Save Democracy. Read to a Child.

That's going on the sign I'll be carrying when I attend the L.A. satellite event for the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in a week and a half. I've decided I like it better than my previous top choice: "Obey the Pirate Squirrel, or the Terrorists Win" (which may yet end up on the reverse side of my sign).

Here is my perfectly reasonable train of thought that links reading to children with restoring hope for the future of our society:

My friends who teach college freshmen tell me that one of their greatest challenges is getting students to engage with texts rather than simply regurgitate them. As I was rhapsodizing about reading aloud in my last post, I couldn't help thinking that the advanced literacy modeling that is a natural part of such reading must be an invaluable preparation for this fundamental competency of a liberal arts education.

This competency, in turn, is a basic necessity for civil public discourse, which is so lacking in our current media environment. The inability to understand the critical difference between engaging and regurgitating a text is evident in absurd aspersions against two of my almae matres published in the right-wing media in the last year. (If anyone knows of an example of someone making a similar claim about Duke and/or SJSU, please let me know; I'd love to have a complete set.)

  • Sandy Rios: Wheaton College promotes violent revolution and the destruction of capitalism because students in the education department sometimes read theorists like Paulo Freire and Bill Ayers.
  • The American Spectator: Yale Divinity School teaches witchcraft because it has, at some point in time, offered an elective on the history of witchcraft and witch hunts in North America.
These accusations are so fundamentally ridiculous that it saddens me that top officials at both schools felt the need to offer responses instead of simply dismissing the charges for the nonsense they are. But that is the state of public reasoning in our world today.

The funny thing is that Jeffrey Lord of the American Spectator, despite his transparent failure to grasp how higher education works, nevertheless stumbled upon a surprising truth. See, I wasn't supposed to tell you this, but since the secret is out and they are going to have to redo all the Muggle-repelling charms anyway, I suppose I can admit it: Yale Divinity School (and not, as many have supposed, the Salem Witches Institute) is the North American counterpart to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

The crucial evidence of this is found in one of the early descriptions of Hogwarts on page 98 of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone:
There were a hundred and forty-two staircases at Hogwarts: wide, sweeping ones; narrow, rickety ones; some that led somewhere different on a Friday; some with a vanishing step halfway up that you had to remember to jump. Then there were doors that wouldn't open unless you asked politely, or tickled them in exactly the right place, and doors that weren't really doors at all, but solid walls just pretending. It was also very hard to remember where anything was, because it all seemed to move around a lot.
I worked on campus at YDS during the summers of 2001 and 2002, the height of a comprehensive renovation project transforming the entire campus. In an effort to keep all essential facilities accessible even as the remodeling was underway, the construction crew would sometimes reroute corridors and stairwells, such that I never knew when I showed up to work whether the path I had been taking to the library archives for the last several weeks would still be open or not. I almost literally encountered all of the permutations highlighted in bold type above. (Okay, I think it was a Monday rather than a Friday that the stairs led somewhere different. Close enough.)

Lord simply didn't dig deep enough. Offering students a chance to learn about the social history of witch scares and witch hunts in our country is innocuous. Buildings with a mind of their own, however...

An added bonus of the lifetime love of stories fostered by those childhood read alouds: when I did find myself working in a building with a mind of its own, I had the imaginative resources to view it as a source of delight rather than frustration.


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