Read this from a report of the National Institute of Literacy:
"The ability to read and understand complicated information is important to success in college and, increasingly, in the workplace. An analysis of the NAEP long-term trend reading assessments reveals that only half of all White 17 year olds, less than one-quarter of Latino 17 year olds, and less than one-fifth of African American 17 year olds can read at this level.
By age 17, only about 1 in 17 seventeen year olds can read and gain information from specialized text, for example the science section in the local newspaper. This includes:
1 in 12 White 17 year olds,
1 in 50 Latino 17 year olds, and
1 in 100 African American 17 year olds."
I wish we had all of our 17 year olds to the point where we could have them enjoy Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Thoreau, and, yes, Hawthorne. But to get them to that point, THEY MUST LEARN HOW TO READ. Their chances of developing into literate adults are greatly enhanced if we hand them books that are interesting, engaging, and written in the vernacular. Most of the Classics do not fit that definition.
(end LHA quotage)
Here's something I've always thought when I read reports like this. The critical words are "read and understand complicated information", such as "the science section in the local newspaper." It could just as easily be any of the following texts that high school graduates should be able to read, understand and critique: newspapers, magazine articles (including blog posts!), work memoranda .... do you see where I'm going?
Within the context of this report, reading isn't literary reading or fiction reading. It's not decoding the meaning of the color green or the use of mirrors or foreshadowing. It's about being able to know when a newspaper is reporting a story accurately so that an educated voting decision can be made. It's understanding the reports on stem cell research so you know what the heck it is, rather than simply what politician is for or against it. It's about writing what has gone on in your corporation during the past year in a way that explains honestly why stock shares are up or down. It's about following procedures in a company manual. It's a lot of nonfiction reading, and analysis; about using the right words to communicate meaning rather than metaphor.
So my question is -- how and when is that being taught? Is it even part of the high school criteria? Because while I love literature, and books, and reading fiction for pleasure, I want the people running companies, voting, diagnosing diseases, arguing legal cases, doing my plumbing, etc., to be able to read and understand information. And teaching Shakespeare isn't going to do that. At law school, I had a legal writing class to teach the correct way to read and write legal briefs and documents; I'm sure that other professions have similar things.
(I'm not saying no Shakespeare; I'm saying Shakespeare isn't the answer to the problem raised in the report.)
Edited to add: I am not disagreeing with Laurie Halse Anderson; I actually agree that getting someone engaged in and interested in reading is the first, vital step; I'm just saying, that in addition to looking beyond classics to engage the reader, look beyond fiction, especially when the study isn't about fiction. Building on & agreeing with her thoughts, not disagreeing. I'm afraid I may not have been clear about that!