August 2010 Archives

Reading Is Not a Skill?

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Mark Bauerlein in his regular Chronicle of Higher Education Brainstorm blog writes nicely about the problem of text vs. context here. Language is meaningful only because and only when we understand its references. If we don't understand a text, we have to research the meanings of the various words, and that requires knowledge of context. He laments that this process returns us to the bad old days of the Culture Wars, but I think without good reason. He also laments that the phenomenon he describes makes reading not exactly a transferable skill.

But research is a transferable skill, and that's what we're talking about here: observation (what are the words and what do they signify?) and data collection (looking up words, concepts, figures, facts) and re-observation (what do the words mean in their new context?). That's reading, and it is a skill. Not everyone is willing to do it, and some kinds of reading may be beyond an individual's abilities (I cannot read texts in high-level mathematics, for instance, because I cannot understand the context that would make them meaningful).

So we need to teach students how to make distinctions and how to do research. That's how we teach them to read.

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