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On College, literacy, helicopter parenting, and YA books

July 6, 2011

June was the month of rain.  It rained, and rained and rained.  And it was so cold it felt more like March than June.  The good part about rainy days?  I tend to want to curl up with something to read.  Whether it is a book, an article, the paper, my homework, or the computer, I just feel like soaking in words.

It all started when I was at class.  Our instructor told us about an article in the New Yorker titled, “Live and Learn:  Why We Have College” and encouraged us to read it.  Well, thanks to Willow, I subscribe to the New Yorker!  I went home and read it.  It was fascinating.  Louis Menand discusses in-depth the two (or three) theories of why we need college:

Theory 1:  To sort people into the correct categories, and to assign degrees accordingly.  College people are people who jump through the hoops and graduate.  They get the good jobs.  They are the “select” population. 

Theory 2:  To teach people.  To create an educated society.  College people will learn the same types of things and will learn the appropriate behaviors that are necessary in a civilized democratic society.

These are vastly different views, but Menand argues that it could be a blend of both.  His argument is that college is worthwhile, and should be available to anyone.  (He is more of a Theory 2 person.)  However, there should be standards to which the students should be held accountable.  He discusses this while citing Professor X’s articles in the AtlanticIn the Basement of the Ivory Tower and An Anti-College Backlash?  This Professor X goes on to discuss why he believes (quite strongly) that not everyone is suited to earn a college degree.

Since my students are the same type students that Professor X teaches, I found what he had to say quite interesting.  He is definitely a Theory 1 person.  He is emphatic that there are many, many people who are not “cut out” for college.  I will admit that this would be an easy Kool Aid for me to drink.  However, what it did instead was to force me to ask myself why I teach.  Why did I teach Kindergarten?  There were never arguments that Kindergarten wasn’t for everyone.  And now, why do I teach these college students who fail their placement exams?  A paycheck is not why.  I discovered what I already knew.  I am a Theory 2 person.  I am teaching so that everyone has the opportunity to have a better life.  So we have a more literate world.  Words are Power.  Without the ability to read (which means TO UNDERSTAND WRITTEN SYMBOLS) there is no ability to evaluate any aspect of life.  What doctor you should see,  who you should vote for, if your insurance covers everything it needs to, how to fill out a job application, write a resume, if the advertisements are telling the truth, if you should sign consent forms, how to apply for a loan….I could go on.  Being literate, whether you have a degree or not, is required in my brain.  Required.  If you are not literate, you have given up controlling your destiny.  You just exist.

Now, I know you can listen to amazing things and learn things from listening.  TED talks have very inspirational lectures.  There is a show called “Midmorning” that I love that is on every morning.  And I have linked to a show “Being” that talks about Democracy.  So, yes, you can learn without reading and writing.  There is also learning by doing.  Hands on things like building and fixing and creating.  But, in order to be in control of your life, my opinion is that being literate is required.

This brings me to one of the questions that I brought up a while back:

How do I make sure that I am teaching the content of the course at the level the course was designed, and teach within the zone of proximal development, meeting each student where they are and providing the scaffolding to the next incremental step in order to provide the best possible instruction?

Also?  How do I make sure all of my students have improved their reading ability whether they pass my class or not?

So, that is one area that my brain is stuck.  Then, I was listening to Midmorning another day and Kari Miller (who I love) was interviewing Lori Gottlieb about the article she wrote for The AtlanticHow to Land Your Kid in Therapy.  It was such a great discussion about how there is a balance between doing everything for your children and letting them figure out some stuff themselves.  Including how to fail.  Which is hard to let your kids do.  Especially for me.  (This is why I try to ignore them as much as possible, then I am not micro-managing.)  It is much easier to learn to fail when it isn’t a big deal, than it is when a job opportunity is on the line.  But there is that tugging at the back of your brain…my kids are interested in (insert wonderful educational opportunity here) and there is a three-week camp on that very subject….of course we will sign up for it!  And for this other wonderful opportunity too…and this one!  Pretty soon they have no days to figure out how to entertain themselves, what to do when they feel bored….how to make up a game, or pretend something of their own imagination.  I will tell you it is a struggle for me sometimes to say, we are doing enough.  No piano lessons.  (And DENY them the opportunity!  Bad, bad parent!)  So, as I was making MAJOR connections to my own life and my own kids, I was also thinking about Professor X.  He said that there are work places that require people to get credits in order to advance in their jobs.  He doesn’t cite (that I can remember) what jobs, they very well could be positions that require people to be able to put good sentences together and to read well enough to not mess stuff up, but he made it sound like these jobs wouldn’t require such basic things.  Is this another form of hovering?  If people are perfectly capable of fixing an air conditioner without being able to write an essay, why are we requiring them to write an essay in order to advance in an air conditioner-repair job?  Is our society moving in this direction?  I still think that everyone should be able to communicate with writing and be able to read, but how far should the requirement go?  So, yes  I still believe that being literate is required in order to live your best life and have control over your own destiny.  But, how literate?  Where does one draw the line?  How do you decide where it is literate “enough?”

And then, of course there was the Wall Street Journal article, “Darkness too Visible” by Meghan Cox Gurdon.  I didn’t see this until Sam posted Sherman Alexie’s rebuttal on Facebook:  “Why the Best Kid’s Books are Written in Blood.”  There were two segments on midmorning regarding this topic of censorship, what is appropriate for teens, and how to deal with the maturing audience that is YA.  One is short and one is a whole hour.  When I thought about the body books that I hid under my bed because I thought they were a bit too graphic for Sarah…they discussed eating disorders in great detail, and cutting…neither of which she has any idea about.  I thought, “Oh, geez.  Am I for censorship?”  Is this another way we hover?  But then, The Diamond in the Window, being awesome as she always is, let me know how I really felt.  And the longer mid morning also spoke of how thirteen year olds have a different tolerance than an eighteen year old.  I have read books about many a dark thing, it doesn’t mean I am going to commit the crimes or become an addict.  But I am a parent, so it is my job to protect my children and make sure that they read what they can handle.  Cutting?  At nine?  Unless she had a friend that did it, or saw a news program or something and had questions about it….then no.  And, is this limiting of books creating less literate people? I am still not really sure I would limit books.  If Sarah asked me if she could read a book?  I would probably warn her, but let her.  Even though I won’t let her read Harry Potter.  I know she would LOVE it.  But she would also want to read all seven books.  And, she gets too scared for the darkness that begins in book four.  Plus, I want to read it to her…selfish, that is what I am.

Now you know what has been pin-balling around in my head for the last month.  I have this feeling that all of these articles are connected, and that they mean something significant.

I tried to articulate my connections, but what I really want to know is what do you think?

  1. July 8, 2011 8:18 am

    This is such a great blog post. I wish we could have coffee over it because it’s just full of good stuff. You’re so smart, Meg!

    As for the college theories, I am definitely more of a Theory 2 person, though I do see some truth in Theory 1. College is an amazing EXPERIENCE and learning just opens up in whole new ways. Still, there are kids who aren’t ready for it at 18. I’ve heard lots of news stories lately on, is college still WORTH it? The fact that we spend (or go into debt) so much on something that isn’t guaranteed to land us that good job or successful career is mind-boggling. And I look at someone like my husband, who bounced around several colleges with half-formed plans (seriously – ask me how many majors he had) but then ended up gettting an Associate’s degree from a welll-regarded community college. His education from that program is what supports our family on ONE income. Pretty amazing.

    As for protecting our kids from the stuff in YA books – I think any caring, involved parent is going to be aware of what their kids are reading. It’s a lot to keep up with – and probably impossible to read everything first. Reading is such an act of freedom and joy and I can’t imagine trying to harness it with parental controls, you know? I know I haven’t had to face it yet but I have always said it’s better to deal with hard issues in books – where you can not read too deeply, skip a couple of pages, and go on. So much better than TV. But I think it all depends on your kid, too. I just think there’s enough really tame stuff out there to keep the more innocent kids reading and then there’s a broadening – it seems to me that modern YA has always been about pushing the limits. There’s a lot of kids who deal with really hard stuff in their lives that we privileged middle and upper class worried mamas just can’t fathom. Situations that we would never allow our children to live in. Cutting and drugs and other dark stuff is not scary to them; it’s part of their life. (Even though cutting is disturbing and I never heard of it as a teenager but encountered it in college.)

    I didn’t read the article on landing your kid in therapy, but I am off to read it next!

    • July 11, 2011 10:13 am

      I am so glad you weighed in Sam! I love (LOVE) the point you make about how some people are not ready for college at 18. I have MANY students in this exact situation, both the 18 year olds and the ones who dropped out after one year and are back at 24 or 25 (or 35…) and are my BEST students. That maturity is so apparent, and I had one of these 24 year olds tell me this past semester how much she sees herself in some of my more immature students. YES. Professor X never touched on this, and it is so important. It is never too late!

      I also like the fact that your husband kept going until he found what he needed for a successful life. I, being biased of course, want my kids to graduate from college with a BA. However, there are many people out there who are very successful without one. The key is, for me at least, that they have basic skills that they can use successfully. They can read and evaluate what they are reading, they can write and be articulate while writing (and speaking!) they can problem solve, and they have the social skills that they need to get along with people (even those people they don’t like). Ideally, these things would be basic skills that would be required in order to graduate from high school, but that is a whole other discussion!

      And the YA stuff, I totally agree with you. I just think if you know your kid you can steer them in the right direction so the trauma will be less likely. I am protective. Yes. I know. I am working on it. My husband is worse than me, he wanted me to turn off the TV when we were watching Lady Gaga on American Idol. I told him that they would see this stuff eventually, and wouldn’t you rather have them see it with us first? Then we can say stuff like, “She forgot her pants!” And it goes in a different direction than it could. I totally see his point, but it is out there and we won’t be able to control them forever. We need to be available to them, and if they never experience these “inappropriate” things with us, they won’t feel comfortable coming and talking to us if they need us. So even though I am censoring Harry Potter for now (selfishly), I certainly don’t read every book before my kids read them. And if any of them bring home a book I know contains tough issues, then I will just share that information with them. The tough-issue books are sometimes the best form of education, I think. As long as it isn’t how to become anorexic or the best stripper in town, I think I will be okay.

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment! xo

  2. July 8, 2011 5:52 pm

    I have super strong opinions about this (but then, don’t I ALWAYS have strong opinions? um, yes .. moving on)

    I think well-written books are important no matter the subject, no matter the age group– if it is a subject someone wants to write about, chances are they have a reader– who am I to get in between the two of them? More often than not, I will be one of them.

    College should come in as many stripes as their are people— once upon a time, when guys in long robes walked the streets of Paris discussing their most recent lecture in Latin– well, yeah, it was all about higher learning for those who were intellectually capable, financially (and socially) able, and interested in stimulating their cortex to the next level.

    Education, of course, is the ticket to a better life— however, there are many ways to a better life and to an education and not all of them rely on a college experience. I always loved the scene in Good Will Hunting where Matt Damon trashes the 250K college education that kids squander when he has a $10 library card and a ravenous curiosity.

    Socially, college can be expanding and expose you to the bigger world — or, for many, it can be a large playpen where food and housing is taken care of.

    Well– I’ll stop there cause this is one for us (like Sam said) to sit and chat about for hours . .

    • July 11, 2011 10:39 am

      I am so happy you brought your “super strong opinions” here to share. I value them so much. I love your point about college being a large playpen! Love that mental picture too. I was so focused on my own experience (I was a fairly serious college student) and my student’s experience (Very few, if any, of them are taken care of, most work full time and attend classes) that I forgot about the gigantic population who go to college to drink beer. And skip class. Oh, and cause trouble. My mind went immediately to several people who I remember that fit this category. How could I have forgotten that? Geez. I totally agree that college should be in many different forms for our divergent student population, and I also agree that college isn’t a requirement for a successful life. (I forgot about that scene in Good Will Hunting…I need to watch that movie again now!)

      I would love to have a conversation about the intellectually capable, financially and socially able and the interest part of college. This is where it gets fuzzy for me. Professor X would say that some of his students should not be in college. That they are not intellectually capable. I totally see this perspective with my own students, except I don’t really believe it. I think they are missing something that they are perfectly capable of learning, but it is not at the college level. (I do understand that some people have disabilities that prevent higher level thinking, I am not talking about this population.) That is why I am struggling so much. I want to meet these students at their own level and help them fill in these gaps, but that is not necessarily my job. I need to keep the course at the level that it is meant to be taught as well. It is so frustrating! The crazy part of me wants to explore Adult Basic Education to see what the continuum is and if there are any huge gaping holes. I also think our placement testing could do a much better job at pinpointing what needs these students have. I believe that EVERYONE is capable of becoming literate. That may be my blind spot, but I am okay with that.

      As for the YA stuff, I am in complete agreement with you. I explained my position regarding my own parenting above with Sam, so I won’t type it all in again. I just value my sleep. And when I know that something is going to be too scary for my kids, well then, I do say, “not yet.” Never, “NO” because that never works. And so far, it has worked out okay.

      Thank you so much Elizabeth! I appreciate your two cents every time they come!

  3. July 15, 2011 3:30 pm

    oooh, great post. It’s too late and I’m too tired to weigh in with everything I think about these topics right now. But I will say that my parents never ever censored what I read, and I read some CRAZY ADULT stuff when I was much too young for it. (The Exorcist at 12, yes. And that wasn’t even the worst…Jacqueline Susann’s Once is Not Enough around the same time…). I read and read and read and think I turned out just fine, though I’m not so sure that just ANYONE would have, with the reading I did. I tell my kids when I don’t think something is age-appropriate and then let them decide whether to continue. So far, it’s working pretty well, and they DO ask me about things they read, which definitely gives us opportunities for dialogue (some harder on my parental head than others but so be it). :)

    • August 5, 2011 5:33 pm

      The Exorcist at 12??? I did things like this too. Remember V.C. Andrews? I read all three. And I snuck downstairs and watched Amityville Horror when it was on TV (Parental Discretion Advised). I STILL panic when I wake up at 3:15. I also read Judy Blume’s Forever in sixth grade, and then Wifey. I think I do the same things that you do, except with Harry Potter…anything else is fair game, but I have my dibs on that series.

  4. August 1, 2011 11:05 am

    Oh this is such a thought-provoking post, and I loved reading the comments too! I just read through it for the second time… had wanted to give a thoughtful response and that ended up taking a couple weeks :-)

    As I read your post, I thought how one of the things you’re getting at with these different articles and questions is the the power of one person (parent, teacher…society) to decide what another person (child, student, people in general) needs/must know. And this is something that on the face of it seems simple; of course we all need to be literate in our society where literacy = power. But then as you start considering later in the post, it’s not quite that simple. I am completely with you as to being a Theory 2 person… as a teacher and a person what I care about is helping others become better at something they’re trying to do (and in the process learn more myself too). But I also think that out of necessity as a society education also functions to sort people. It used to be much more limited for elites, the middle class… Over the 20th century we went from expecting many people not to finish high school, to expecting everyone to, and in the last 15 years or so that expectation has shifted to college. And the result does seem to be that there are many, many people in college now how aren’t ready for it (for college as it’s currently set up, that is).

    I think the key in all of this is having some freedom to choose for ourselves, whether as kids with our parents, or as young people figuring out a future. But it’s really hard, and I think with your thoughts about censorship you get at why it’s hard. When we restrict choices, we are doing so in the more powerful position of the one who chooses, and that makes sense when it’s about the safety of our kids for example, but I’m with you and your commenters re the need to let kids read books they’re drawn to or have a context for (i.e. questions about, etc). I myself read everything I could get my hands on as a kid, and it was a huge outlet for learning about the world in a fairly isolated household.

    Sam is right – this would be such a great conversation over coffee! This was just the first thought I had about the conversation, but I think I’ll stop there for now. Thanks for writing about what you’re reading and thinking about, Meg!

    • August 5, 2011 6:34 pm

      Is it bad that I have been WAITING to hear what you would think? I knew that you would add something HUGE and I was right. The whole issue of power, and who wields it over others. That is HUGE. I still think that knowledge is power, and people need to be able to read and evaluate that reading in order to truly have that power, but the free will to make yourself happy is part of the declaration of independence.

      This notion of expectation for students at every level is another interesting topic that would be worth discussing. When I taught kindergarten a little over 10 years ago, our report card was a checklist of letter recognition, letter/sound knowledge, color recognition, shape recognition, knowledge of name, address, phone number and birthday, and large/small motor activity. That’s it. When Sarah started kindergarten I was blown away by what she was required to accomplish by the end of the year. We expect kids to do SO MUCH more than 15 years ago. It began before I was done teaching, but it has come A LONG WAY since. I think the expectations have grown across the board, and I am curious about if it is good or bad or if it matters at all. Totally worth exploring at some point. It is another thing that I think about a lot.

      Man, I really wish we COULD spend an afternoon/evening sipping hot drinks and solving these weighty issues. I am sure we could even let our conversations wander as well. It would be SO MUCH FUN.

      Thank you, Willow for your very thoughtful comment! xo

  5. Terri permalink
    August 5, 2011 8:21 am

    I noted that in your title following the word literacy was the word hellicopter. Should that not be spelled helicopter?

    • August 5, 2011 5:03 pm

      Oh, Terri! Thank you so much for bringing my spelling mistake to my attention! I think I have written here about how spelling is always a challenge for me, and always has been. I could study for my spelling tests and get them all right, but nothing stuck. I rely on spell-check and my husband ALL THE TIME. Titles in wordpress must not be spell-checked, or I may have missed it. I have gone back and corrected the error.

      I really wish you would have commented on the content of the post, however. This is a topic that I have been discussing all summer, and I am so interested in other people’s point of view. I feel like your comment had such a reprimand connotation to it, that maybe you didn’t even read the post? Or, maybe you think that I must not be literate because I spelled helicopter incorrectly?

      Thanks for stopping by and correcting me! (I am so embarrassed.) I hope next time you will get what you came for.

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