Sunday, November 22, 2009

Reading the World

I'd like to continue here with the discussion of William Cronon's list of qualities of a liberally educated.

The second quality of a liberally educated person:  They read and they understand.

One would, it seems, have to have been beaten with the idiot stick to even question the presence of this item on the list, and Cronon admits as much (see the excerpt below).  However, and this is why Cronon bears a wider audience than I think this piece has received (and I would urge every school district administrator in the nation to read/reread this piece), he makes it clear that he is not speaking merely of the ability to read words.  He believes liberally educated people apply skills similar to those employed in reading words to how they look at and move through the world.  In a sense, liberally educated people read the world and construct their own understanding of it.  Here's Cronon:

They read and they understand:
This too is ridiculously simple to say but very difficult to achieve, since there are so many ways of reading in our world. Educated people can appreciate not only the front page of the New York Times but also the arts section, the sports section, the business section, the science section, and the editorials. They can gain insight from not only THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR and the New York Review of Books but also from Scientific American, the Economist, the National Enquirer, Vogue, and Reader’s Digest. They can enjoy John Milton and John Grisham. But skilled readers know how to read far more than just words. They are moved by what they see in a great art museum and what they hear in a concert hall. They recognize extraordinary athletic achievements; they are engaged by classic and contemporary works of theater and cinema; they find in television a valuable window on popular culture. When they wander through a forest or a wetland or a desert, they can identify the wildlife and interpret the lay of the land. They can glance at a farmer’s field and tell the difference between soy beans and alfalfa. They recognize fine craftsmanship, whether by a cabinetmaker or an auto mechanic. And they can surf the World Wide Web. All of these are ways in which the eyes and the ears are attuned to the wonders that make up the human and the natural worlds. None of us can possibly master all these forms of “reading,” but educated people should be competent in many of them and curious about all of them.

Certainly reading books and the printed word is key to academic and life success.  But look at how Cronon extends those skills.  This is "reading the world" and it is a full body experience.  Thus, the liberally educated person uses all her senses to experience the world.  What Conon is suggesting is that liberally educated people live fully conscious lives, that they are the embodiments of Plato's statement:  "The unexamined life is not worth living."  To read the world as Cronon suggests, one must continuously ask questions, must search for patterns, must understand different standards of quality and be able to identify them within the world's many texts.  All of this, and more, all good teachers model for their students.