Another phrase that came up fairly frequently in the discussion on Jen Robinson's PBS Parents posting was "let them read what they like. " The idea is that all reading is good, and that as long as kids are reading, it doesn't matter what they're reading. My students say this all the time.
The thing is, I don't think it's true. Now, to be fair, the context for the discussion I mentioned had to do with reluctant readers, and I do think that to get kids started in reading and reading comfortably, it's probably best not to censor or judge their choices.* But when my students say it, they tend not to provide that context. It usually comes up as a defense of Goosebumps or Harry Potter (which they seem to think needs defending) or the series books they loved as a kid.
Well, fine, I say. But do you think kids should read really scary books? Or violent books? Should they read books based on violent video games (especially if, as in our house, they're not allowed to play them)? Should they read Playboy? (This question usually stops them short.)
Here's another way of thinking about it: if we believe that the ideas in books are powerful**, and that kids are likely to want to be like their heroes (role model criticism is very popular among my students, as it is among parents, for obvious reasons), then mightn't there be some bad ideas that we'd prefer our children not imitate?
Here's another way of thinking about it: if we prefer that our children not encounter or imbibe stereotypical ideas*** about women, men, the disabled, the poor, etc., etc. (and, again, such thinking is very popular)--should we let them read, say, Little Black Sambo? Traditional fairy tales? The Berenstain Bears (which, in addition to rather noxiously conformist gender ideology, have terrible artwork)?
I can't really answer these questions. I tend--as I've said before--to prefer to discuss rather than censor. And there were certainly books I wouldn't or didn't read to my children (Little Black Sambo, the Berenstain Bears), just as there were toys I wouldn't buy for them (GI Joe, Barbie). If they encountered them elsewhere--and they did--then we talked.
In my classes, I often encounter the "let them read whatever they like" sentiment early in the class, when I'm asking about the misogyny in traditional fairy tales. Many students are deeply invested in fairy tales and don't want to think that the stories contain harmful ideas. Later in the semester, though, when we read books like Weetzie Bat or Speak or Feed, they begin to express rather different sentiments, claiming that "kids"**** shouldn't encounter the ideas or the language that characterize those books. When I point out the (potential) contradiction, fruitful discussions ensue. These are difficult issues, and I don't have all the answers. But I sure do have questions.
*I need to say, again, that nothing I say here is meant as a criticism of the great work Jen did to pull together tips for encouraging reluctant readers. But I'm trained as an academic, and we can't help nibbling away at the edges of things...
**But see the Stanley Fish piece I just linked to; Fish is skeptical that reading about goodness will make us good, and it's a question that remains unresolved by research.
***Periodically the Little House books, or Babar, or any number of "classics," come up for reappraisal, and I think they should. But how can we square the claim that kids should read whatever they want with our anxiety about them imbibing racist or sexist ideologies from their reading?
****These three are all "young adult" novels, so no one's suggesting that, for example, eight-year-olds are reading them. But that's part of the problem: we're not quite sure who we mean when we say "kids" or "children." But that's a subject for another post--or several!