August 13, 2010

Schooling and Reading

Category: Bible,Education,Literature :: Permalink

A while back, I was blogging some things I had gleaned from Eugene Peterson’s Working the Angles.  I hadn’t intended to give up that project, but I did get sidetracked into a bunch of other things.  In my last blog entry on this book, I talked about Peterson’s distinction between learning and schooling.  Peterson argues that in schooling, because of a drive toward standardization and uniform performance, there is a strong emphasis on the learning of facts and on the transfer of data from the teacher to the student “with as little personal contamination as possible” (94).  He goes on to say that this approach to education affects our ability to read:

The reading skills that we acquire under such conditions are inevitably attentive primarily to the informational: we are taught to read for the factual, the useful, the relevant.  Most pastors have twenty years or so of such training.  We read to pass examinations, to find out how to parse a Greek verb or to run a church office.  If we read occasionally to divert ourselves on a cold winter’s night it is not counted as serious reading.  We are not systematically taught over these twenty years (I don’t count an occasional course as “training”) to pick up nuance and allusion, catching the meaning and intent of the living voice behind the words on the page.  As a result we are impatient with metaphor and irritated at ambiguity.  But these are the stock-in-trade of persons, the most unpredictable of creatures, using language at their most personal and best.  Our schooling has narrowed our attitude toward reading: we want to know what is going on so that we can get on our way.  If it is not useful to us in doing our job or getting a better one, we don’t see the point (94-95).

Peterson goes on to say that, though language does provide information, its primary purpose is relational:

The primary reason for a book is to put a writer into relation with readers so that we can listen to his or her stories and find ourselves in them, listen to his or her songs and sing with them, listen to his or her answers and question them.  The Scriptures are almost entirely this kind of book.  If we read them impersonally with an information-gathering mind, we misread them (95).

I’m not sure if Peterson means to imply that we are to question the answers God gives in Scripture, and surely questioning is not the only thing we are to do with someone’s answers.   But leaving that aside, Peterson’s point is worth pondering.

How much exegesis is really a give-me-the-facts or give-me-something-useful approach to reading the text of Scripture?  The Bible is full of poetry, of metaphor, of allusion, of recurring patterns, of “deep weird” comments, of long lists, of a host of things that may not at first seem all that helpful.  What am I do to with all the repetition in Numbers 7?  Wouldn’t it have been better to say it all once (“Each prince presented …”) instead of saying it over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again?  Would we really have lost any information if Moses had simply given us a summary?  And why did we need to know this stuff anyway?  How does having this information help us?  And so, as Peterson says, when we read for information or for something we think will be useful, we get frustrated with the Bible as it is.

There are certainly things that we can do to improve our reading — better: our hearing — of Scripture.  But Peterson is suggesting that one thing that would help would be a change in our approach to education, so that reading is not presented primarily as a fact-finding mission.

I realize that I know little about how literature is taught today, even in classical Christian schools.  So I’ll end with questions instead of ignorant assertions, and hope that someone who knows more (or better) than I do can help answer some of them.

Is Peterson right?  Do we do students a disservice with regard to their reading of the Bible — or of literature — by such things as focusing on whether the student picked up certain facts from reading a novel (e.g., a quiz on Pride and Prejudice that focuses on names and relationship and who did what and so forth) or by requiring students to paraphrase or summarize or (the thing I hated the most in school) find the theme of a given story or poem?  How could we improve our teaching of literature — and of reading in general — so that our reading of the Bible may also be improved?

Posted by John Barach @ 3:47 pm | Discuss (2)

2 Responses to “Schooling and Reading”

  1. Remy Says:

    I absolutely think that schools do children a disservice by the way they educate them. The problem stems primarily from our ridiculous obsession with grades. Throwing out numerical evaluation would allow -or more easily allow- a better method. Right now Christian education is aimed at teaching students to get good grades, rather than training them to be worshipers or readers of Scripture.

    I’d also back up Peterson’s comment on questioning answers. I wouldn’t use that word, I use struggle, but the aim is the same I think. To just accept answers without investing in them, struggling with them, is part and parcel of the fact-gathering education. If information/knowledge are dumbbells to “struggle/question” them is to resist their weight and to grow strong. To merely accept them, leave them uselessly on the floor will mean that they have no value and will only be easy to toss out and forget.

  2. Gordon Says:

    I will never forget Huckleberry Finn in high school. While the teacher droned on and on *about* the book I decided I’d rather just *read* it. I did so right there in class, trying to hide it behind my backpack. Tears streaming down my cheeks, my hand clenched in my teeth to bite back the braying laughter that wanted to escape at some passages… I’m sure I missed all sorts of significance. But I had permission from the author himself, printed in the introduction.

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