Russell Berman is the current president of the Modern Language Association. He also directs Stanford’s “Introduction to Humanities” program. He’s a fierce advocate of foreign language study – I’ve written about his views here – but boy, he’s more determined and optimistic than I am about education. He says he’s “not going to say if you’re going to be an educated man or woman, you have to have read Hamlet” (I would say exactly that), but he insists that even top-notch universities today must be “oriented towards skills acquisition” in reading. “That’s a big shift from a century ago,” he said without a hint of judgment, but with a serious desire to get down to business.
A few quotes from the video:
- “What I hear from current [teaching] fellows is that students … have a hard time with sentences, they have a hard time with vocabulary, they have a hard time following an argument over several pages.” We need to “take them by the hand metaphorically and lead them through the clauses, lead them through the thickets of paragraphs.”
- “Students can’t get to Sentence 2 because their reading habits are, with all respect, Harry Potter. The toughest thing they read in high school is To Kill a Mockingbird, and they can’t get through those complex sentences. Not sentences from high literature, but from a scholarly article.”
- “We haven’t done a census of this at Stanford, but I believe that students who don’t major in humanities don’t read after freshman year. They do something else, or read very minimally.” It’s not that we’re sending the wrong kids to college: “It’s about government policy, ‘No Child Left Behind,’ amplified by ‘Race to the Top,’ common core state standards. They diminish the capacity for critical reading taught in high school.”
- “I have big doubts about whether students entering college can read – and this is at Stanford as much as anywhere else.”
- “Too many of our peer institutions, too many of the selective schools, blind themselves by generating narratives about the excellence of their students. This is the marketing narrative that serves multiple purposes that have deleterious consequences.” Among them, it causes us to neglect giving students the “scaffolding” to reading texts.
- “I could make argument that this is essential to humanities and humanism. It’s all about reading.”
- “No one was ever hired from one institution to another because he or she was a great teacher … This is not argument against research – but it’s a call to a recalibration between research and teaching” because of “the neediness of students.”
You can watch the bad news here (and more of his remarks in the comment section below):