Trust Me, Assigning Summer Reading Is Totally Pointless

I am all for torturing children. As the overlord of a 9th grade classroom, I forced them to memorize sections of The Aeneid, socked them with the one-two punch of The Odyssey and The Iliad and finished them off on a Shakespearian rack. Let them suffer, I say.

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I am all for torturing children. As the overlord of a 9th grade classroom, I forced them to memorize sections of The Aeneid, socked them with the one-two punch of The Odyssey and The Iliad and finished them off on a Shakespearian rack. Let them suffer, I say, as they try to parse the difference between iambic pentameter and trochaic tetrameter; let them sweat through psychoanalytic readings of Oedipus Rex.

But when summer comes, unshackle the chains and let them loose.

Yes, this is a diatribe. Specifically, it is a diatribe against that most dreaded of pedagogical rites: the summer reading assignment. You know, the moribund copies of A Separate Peace dutifully hauled home and promptly shoved under the bed, to be retrieved only in the final humid days of August; the frantic searches through SparkNotes for the controlling idea of My Ántonia.

The idea behind summer reading is noble enough. Force kids to read, the thinking goes, or else they will spend their time playing Xbox and having premarital sex, or some horrific combination of the two. But very often, the teacher’s desire to instill the summer months with intellectual value is tempered by that very teacher’s own memory of summer as an irenic season of stickball or dockside lounging or mountain escapades. Moreover, said teacher has probably read about and/or been made aware of how overprogrammed kids are today, what with dramaturgical camps and retreats for budding lepidopterists. Also, some kid will inevitably say something like, “I’d love to spent my summer with Crime and Punishment, but we’ve totally planned a two-month father-daughter trip to Bhutan.” One gets to feeling rather guilty, and the desire to make kids work inevitably gets tempered by the suspicion that they should be allowed to play.

Summer reading lists are thus weird hybrids, striving for books that will not end up floating at the bottom of a pool but also won’t make a parent exclaim, “Your teacher gave you what to read for school?” For example, one AP English summer reading list I found online features Into Thin Air, which may be the least summery book ever written, along with the perfectly autumnal The Glass Castle. Another school recommends The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho for its 9th graders, asking them to keep a “reading journal.” Good luck with that. A school in California gives Ayn Rand to its freshmen and Malcolm Gladwell to its juniors, presumably hoping to turn them into venture capitalists.

This strikes me as pandering. If a young person loves reading, she deserves two months to read whatever strikes her fancy, free of the strictures of the classroom.

On the other hand, summer relieves the teacher of every tool he or she has to instill fear in the sort of student who cares neither for Jeannette Walls nor Fyodor Dostoyevsky — but whose interests may well be aroused by the announcement of an imminent quiz. (Fear, whether you like it or not, turns out to be a highly effective educational tool.)

My own prejudices recall — as is usually the case — my own experiences. Back when I was just a helpless Russian-Jewish émigré trying to figure out whether Count Chocula was really a breakfast food, a teacher forced me to read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test over the summer. This proved a traumatic experience that has me afraid of New Journalists in white suits to this very day.

It goes without saying that the teenaged, Shteyngartian me had no idea who Tom Wolfe was. Ditto for Bob Dylan and Ken Kesey. I did not understand why people would ingest lysergic acid diethylamide, nor why they would ride around California in a strangely-painted bus. Don’t get me wrong, my young immigrant self would have loved to travel to California. Only not that California. And so I slogged through the book, understanding nothing, loathing it all.

That’s why when I became a high school English teacher, I resisted the summer reading assignment almost as much as my students did. I was in an eternal bind: If I assigned something too easy  (Harry Potter and the Whatevers of Whatever) to my 9th-graders, they would sense my own reluctance and simply dismiss the task out of hand. Conversely, if I forced them to plow through Middlemarch, they would take me for a joyless martinet and rebel en masse.

And I was protective of the books I really loved, not willing to pit them against the myriad distractions offered by the warm-weather months. I couldn’t countenance the idea of The Sun Also Rises having to compete with Super Soaker battles, of The Canterbury Tales stuffed into the back seat along with snacks and sunscreen.

The worst thing I could do was make a kid miserable, to have her equate reading with a chore – precisely at the time of the year that is legendarily free of chores and obligations. The ones who love reading will read regardless of any assignments. As for the rest, many quizzes await in the fall.

Photo by Noël Zia Lee via Flickr.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.