We've all slogged through books in school that we didn't particularly like, wondering how knowing how to interpret the deeper subtexts of the oligarchial collectivist society in Orwell's 1984 will help us as adults.

Education is a perennial topic of concern, and within that debate reading is always a touchpoint. How do you teach literature? How do you instill a love of reading in kids who would rather play video games or watch TV?

A fascinating article in the NY Times describes a new method of doing just that. For those not familiar with the American public school system, the article describes it well:
In the method familiar to generations of students, an entire class reads a novel — often a classic — together to draw out the themes and study literary craft. That tradition, proponents say, builds a shared literary culture among students, exposes all readers to works of quality and complexity and is the best way to prepare students for standardized tests.
I was in agreement up until the last two words. Yes, we do learn lessons that prepare us for standardized tests, but should that really be the goal? What about being able to cogently discuss a novel or play or poem? What about a love of literature?

Instead, a junior high school teacher in Atlanta is "turning over all the decisions about which books to read to the students in her seventh- and eighth-grade English classes."

I had two immediate reactions. One, is that really such a good idea? And at the same time, two, that's a great idea!
But fans of the reading workshop say that assigning books leaves many children bored or unable to understand the texts. Letting students choose their own books, they say, can help to build a lifelong love of reading.

"I feel like almost every kid in my classroom is engaged in a novel that they’re actually interacting with,” Ms. McNeill said, several months into her experiment. “Whereas when I do ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,” I know that I have some kids that just don’t get into it.”

Critics of the approach say that reading as a group generally leads to more meaningful insights, and they question whether teachers can really keep up with a roomful of children reading different books. Even more important, they say, is the loss of a common body of knowledge based on the literary classics — often difficult books that children are unlikely to choose for themselves.

What child is going to pick up ‘Moby-Dick’?” said Diane Ravitch, a professor of education at New York University who was assistant education secretary under President George H.W. Bush. "Kids will pick things that are trendy and popular. But that’s what you should do in your free time."
I see both sides of the argument. Kids should be reading things like Harry Potter in their free time. It's easy and doesn't require a teacher to help you through more difficult passages. But what if kids don't read in their free time? And do we need a common body of knowledge?

I read all the time. I always have, and I love it. So I'm probably not the best example. But one of my cousins was not in to reading when he was younger, so to encourage him my aunt gave him Harry Potter, Captain Underpants, etc - and he is a voracious reader now. Would he pick up Moby Dick? I don't know.

When I was 13, I was assigned the Iliad, Aeneid, and the Odyssey. It was Greek to me. I got the basics, of course, but I had to read those same books again in college for a course on Greek mythology and they sunk in a bit better. I prefer classics to vapid chick lit, so maybe I would have picked them up at some point. With two exceptions, I've loved all the books I read in school - I was in a "great books" program, so we had the history of great literature at our fingertips. (Exceptions being Lord of the Flies and The Moor's Last Sigh. Hated both of them.) But did I need to read the plays of Sophocles (which I enjoyed) to be a better participant in the world? Or should I have been allowed to pick my own books?

The article describes Ms. McNeill's attempts at changing the way she teaches literature and the way her students engage with it, to varying levels of success. I think a compromise might be best: select a list of books that kids "should" read - although I don't know how you'd determine that - and let them choose from among that list, as well as supplement with something of their choice off-list.