As the kind of person who can always be found carrying a book with her, I am nearly always asked about what I am reading by my friends, co-workers and other acquaintances. More than once, someone has asked me why I don’t just watch the movie version. But the thing I hear the most is:
I haven’t read a book since high school.
My inner bookworm has always shuddered at hearing this, but recently, after hearing this same sentiment repeated not only by people my age, but also by people who finished school years ago, I have started seriously thinking about why people aren’t picking up books after school.
More often than not, when I have asked people why they don’t find themselves interested in reading anymore, they attribute it to the books they were assigned in school. And sure, it seems like a classic story – stuck in English class and hating the book you’ve been assigned to read – but the fact that this narrative has become so prevalent in our schooling lives, is a problem in itself.
Why are we still being forced to read books that even our parents and teachers hated? What effect is this trend having on our literacy and associated industries? How can we change the way people choose to engage with books after school? Why hasn’t anyone already made these changes?
With the announcement of new changes being made to the school curriculum, it seems like this issue needs to be addressed, so here is a breakdown of the issue:
What about the books?
While writing this article, I asked a couple of friends about their reading experiences in high school. Nearly all of them agreed that the reason they tend not to read a lot now is because of the group of books they read in high school. For them, these books didn’t seem relatable and often felt stuffy or irrelevant. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and most Shakespeare texts were amongst those that students suffered through. When it came to Australian Literature, the focus on ‘bush literature’ seemed to put a lot of students off reading Australian books altogether, and given that the Australian literary scene is suffering already, this is not a good sign.
Beyond that, a lot of the books I read in school seemed like they were being venerated simply because they had been on the syllabus for a long time. I remember my English teacher telling me that she loathed Lord of the Flies by William Golding, but that she was going to teach it because it must be on the syllabus for a reason, and if she had to suffer reading it at school, so should we. Luckily for me, this same teacher often shared the books she read outside of school with some of us and it was the conversations we had with her outside of class about those books that made us excited about reading and sharing books. The difference in the way even she discussed books was obvious when it came to current literature.
The people I spoke to who did enjoy reading often attributed it to the fact that they read recreationally outside of school. The books they read for fun seemed far more interesting that those assigned for school because they were more reflective of current social issues and promoted discussion amongst other readers that made reading those books more exciting. From my own experience, talking to my friends about the themes and writing styles of authors we were reading recreationally was often more rewarding and fostered insightful and thoughtful conversations about our current society.
People enjoyed reading The Hunger Games because it was a more relevant version of dystopian literature than we were reading in school, and we could see the real-world parallels where we couldn’t see them with the books we were assigned in school. I’m not saying The Hunger Games is the most ‘high brow’ book out there, but it generated more insightful discussions in the playground than Lord of the Flies ever generated in the classroom. The discussions I had with friends about Zusak’s The Book Thief or Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie or even the reasons why we had problems with the representation of women in Twilight were some of the best and most educational experiences of my reading life in high school, and I can say for certain that as much as my teachers tried to make the books we were reading from the syllabus useful to us, I know that they could have done a lot more for us as young citizens if they were able to teach us the modern books we knew we could learn from.
Why hasn’t this been addressed before?
The problem with discussions around books that students should be reading in schools is that they always seem to come back to The Literary Canon – the group of books and authors that are considered ‘classic’ and therefore are seemingly recognised as required reading. The thing is, most of these books, whilst they have been deemed classics, are often incredibly inaccessible for students. Dense period language, outdated thematic concerns or social conventions, the sheer size of the work and the unrelatable plot are just some of the major obstacles for young readers when it comes to approaching these works. Sure, teachers can go on about ‘universal themes’ until the cows come home, but even they have to recognise that there are more modern and relevant texts for students to use to approach certain themes.
Beyond that, in our increasingly fast-paced and politically charged social atmosphere, it can be hard for students to accept the texts they are handed without question. In a world where anti-racism movements, LGBTQI+ rights, institutionalised discrimination and feminism are such crucial points of discussion, it is clear that the texts our students are reading need to be relevant to the world they are living in today. Reading texts written several hundred years ago by privileged straight white males is not the best way to start discussions about these incredibly important issues. Students aren’t stupid – they have intelligent and informed thoughts about our current social climate, and they want to read texts that will continue to enrich their understanding about these issues. Frankly, Charles Dickens is not the best person to talk to about the Black Lives Matter movement, or feminism for that matter.
Continuing to perpetuate the notion that only ‘classic’ books can teach our students, is an incredibly damaging way of educating our young people, and it is well past time we started to teach them about how literature can reflect their complex world today.
How can we change things?
So what can we do to make a difference to our reading practices after school? It’s simple: change the books we are teaching our students. When the new school curriculum is put together, we need to allow our youth to guide their own education by asking them about the issues they want to learn about and find contemporary books to help them engage with those issues and encourage discussion. Perhaps the most insightful comments I got about this topic came from two very bookish friends of mine:
“[We need] More of a focus on books being published right now! They reflect the world we live in. Also, more freedom for teachers to choose and teach the books they think will be received well by their class – rather than one for the whole state. Reading Hamlet doesn’t necessarily make you a more educated person.” – Nicky Cayless
“The idea of the canon has become a deliberate way to maintain elitism in our education system. That there are certain texts that are unimpeachable and must be studied if we are to be deemed “educated”. There is an undertone of class structures at play here.” – Vin Nittle*
Sure, it is all very good to have children be able to recite Shakespeare, but if they don’t understand the contemporary issues of their modern world, they aren’t going to be the leaders we need them to be. And when it comes to Australian literature, we need to ditch ‘bush books’ and find books that best reflect the Australia our kids have come to know, and make students understand that those stories are just as valuable and important. Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil or The Hate Race, Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project and Julie Koh’s Portable Curiosities are just some of the wonderful contemporary Australian books I would recommend.
Furthermore, if we get students to read recently published books that engage with current issues, we are going to be supporting our own publishing industry and literary culture. If we can foster interest in local literature about current issues such as refugees, immigration, international politics, racism, gender equality, unequal wealth distribution, class divides, LGBTQI+ communities and the wide range of increasing social awareness, we are also going to encourage our youth to become engaged in these discussions, and potentially see them contribute to these discussions more publicly. It also opens up opportunities for kids from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, as it allows them to engage with issues that are important to them, and make them feel that their stories are just as valuable as any other.
Most of all, we need to give our youth some credit. I know adults are scared that our kids are growing up too fast, but these kids also know a lot more than we used to at their age, and as a result they are becoming the most accepting and open-minded people in our world. By giving them a chance to explore the issues that they feel are important and relevant, we are giving them the best chance to make some serious change in our world – and that is what education is supposed to be about. We need to stop teaching our kids that reading is boring and stuffy and teach them that storytelling is the most interesting way to share experiences and make change, especially if that change is being able to read for fun again.