A State of the Union
by Oliver and Rachel DeMille
The Reading Thing
At the beginning of a new year, it is natural to ponder the world and all that is happening in it. For many people, this means taking stock of one’s life and adopting New Year’s Resolutions. Since the month of December is often so busy and social for most of us, the January transition to self-improvement is usually welcome and motivating. On a national level, the end of the year and the beginning of a new year is a time of reassessing our direction as a society, clarifying the state of the union, and outlining new goals.
In our book Leadership Education, we wrote that throughout the tribal history of mankind winter has been a time to sit around the fire and tell stories of the ancestors. In the Agrarian Age, this tradition transitioned from the campfire to the hearth and from oral traditions to reading the great books.
Tocqueville and other students of early America observed that every pioneer family had a copy of the Bible, Shakespeare and in many cases Plutarch or Euclid, and that they used these great books as central family readings. In the summer, long hours of work dominated family life, but at this time of year the cold weather incentivized a lot of family reading.
Allan Bloom noted that the family reading of great books and discussion of great ideas has dwindled in modern times. Television, movies and a host of individual activities for family members of all ages have effectively taken over the intellectual life of most families. And Bloom mentioned this even before the advent of the Internet and personal data and communication devices. Today’s families live together and eat together, Bloom lamented, but they seldom think together. The result, he said, is The Closing of the American Mind.
Not only has family reading decreased in our modern world, but even the individual reading of great things has declined. This is a tragedy for education, and also for prosperity, citizenship, leadership, entrepreneurialism, innovation and freedom. Leaders are readers, and a nation that doesn’t routinely read great things is in decline—history is clear on this point.
Books are powerful, and the great books are especially potent. Thus “the reading thing,” the great question of how much we read as a society and how much we read the great books, is an essential question in our time.
In fact, as we take stock of our world and the state of our society this winter season, the thing that most stands out to us is the decline of reading. If we can reverse this trend, it will impact the entire future—economically, socially, politically and especially for families. It is a truism that successful families regularly gather together to read and discuss great ideas – and great books – while dysfunctional families do not. Of course there are exceptions to this rule, but it remains a reality in the vast majority of cases.
Great books naturally train great people, and every child in every home has greatness inside. Not everyone develops their internal potential, but it is there. For most people, levels of success are directly proportional to “the reading thing.” Leaders are readers, and great leaders are voracious readers.
Andrew Pudewa has shown the significant impact on a child’s education that comes from family reading, and thousands of families know this by personal experience. (To learn more about the significant benefits of family reading, we recommend the fabulous resources at ExcellenceInWriting.com by Andrew Pudewa.)
Allan Bloom predicted in 1987 that American freedom would eventually fail unless we bring back the reading of great things, and so far his predictions are right on track. Fortunately, we have seen a significant rebirth of families reading classics since we’ve been promoting Thomas Jefferson Education. We pray this trend will continue.
Individual or Family?
While the individual reading of classics is a step in the right direction, it isn’t enough. The main reason for this is quite simple: when people read the classics alone, they tend to compartmentalize what they learn into separate academic-style subjects like literature, science, and history. Again, this is better than not reading the great works at all.
But family reading naturally takes great ideas to the level of broad application—each family member applies the great lessons differently, in age-appropriate ways that influence society – and each other – at all levels. This is the essence of quality learning.
A friend recently told us a horror story about a boy in the Northwestern United States whose school officials kicked him out of school for discipline reasons. His parents were counseled by the school to “home school him,” not for academic excellence but simply so the school wouldn’t have to deal with him anymore. The parents, who were understandably upset, felt helpless and responded by keeping him home but offering no educational guidance except to ground him from the Internet and television.
After a few weeks of boredom and growing frustration, the boy improvised. One day he noticed a shelf of books and began perusing them. One seemed interesting, so he read it. Fast forward three years: he scored extremely high on the college entrance exams and left home on a prestigious scholarship with great expectations.
Along the way, he had read all of the Great Books, a lot of history, and numerous other books. His parents’ struggles with him went from major discipline issues to affording the steady stream of books he requested. This potential horror story became a morality tale—the principles of great education are real.
What started as a mere disciplinary action ended with parents eventually finding and magnifying their role as mentors and their son discovering his appetite for self-education. This story illustrates the power and influence of reading. Reading works, and the reading of great things works profound change.
The Power of Reading
In short, our assessment of the current state of our union is simple: Family Reading Desperately Needed. “The reading thing” will dominate the future success, or failure, of our world on so many levels. Consider a few of our favorite quotes on reading:
“To read is to fly: it is to soar to a point of vantage which gives a view over wide terrains of history, human variety, ideas, shared experience and the fruits of many inquiries.”
“Wear the old coat and buy the new book.”
“No matter how busy you may think you are, you must find time for reading,
or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance.”
“Children are made readerson the laps of their parents.”
“The greatest gift is a passion for reading.”
“The things I want to know are in books;
my best friend is the man who will get me a book I ain’t read.”
“The reading of all good books is like conversation with the finest men of the past centuries.”
“Teaching reading IS rocket science.”
“There are many little ways to enlarge your child’s world.
Love of books is the best of all.”
The answer for many of our world’s problems is “the reading thing.” Since this is a long-term solution, and since it depends on the action of many parents rather than official government programs, it probably won’t get much airtime in the media. But it truly is one of the most powerful tools for success in every family and society.
“The Family Reading Thing”
So this year, and especially in this winter season, we raise our voices in praise and endorsement of family reading.
It is no exaggeration to say that the great free and prosperous societies of history build their success on the laps of reading parents (or story-telling elders in the tribal eras of oral tradition). Name a great free culture of humanity—Ancient Israel or Athens, the great Saracen civilization or the Confucian Golden Age of China, the Swiss Vales era, the Renaissance or the Enlightenment, the Anglo-Saxons or the American founding era—and you’ll find a society of great family oral tradition or reading.
Just consider what Samuel Williams, a Harvard professor in the American founding, said about the average education of American children in 1794:
“All the children are trained up to this kind of knowledge: they are accustomed from their earliest years to read the Holy Scriptures, the periodical publications, newspapers, and political pamphlets; to form some general acquaintance with the laws of their country, the proceedings of the courts of justice, of the general assembly of the state, and of the Congress, etc.
“Such a kind of education is common and universal in every part of the state: and nothing would be more dishonorable to the parents, or to the children, than to be without it.”
The great classics and stories are great because they teach the great lessons, the great ideas and ask the great questions. And when we add to such great writings the love of parents and grandparents gathered with children and youth, something profound happens. Allan Bloom called such regular family reading a vital family ritual. “The reading thing” is real, and “the family reading thing” is a great key to the future.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about all this is that it doesn’t require anything from Washington, Hollywood, Silicon Valley or Wall Street. It doesn’t depend on experts, but rather on parents. The books are on our shelves, and the kids are in our homes. All it will take to rewrite the future is for more parents to spend a little more time reading the great books with their families.
And right now is a great time to start: snow covers the ground in many areas, and even in California, Texas, the Carolinas and other temperate locales the beaches and pools are mostly empty for the season. So find a book, a couch, and a kid, and start building a future of success for your children and your nation.
Along the way, you’ll be amazed at how much fun “the reading thing” really is. Happy reading…