The American education system discourages reading

Hot take: the American education system discourages reading. 

Now, I know what you might be thinking. Olivia, we spent years in English and literature classes, we took standardized tests, there were two whole sections of reading on the ACT, we had to take Paideia, obviously literacy is kind of a big deal in the American education system. And to that I say: Yes, but also all of that just proves my point. 

The American education system is really invested in our ability to read, but not in the capacity of reading itself. It cares if we are progressing to meet standardized trends, if we are reading at an “appropriate level” that corresponds to others in our age division, and more importantly, it is concerned whether or not we are able to synthesize information and themes from the work we are reading. In short, by 18 all we really have to be able to do is read isolated passages, and answer questions about them. As long as we are able to do that by graduation, we don’t really ever need to engage with reading on any higher level. 

But let’s say you choose to do so, you go to college and enter into a major field that requires a fair bit of reading. And by that, I mean a fuck ton, because it is never an easy knock-it-out-in-an-hour assignment. I’m talking like 70 to 100 pages a night, and you do it because you are a good student. After four years, the idea of reading anything beyond the bare minimum required of you is enough to make you wince. As an English/history double major, I can tell you, I haven’t read a book outside of the course work since this past summer, which is terribly ironic, seeing as I entered the former major because of a passion for the written word. The thought of any other book right now just seems like one more chore that can be put off until a later date that never comes. And that hurts me. 

I used to love reading and held it as one of the finest elements of being alive. It let me escape, live vicariously through others, kill time, and was overall a more engaging medium to me than film or television ever was. I still love reading, but this affection is rooted more in nostalgia for a fonder time than a current and active appreciation. I want to love reading again, in the same “I can’t put it down” way, but increasingly I find myself turning off the light each night with no more than a passing glance at the unopened novel on my shelf. 

This is not to say that all blame lies with the American education system, surely some of it must reside with me and my lack of time management, and I did receive the gift of literacy largely from the institution. However, I do feel that it has seriously limited my desire to read for pleasure. Aside from the enormous amount of school-related readings we must do, it is expected that we will read these assigned pages using the efferent reading approach, that is, reading to discover and digest specific information. We are encouraged to read for evidence, summarization, and identification. While these are vital skills to have in the development of our understanding and comprehension of our field of study and the world in general, close reading has irreparably damaged our ability to read aesthetically, or reading to explore the work and ourselves. 

Our education system has long approached reading for pleasure as an afterthought, to be lauded but not incentivized. Instead of granting time for leisure reading alone, most instructors provide reading sheets, projects, and logs to “track” the progress of one’s reading. Such measures only encourage performative reading, which is an extension of efferent reading. On this note, I want to be clear that I am blaming the culture, not the individual teachers. When salaries and positions are dictated by student performance on standardized tests and assessments, it can be challenging to not make “productive” use of class time, and simply encourage pleasure reading at home. But many of us, especially when young, are too busy or too unmotivated to read for pleasure outside of school without proper guidance and support. The rise of social media and visual content has only exacerbated this issue. 

In order for aesthetic reading to once again become a mainstay in the lives of young persons, our culture needs to fundamentally change its approach to the subject. Instead of promoting performative and efferent reading alone, time needs to be made early on in our education to devote to reading and reading alone, and no fuss should be made about what it is the students are reading. Even if it’s a comic book, a young adult vampire romance, or a theory textbook, at least its words and it makes them happy. At least they enjoy reading.