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The Reading Wars

by Charles J. Sykes

Given its importance, it is not surprising that the dispute over the teaching of reading is the site of some of the most intense and emotional battles in the school wars. Reading is at the heart of education, the basic skill upon which all others are built. History is full of examples of extraordinary educations based solely on the cultivation of language, through reading and through the mastery of words to express cogent and coherent thoughts. You'd hardly know this, though, from reading educationist theorizing about "communication arts skills" and "reading skills."

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Typically, educationists contrast the ability to read and write coherently with what they call "higher-order thinking skills," which they insist are far more important for children to learn that any "rote" skills of the past. But there is another way of looking at reading. The "high-order thinking skills" - such as inquiry skills, inference, analogy analysis, and the like are really only the building blocks for the genuinely higher order skills. "Much more worthy of being called 'higher-order skills'," argues Matthew Lipman, director of Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children, "are reading, writing, and computation. The reasoning and inquiry skills are relatively simple and eminently teachable. One might think of them, together with mental acts, as fairly atomic, in contrast with which reading, writing and computation are enormously complex and molecular. "In other words, the so-called "higher-order thinking skills" are merely building blocks to the far more complex process of understanding required for reading, writing, and math. Reading a work of literature requires the integration of all such skills, as well as drawing upon knowledge, insight, and intuition. Mastering "inquiry" skills is to reading Moby Dick what the mastery of musical theory is to playing Bach's "Ave Maria." Important, yes; maybe even crucial. But not the highest order.

Reading is also the model for thinking precisely because it is an individual, solitary activity; one mind alone with another. A book is a single voice, expressing a singular point of view, and requires the individual attention and response of the reader. Of all of the activities of education, it is the most personal. Despite all of the hopeful therapeutic posturing about collective thinking in education, thought, like reading, is not a collective undertaking. All thinking, ultimately, is individual. Perhaps that is why it does not seem to fit into the modern school's emphasis on cooperative learning, consensus, sharing of feelings, and group orientations. "The acts that are at once the means and the ends of education, knowing, thinking, understanding, judging, are all committed in solitude," Mitchell writes. "It is only in a mind that the work of the mind can be done. . . . "