Books for students today and yesterday

I am off for a week with the grandsons and not planning on taking the computer or blogging. I do intend to check my email but that will be a problem on my cell phone. That’s because I rarely thin out old emails. I live by the illusion I should catalog them or eventually come back to old emails and deal with them. Well, if I’m going to start receiving them again on my cell I have no choice but to spend a couple hours culling them. Just now I looked at one that compared recommended reading lists for middle schoolers today with a list of recommended reading from 1908. Here it is.

The author makes several point among them: 1. A hundred years ago books were far less contemporary suggesting an emphases on time tested classics. The recent book list had books that tended to be less than twenty years old. And 2. The books in the 1908 list had more dense and complicated prose while today’s books are much simpler in word choice and sentence construction.

Those are both important points but the devil’s advocate in me kicked in. For years a statistic has stuck in my head. It is probably very wrong. As I recall it in 1939 only ten percent of children in the United States graduated from high school. Until today I’ve never bothered to confirm this. According to this site (which footnotes the statistic’s origin) 50.9% of students graduated. I’m glad to sweep out that faulty mental cob web.

But this same list says that in 1909 the year after the more classical book reading list was compiled only 8.8% of American students graduated from high school. What should I make of this?

Well, schools are being asked to do very different things now than they were expected to do a hundred years ago. We want everyone to be formally educated although that is no guarantee of success. Heck this blog’s namesake only had a couple years of elementary school education and today most scholars consider him the greatest of our Presidents to date.

Reading classic convoluted sentences (the kind Abe Lincoln memorized by the gross reading Shakespeare) isn’t necessarily the best indicator of intelligence or education. Perhaps there is something to be said for using straightforward simple prose. Hemingway was a revolutionary when he began publishing books with short simple sentence structure using day to day dialogue. God knows who wants to read an Ikea instruction book for putting furniture together with archaic or confusing prose?

A third point in the article was made. It suggested that the 1908 reading recommendations had books that emphasized qualities that inspired national cohesion whereas more contemporary books emphasized current events like acceptance of transgender people. I’m still thinking about that.

One thing that stuck out is that the US graduation rates seem to have hit a plateau. We just can’t get 100% of students graduated.

In 1964 just before I graduated the first of the baby boomers only had a 76% grad rate. In 2014 after a couple of decades of national hyperventilating about our education system the national graduation rate was only 82% according to this source.

Sadly that’s Duluth and not Lake Woebegon where all the children are above average. This gives me something to ponder for the coming school year.

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