mortality of the humanities, ii

Consider this post a sequel to my earlier one.

Observing that “Maryland has just become the first state in the nation to institute a statewide comics curriculum,” Erin O’Connor questions the wisdom of this move, arguing that we need to make

sure kids get the analytical and reasoning skills they need, and that they begin learning those skills at an appropriate age. There are things you learn to do mentally when you read a long novel alone in several sittings; or when you puzzle over a poem to grasp its metaphors, its meter, and the way the form and content necessitate one another. Those things are subtle, but they are very real. They are also highly transferable. I’m just not convinced that comic books are good material for teachers who want to ensure that their students acquire more than the most elementary reading skills.

One of her commenters says, “I don’t think presenting 10 year olds with comic books is a way to prepare them for the real world.”

Three initial thoughts spring to mind:

  1. Why do we continue to privilege the image over the word, as if the meaning of the former is always self-evident, requiring no critical thought whatsoever? Sitting for long periods of time with complex images might provide the exact same benefits that sitting with a novel does.
  2. I have to agree with Matt, who writes that “contemporary cognitive science needs to be part of any serious conversation about attention and imagination.” Novels do a better job than comic books do of lengthening attention spans and teaching kids critical thinking skills? It’s an interesting reseach question. Where’s the research? If it exists, let’s bring it into the conversation.
  3. Is the value of the study of literature in elementary school confined to how well it prepares ten year olds for “the real world”? As my colleague Bob Stewart said at the Kansas City “Reading at Risk” forum, sometimes the only thing a good book does is take you further inside yourself. Reading can be an activity that’s personally rewarding but that carries no social or civic benefit.

Bonus Link! F. Scott Fitzgerald and Charles Schulz duke it out.

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6 thoughts on “mortality of the humanities, ii

  1. i think the point you made in the post’s comments stands true – children are inundated with images from an early age and i think it important to teach how to critically think about visual information.

  2. What I find most striking, reading the comments on O’Connor’s post, is that many people like to complain about what’s wrong with the study of literature, but not many people express much enthusiasm for the more traditional literature they are ostensibly defending. It is for this reason that I think a general contempt for literature (and the arts) lies underneath complaints about modern “innovations” in the practice or study of these things.
    I noticed the same thing in an earlier thread.

  3. One of the commenters says “Kids might think they already know how to process primarily visual information, but the close reading skills we value in literary studies still need to be taught.”
    Well, one of the strongest arguments for teaching comics could be to get students to interrogate what they “think they already know”, not to take visual images for granted. That does not prevent the teaching of close reading skills; it’s simply another kind of reading skill. A very, very important one in a ‘real’ world suffused with visual images of all kinds. And one, I think, that is then relevant to any kind of reading. Yes, images and words are different, but encouraging critical faculties with the first is (I hope?) likely to have spin-off benefits with the second too.
    My only concern, I suppose, is if the educators are doing this *purely* because comic books are popular, and if as a result they neglect text-only books…

  4. Um…yeah, that was me who said that.
    What I meant was exactly what you say in your second paragraph, Sharon, but I wasn’t clear.
    The Washington Post article (which you have to hunt to find if you’re starting with O’Connor’s entry) about the program explains that comics are not being used as a replacement of but rather a supplement to texts that are composed only of words.

  5. Whoops! (I didn’t look for the names of posters! I was not really employing my own close reading skills with that thread… which is naughty but I was irritated by the thing. I should go back and read more carefully, I think).

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