I love literary lists. I love looking at them and planning out what I should read next (or in the future at least). I have a spreadsheet going of the various lists and which books from them I’ve read, and which ones I will never read (Hello, Ulysses!). I think that reading is wonderful, and that everyone should read as much as they want. I think that reading should be encouraged at every stage of life, especially children.
I also know that forcing people to read, placing arbitrary minimums and external goals on reading instead of letting people read what interests them at their own pace, can ruin books and reading for people, especially children.
Which is why, when I heard of the UK Education Secretary’s latest call, for every school child to read 50 books a year, I had two reactions: How admirable, and how stupid. It’s admirable because of course reading should be encouraged. Children should be encouraged to read as many books as possible, and not just in school. Everyone should be encouraged to read as many books as possible. Thousands of books are published every year. Everyone should be able to find something they enjoy – if they care to look for it.
However, this “plan” is incredibly stupid. From what I could gather (from this article), Gove visited a few charter schools in the US, saw that their students were high achievers (even those from low-income families) who usually read at least 50 books a year. Therefore, obviously, in order to raise the achievement of UK schools, UK students should also read at least 50 books a year.
There are so many things wrong with this argument that I don’t even know where to start. Charter schools in the US are not bound by government regulations and curriculums (not that the US has a national curriculum in the same way that the UK does). Gove also seems to have picked one high-performing example and taken that as his model rather than as the outlier that it is. State schools and other alternative schools are not going to have a majority of students who read more than 50 books a year. They will have some (I was one!) but most students, even the ones who care, are not going to read 50 books a year. They’re not going to read much more than is assigned for school. They’re not going to have time.
Also, kids need to be exposed to books if you expect them to read what is essentially a book a week. If they don’t know what books are out there, how can they be expected to access them? The easiest way for kids to be exposed to books is from their parents. However, quite a lot of adults don’t read that much, so how can kids be expected to read 50 books a year when it’s not modelled for them? Another good way for kids to be exposed to books is through libraries. But the current UK government is in the middle of massive public service cuts, and libraries are on the chopping block. So where are kids supposed to get these 50 books a year? They could get them from schools, but the schools are already stretched thin trying to prepare kids for the various standardized tests that determine everything from their post-11 and post-16 education to what jobs they can apply for (seriously, several graduate schemes that I’ve applied for require minimum GCSE grades, A-levels, and UCAS scores).
So, yes, it’s an admirable goal, but it’s also incredibly naïve and stupid.
Oh, and the connection to literary lists? The blog post where I first heard about this idea had a list of books that everyone “should” have read by the time they’re 18. My boyfriend and I had a good time going through that list, sharing which ones we’ve read, which ones made us say “OMG YOU HAVE NEVER READ THIS??” and which ones we’d never heard of.