October 8th, 2010 // 4:00 am @ Oliver DeMille
As the old saying goes, “Leaders are Readers.” This has proven true generation after generation, and is still the reality today.
But there is a significant difference in the leadership value in different types of reading.
For example, few would doubt that there is a difference in benefits between reading the following items:
- a technical manual
- your friends’ Facebook entries
- a work by Plato or Shakespeare
- a historical, western, science fiction or fantasy novel
- the prospectus for a financial investment
- a romance novel
- The Wall Street Journal
- a tabloid magazine
- a business self-help book
The list could go on. One could argue that all of these have some benefits, but the value would depend on what the reader was trying to gain from the reading.
In short, all reading is not the same.
As David Brooks wrote in the New York Times:
“Recently, book publishers got some good news. Researchers gave 852 disadvantaged students 12 books (of their own choosing) to take home at the end of the school year….They found that the students who brought the books home had significantly higher reading scores than other students….In fact, just having those 12 books seemed to have as much positive effect as attending summer school. This study, along with many others, illustrates the tremendous power of books….
“Recently, Internet mavens got some bad news. Jacob Vigdor and Helen Ladd of Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy examined computer use among a half-million 5th through 8th graders in North Carolina. They found that the spread of home computers and high-speed Internet access was associated with significant declines in math and reading scores.”
He concludes his analysis with this:
“Already, more ‘old-fashioned’ outposts are opening up across the web. It could be that the real debate will not be books versus the Internet but how to build an Internet counterculture that will better attract people to serious learning.”
Perhaps the key is to resurrect the word “great.” This word is often used (perhaps overused), in our society, but it is seldom used to mean what it originally meant.
“Great” has several meanings:
- huge, immense, grand
- distinguished, remarkable, impressive
- noble, heroic, majestic
- wonderful, fantastic, excellent
- complete, profound, utter
- unlimited, boundless, abundant
- major, momentous, weighty
“Great” can mean any one of these things, or a combination of a few or all of them.
Antonyms of the word “great” include: unimportant, small, minor, lowly, slight, awful, tiny, and ordinary. In academia, business and athletics, the word “mediocre” is also used as an antonym of “great.”
Now, consider some of the ramifications of applying more greatness to education, reading and learning.
What if children and youth were strongly encouraged to read a few of the greats in everything they read. For example:
- 2 of the greatest technical manuals ever written, things like The Wizard of Ads by Roy H. Williams
- 2 of the greatest works each by Plato and Shakespeare
- 2 years of Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report
- 2 each of the greatest historical, western, science fiction and fantasy novels, titles like The Bridge at Andau, The Virginian, Lord of the Rings, etc.
- 2 of the greatest romance novels ever, such as Gone With the Wind, Sense and Sensibility, etc.
- 2 of the best tabloid magazine articles ever written, which have weathered the test of time and proven to be excellent and accurate (just the process of researching this would be a great educational project that would teach many lessons about good versus bad journalism)
- 2 of the top business self-help books, such as works by Napoleon Hill, Wallace Wattles, Paulo Coelho or Jim Collins
- Some of the top Wall Street Journal articles ever published, things like “A Separate Peace” by Peggy Noonan
- 3 of the greatest Facebook entries ever (examples anyone?)
Such readings, be they from books or newspapers or the Internet, are by their nature grand, remarkable, impressive, excellent, profound, momentous and weighty. Some are even abundant, noble, majestic and/or heroic.
In a word, they are great.
None of these would be unimportant, small, minor, lowly, slight, awful, tiny, ordinary or mediocre. Readers may agree or disagree with what they read, but they would at least be reading some of the greats.
This would help them judge the quality of other things they read by simple comparison.
Great readings greatly impact learning. What is an education without Tocqueville, Austen, Newton, Einstein, Aristotle, Virgil, Twain or Mother Teresa?
Unless we read the greats, our education simply cannot be accurately called great.
Beyond this, however, there are a number of great works being produced each year and in many mediums—from books to music, art to theater, cinema to mathematics, accounting to marketing, family relations to philosophy and religion, and from the Internet to all the latest social networking sites.
Great works are more easily found in some of these mediums than others, but all of them offer at least a few greats!
We just need to look for and share them—especially with the youth. Cultivating our taste for greatness, and our ability to detect it, is an important aspect of becoming “educated.”
On a related topic, the only free peoples in history were societies of readers! If we want to be free, we must read. Books matter, and great books matter greatly.
Other kinds of readings also produce some great work, and all of us can do better by simply adding more “great” readings into our lives. As we do this, our children and students will be more likely to follow our example.
Finally, in what ways can each of us help establish and support Internet content that is deeper, more excellent and truly greater reading material? This is a vital mission for many of us.
In one way, the Internet may be more effective at promoting great education than even books: Nearly all Internet content is interactive, meaning that youth naturally want to write about it as well as read it.
Where reading of books and writing of essays are usually separate processes in traditional education, the Internet can bridge the gap by naturally combining great reading with important writing.
If they are reading great works and ideas, learners will be more likely to write about great thoughts.
The problem is that without reading great things, great writing seldom occurs.
When children learn texting (entertainment) before they actively fall in love with and engage great books (learning), their writing won’t usually emphasize great thinking.
The greatly educated naturally use e-media to share and improve their education, while those with shallow education naturally take their shallowness to the keyboard.
In short, we can all benefit from bringing more great readings into our lives—wherever they are found.
But among children and youth, it is much more effective to learn from books first and later take up social networking only when they have something important to say.
When this order is reversed, many youth struggle to do the work of great education when life is dominated by e-entertainment.
In the Internet Age, great education is more available than ever—but only if children fall in love with books. And this is a lot more likely if their parents and teachers set the example.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.