjoy, and do well in, reading. Then, in middle school and high school, armed with the power of easy and pleasurable reading, students could be launched not only into appropriate world literature, but also into reading age-appropriate books of history or geography or civics or science—with much better results than at present. If reading—by extensive exposure and intensive interaction—cannot be made enjoyable and easy, there is no hope for students in their later education. 

And since the best way to create good writing is by a child’s unconscious retention of complex sentence-patterns and vivid diction from reading, the act of writing—when it is introduced in the classroom—is not a matter of filling in blanks in workbooks, but rather a joyful form of expression for the child. After all, in the past, people always learned to write from reading books. Breaking writing down to “skills” subverts the very process of absorbing the written language unconsciously as one reads, an indispensable inner resource when one turns to writing. 

But now, when the school day is fragmented into many different subjects that do not implement intensive skill in “reading” (as broadly defined above), the result is the current lamentable lack of competence and swiftness in the encounter with the written page. And since all subsequent intellectual progress is dependent on successful reading, without that base, all is lost.

The humanities are intrinsically verbal subjects, and depend on a student’s ability to take delight in complex reading. In my Utopia, the students, after having been read to 180 times in each school year for four years, will have absorbed basic narratives intrinsic to the comprehension of literature, from the Greek myths to the ordeal of the Ancient Mariner, to the “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” to the narratives of the Hebrew Bible and Christian literature (and will, from their concurrent exposure to art, have images in their minds attached to those narratives). The aesthetic dimension will appeal without being formally identified as such, especially if paintings (e.g., of Pandora and her box) accompany the myth or story being read to the children. 

Later in my ideal schooling, a familiarity with authors would arise as three successive cycles of literary acquaintance would take place. In the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades, the students would read short excerpts in chronological order from major authors A, B, C…Z. In the seventh, eighth, and ninth grades the very same authors would appear, but in longer or more complex excerpts. And finally, in the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grades the same authors would again recur, but now in larger wholes. With Shakespeare for instance, the first time through, the child perhaps sings two songs by Shakespeare; the second time, the child reads some sonnets or a soliloquy; the third time, the student ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­reads a play. By the third time through, the students have garnered an idea of “Shakespeare.” And the same could be said of the other authors encountered, from Homer to Dickinson.

As it is, far too much “learning” is purveyed in elementary and middle schools by worksheets and exercises. These are not natural ways into reading. The natural ways into reading are reading aloud, listening, singing, dancing, reciting, memorizing, performing, retelling what one has read, conversing with others about what has been read, and reading silently. As it is, our students now read effortfully and slowly, and with only imperfect comprehension of what they have seen. They limp into the texts of the humanities (as well as the texts of other realms of learning). I dream of children who have become true readers, who like to sing together, to act together, to read aloud together, and to be read to. After that mastery of reading, the encounter with science textbooks and lab manuals will not daunt them. In college, the history of science will seem a natural bridge to the humanities, and vice versa. Students who read well will look forward to discussing a problem in philosophy or writing a paper in art history. They will be the next humanists—but only if we make them so. And I see no way to do that aside from devoting the first four years of their education, all day, every day (except for a period of mathematics) to reading in all its forms 

Much stands in the way of my Utopia: established curricula, textbook publishers, current teacher-training, teacher salaries, dependence on video and workbooks, and governmental requirements for several different subjects in each grade. But since what is in place has failed notoriously to make our younger students eager to read, proficient in reading, and drawn to the conceptual world of learning, it is time, it seems to me, to try to generate a reading practice that will lead to a future for the humanities and all other advanced reading.  I have never taught elementary school and grant that I wouldn’t know how to do it. I only see the results downstream, and wish that reading at the earliest levels provided better preparation for the higher-level intensity of the humanities.


Porter University Professor Helen Vendler is the author most recently of Last Looks, Last Books: Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill and Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries.

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