Should Schools Make Kids Read Books They Don’t Like?

For the right reasons and in the right ways, yes.

Some educators believe fervently in allowing students to choose which books to read in school. Proponents of “Balanced Literacy” and similar programs argue that if students choose books that interest them, they will be more motivated, gain more from the books, and eventually wend their way to literary classics. By contrast, when schools and teachers impose books on students, then students come to see reading as obligatory, difficult, and dreary.

Ideally, a school should do both: select certain books for their beauty, merit, interest, and significance, while giving students opportunities to choose books that interest them. But because the former requires considerable knowledge, planning, attention, and time, it should receive priority during the school day. Students should have some quiet reading time at school—at least once a week—but should grapple together with literary works in literature class.

Why? There are many good reasons: building students’ literary knowledge, fostering common knowledge, and more. I’ll focus on one reason that doesn’t get mentioned too often: the importance of disliking a book. Dislikes can be fruitful. First of all, to quote Marianne Moore out of context, we “do not admire what / we cannot understand.” Through sticking with something that they initially resist, students can come to a better understanding of it. Sometimes it’s the vocabulary that throws kids off. Sometimes it’s the characters’ names. Sometimes it’s the form; the story may not go the way they expect a story to go. Sometimes it’s an unfamiliar setting or context. Sometimes the kids don’t understand the metaphors or allusions at first. But through attentive reading and lively discussion (guided by a knowledgeable teacher), students may break through these obstacles and find their way into the works. They would not have done this if they had been confined to their own urges, to the books they liked right away.

Beyond that, even if the dislike doesn’t go away, it can be instructive. When it comes to literature, strong reactions serve us well. There are those who don’t like Hemingway, plain and simple, or don’t think Tolstoy deserves all the acclaim he has received. These are important reactions; they come from a person’s conception of literature: what it is, what it should be, and what makes it good. But you can’t form such a view unless you have read something you disliked—carefully. Knee-jerk reactions don’t go far; penetrating critiques do. By honing such responses, allowing oneself to be both right and wrong along the way, one finds one’s ground.

Now, a student should not be subjected to torture, nor should a teacher. There should be enough variety that students will take to some works right away; there should be enough careful planning that he or she may ease into challenges and develop requisite background. Enthusiasm goes a long way, too, as the educator Jessica Lahey has pointed out. Teachers should have room to teach some of their favorite literature so that they can light it up for the students. Even so, a teacher may do a splendid job with a work that isn’t quite a favorite; it challenges her to find the good, which does exist if the work is worth its salt.

There is such a thing as literary merit. It takes different forms but comes down to endurance. An excellent work of literature reveals more of itself over time. It doesn’t fall out of fashion, or if it does, the falling doesn’t harm it. It’s the sort of book that one wants to keep in the shelf, not just for its presence but for rereadings. Teachers should guide students into such works; students should learn to trust the books, the teacher, and their own instincts. The three may clash at points, but such a clash has value. We read not only for pleasure, but also for confrontation: to be lifted out of where we are right now, into other possibilities and ways of seeing the world. In this confrontation there will be some dislike. No way around it. So it should be. And dislike can tantalize the tongue and mind like cocoa.

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