It’s a standing joke in my family that I will read anything that’s standing still (or even moving slowly). That’s not quite true, as I have no interest in quantum physics and I avoid travel books – although I did enjoy Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. On the other hand, Steinbeck could write about almost anything and make it interesting. While still in elementary school, I pored over the 20-odd volumes of the Encyclopedia Brittanica and Webster’s Dictionary. By the time I was in my early teens, I had sampled John Galsworthy, James Michener, Robert Heinlein, Rudyard Kipling, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Mary Stewart, Luisa May Alcott and Agatha Christie, among many others. I read Farm Journal and The Sunset Western Gardening Book and Life and Time and Vogue and Gene Logsdon and John Vivian, Edgar Allen Poe, R.F. Delderfield and Arthur Conan Doyle. Charlie Chan and the Saint were as familiar as Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. I delved into Dickens and Twain, Hemingway and Harper Lee, Herman Wouk and Tolstoy (who bored me to tears). As time went by, I compared Desmond Morris with Elaine Morgan, and learned about anthropology from both. I traveled Middle Earth with Tolkien’s Nine Walkers and explored the 17th century with Diana Gabaldon. However, I drew the line at Stephen King – too much imagination created pictures I couldn’t get out of my head.
As I grew older, I began to appreciate that being well-read was the equivalent of being well-educated. For that matter, being well-read is even better than being well-educated, as too much of formal education is overly specialized, slanted because of bias or designed to achieve testing scores rather than promoting critical thinking. I must admit that a side effect of all that reading was that school bored the h-e-double hockey sticks out of me. In several instances I knew more about the topic than the teacher. Not a good position to be in for a teen-age female in the 1960s. I developed a system in which I didn’t bother with homework but aced the tests and brought home a lot of ‘C’ grades. If a subject interested me, however, I gave it my all and usually got an ‘A.’ The system bothered my father, who measured the worth of his children (or perhaps his worth as a parent) by their grades, and couldn’t see that the important aspect was becoming educated, not regurgitating what the teachers tried to force-feed me. The acrimonious tongue lashings put me even further off formal schooling. Once I actually graduated from college and could take classes in what really interested me, I was pretty much a straight ‘A’ student. The few ‘B’ grades I received were the best I could do and I sweated for them.
I also learned that you could learn at least as much from a well-researched historical novel as you could from the official history books. In many cases, you could learn more, especially about the every-day lives of historical figures. Novels were also good for helping understand interpersonal relationships and social issues. Cookbooks might explain chemistry problems. Gardening books were good for understanding biology concepts. Science fiction encouraged creative thinking. I’ve always been intrigued by the Amish system, in which kids get an 8th grade education and then learn by doing and reading. Admittedly, this method has shortcomings – it’s designed to prepare students for a life in the Amish culture only. Those who have left their Amish origins behind usually talk about the ways in which they were unprepared for the “real” world. On the other hand, anybody who takes a good hard look at today’s educational system in the “real” world would be hard-pressed to call it successful…
Today, my grandchildren are struggling with the latest popular nonsense in education – a resurgence of the New Math that was such a failure in the 1960s and curriculum content that I think is flat-out stupid. Being the subversive contrarian I am, I tell them to do the minimum necessary to get by in class and to focus on the basics. I also push them to read everything they can lay their hands on. We have some pretty interesting discussions on our drives to and from school. I’m betting that they will – like their mother and grandmother – turn out to be well-educated, articulate (assuming I can get them to stop saying ‘anyways’ and ‘like,’ and using lay for lie), productive and competent members of society. They will achieve this no matter what their grades, because they read.