Reading and the Whale

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 2:45 PM EDT

Should schoolkids be allowed to read whatever they want?  Or should teachers assign them specific books?  Here's the brief for the defense:

What child is going to pick up ‘Moby-Dick’?” said Diane Ravitch, a professor of education at New York University who was assistant education secretary under President George H. W. Bush. “Kids will pick things that are trendy and popular. But that’s what you should do in your free time.”

This whole debate seems odd to me because it conflates two different things.  In earlier grades, say 1-8 or so, we're teaching reading.  Within reason, letting kids pick books they're personally attracted to seems like a good approach since it's more likely to keep them interested in reading for its own sake.

But in later grades we're introducing them to the literary canon, and that's where it becomes more appropriate for teachers to pick the books.  American Literature is a subject, just like history or chemistry, and an expert in the subject ought to choose the reading list.

On the subject of Moby Dick in particular, though, I take issue with Matt Yglesias:

All that said, I love Moby Dick. Every American should read Moby Dick, it’s our great national epic and you can’t understand the country without it.

I read Moby Dick a couple of months ago.  I didn't care for it.  I'll spare you the details since I'd just be opening myself up to quite justified charges of philistinism, and who needs that?  But I will say this: I don't feel like I understand our country any better for having read it.  And "you can’t understand the country without it" is an even stronger claim that requires an equally strong defense.  I'm eager to hear it.

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