Reading is fun (and profitable!)

    For most primary and secondary school students in the United States, school is out for summer. Students of every grade have been out of school since the second week of June, and will be on break until sometime in early September. For most of them, this is supposed to be a time of carefree youth.

    Though there is no single explanation for the origins of summer break, many feel it follows from a somewhat outdated rationale. Young people were often an integral part of making the family farm function. After working on the farm for the summer and fall, children returned to school by the winter, when they were indoors most of the time anyway.

    It can also be argued that it is too costly to run a public school all year round. This would only make sense if the break occurred in the winter months, when the cost of heating the school would be highest. Still others say simply that children should not have to work so long through the year; that they deserve a break.

    For years now, educators have complained about this break in the school session. They cite studies and first-hand experience indicating that students lose many intellectual achievements of the previous school year over the three-month break.

    Multnomah County Library responds to these concerns with their “Summer Reading game.” The premise of the program is that elementary students play a game for rewards by reading a certain number of books. The point is that children must be coerced in one way or another into reading. In other words, reading is only worth doing as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. The result is not necessarily that children will discover the joy of reading, but that they learn that, like many other things in life, one can get goodies for jumping through hoops.

    The library’s newsletter touts that “studies have proven that critical reading and learning skills can be lost when children do not read over the summer.” Supporters of the program assume that the act of reading hones these skills and attitudes. They do not consider the effect that intention has on the quality of reading. Hundreds of the same kinds of studies, such as those collected by educational commentator Alfie Kohn, demonstrate that when done for its own sake, reading is immensely conducive to cultivating acritical, engaged mind. When the goal of reading is externalized, a book becomes merely an obstacle to the true object of one’s desire. The Summer Reading program is not interested in why children are reading, but only that they go through the motions.

    A better answer to the intellectual lag children apparently experience after their summer break is to reduce, if not entirely eliminate, the break. This seems cruel and unjustifiable to many who simply assume the break is a given, expectable, well-deserved reward for enduring the school year. Perhaps it is, if school is represented as otherwise undesirable work – if otherwise intellectual activities are only worth doing when a prize comes with them. Education advocates are then put in a double bind. If summer break does not serve its original practical purpose, and it is presently justified as a kind of release from the burden of school, then how does merely reading several dozen books encourage the critical mind?

    If merely reading books encourages critical thinking skills and the generally inquisitive mind, why return to school in the fall? The summer break is misrepresented as time away from the burden of intellectual/academic activity, because with programs like the Summer Reading, it is used as another way to extract the same sort of work. The Summer Reading program, as it contradicts summer break, may in its own superficial way foster better reading and learning skills for some. At the same time, it inhibits a critical understanding of its contradiction, of its false promise.

    But the summer break contradiction is an early initiation into a lifetime of similar contradictions and false promises. Earning a living replaces the burden of schoolwork, and the weekends and likewise “free time” replace the summer downtime. Work becomes the structuring element of its own escape, which only re-enforces its stamp on our consciousness. Free time entices us with its promise of escape from work, because work and freedom are different and separate in our minds, but it turns out to be a model for the very work we want to escape.

    Programs like Summer Reading (in conjunction with the school systems they aim to supplement) cannot promise enhanced critical thinking skills, but only the falseness of minor freedoms like the weekend or summer break. The coercion of these programs only testifies to the resistance to the freedom it denies, the freedom of summers away from schoolwork. The schools co-opt the very freedom of summer break they promise via programs like Summer Reading, at once masking the problems Summer Reading doesn’t really solve and still holding out the (false) promise of summer break fun (via toys and other prizes). The summer break is not the problem, the problem is that elementary education is so miserable that students deserve the break, which is taken back, because it compromises the effort of the school year entirely.