No classics, memos will do

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Dedicated to Sydney

Je ne cherche aux livres qu’à m’y donner du plaisir par un honneste amusement: ou si j’estudie, je n’y cherche que la science, qui traicte de la connoissance de moy-mesmes, et qui m’instruise à bien mourir et à bien vivre.

              -- Montaigne


According to a survey conducted by the Faculty of Education of HKU, Hong Kong’s proportion of students who would read for their own pleasure outside school is the lowest in the world: only 20% of students have the daily habit of reading for pleasure in Hong Kong, compared with a global average of 40%. Another survey indicates that most Hong Kong students spend less than 30 minutes on reading every day, and what they read are mostly comics, jokes, and leisure readings of low literary value. To further clarify the reading habit of Hong Kong adolescents, I shall cite the results of one more survey. Conducted by Breakthrough Organization from January to March in 2007, this latest survey shows that 75.9 % of readings among the youth of Hong Kong belong to fiction and prose, and only 4.9% of the youth have ever read books about society, culture and politics.

While the above figures tell some plain facts concerning the reading habit of our young people, what I shall say below may shed some light on the overall reading taste of Hong Kong citizens, and at the same time reveal the somewhat tragic and long-neglected career of some respectable independent bookshop owners. I was told personally, to my utmost surprise, by the owner of a ‘second floor bookshop’ in Mong Kok that, over the past few decades, the number of regular clients of New Asia(新亞書店), almost the only local bookshop that still sells quality second-hand books of literature, history and philosophy, has never exceeded 100, which more or less reflects that only an infinitesimal, and even shameful, proportion of the literate population in Hong Kong love humanities.

Why read?

Hong Kong students, nay, Hong Kong people, have long been criticized as lacking in culture (in the sense of a refined understanding and appreciation of liberal arts), and preferring shopping and entertainment to reading. But in order to maintain a competitive edge in this knowledge-based world, good skills of reading and wide horizons embracing diverse aspects of culture seem to be indispensable. Thus comes the education reform, and in this case, particularly ‘Reading to Learn’(one of the four key tasks in Hong Kong’s curriculum reform), to deal with the problem. Let us now examine, from the point of view of the education reformers, why reading ought to be promoted.

According to a letter by Mrs. Fanny Law, former Permanent Secretary for Education and Manpower Bureau, the promotion of a reading culture in school can address two of the major concerns in education, namely, ‘language proficiency and learning capacity’. A document entitled Learning to Learn - The Way Forward in Curriculum, published in 2001, also contains some ‘key messages about reading’ from the Curriculum Development Council. It is said that reading is not just for the improvement of language proficiency, but serves many other important purposes, which add value to the quality of our life, including reading for interest, appreciation, enrichment of knowledge and experience. On the website of the Education Bureau, a teaching resource package is offered to help teachers implement ‘Reading to Learn’ at school. In this package, the manifold purposes of reading are stated clearly. Apart from improving language proficiency, as repeatedly mentioned above, reading also serves other purposes like locating information, understanding instructions to perform certain tasks in our daily life, keeping in touch with friends through correspondence, reading for leisure and enjoyment, and developing our powers of imagination, creativity and appreciation.

To these purposes I am not inclined to object, for they are all beneficial in themselves. And yet, I cannot help wondering if, with ONLY these purposes in mind, we have done full justice to reading, a praxis so crucial to the construction of knowledge, the cultivation of virtue, the flourishing of life, and the quest for wisdom. All the purposes of reading set out by the official documents of the education reform not only strike a rich vein of pragmatism, but also betray philistinism: they seem to fit in better with the curriculum of a training program that prepares students for work than with that of primary and secondary schools, where students are more reasonably supposed to learn how to live as good and rational persons, for whom art and literature may hold greater appeal than money and clothes, than only to acquire such skills as necessary for being competent employees in a corporation, as if they were at school only to get themselves well-equipped for ‘the road to serfdom’ lying ahead. Consider how exceedingly strange it is to include ‘understanding instructions to perform certain tasks in our daily life’ as a purpose of reading, while leaving out, deliberately or not, the more noble ones like improving our moral virtue or looking for wisdom that helps us live better. But even these latter ones, though far more worthy to be set forth by any sane educators, are not the ultimate purpose peculiar to reading: rather, we should read for and only for ourselves in the sense that by experiencing vicariously the life and thoughts of others we augment considerably our inner self.

True, reading may well improve language proficiency, and serve many other practical purposes; yet reading, while incorporated in the school curriculum, should not be taken simply as a tool for achieving these worldly ends. Instead of just rendering some ‘useful’ information accessible, and ‘practical’ training available, to students, genuine education should rather inspire them with an ardent and noble passion for truth, virtue, and wisdom. Though it must be admitted that, to set forth these apparently high-flown ideals, I may be suspected of indulging in empty rhetoric, yet, caught in the dilemma of two evils, I would unhesitatingly put higher emphasis on such ideals as pertaining to life as a whole than on those instrumental values that would have more appropriately been attached to vocational training than to education proper, since an educational system that does not aim at lifting students, both intellectually and morally, to a higher plane of existence, and dispersing, so to speak, the mist of ignorance and folly, cannot produce any mental disposition than that of blind obedience to, even bogus, authority, and benumbed acceptance of recurrent injustices, and on this account the system can no longer deserve to be called ‘educational’.

If reading can serve some more elevated purposes, why keep the teachers from knowing them? There might be two reasons. First, I doubt if it is to instill into the students some false conception of reading, owing to which they would never take care to seek enlightenment, instead of entertainment, from books, nor could they, being unaware of the intellectual hierarchy of texts (upon which I shall enlarge in the next part), know how to reach for the really great authors. In this manner, reading is so debased by our education that no students, as long as their intellectual growth is concerned, can truly benefit from it. But this is not entirely undesirable. Quite the contrary: the ruling class, including the business tycoons, would be happy with a multitude of non-reading subjects. A few steps of reasoning suffice to explain: the less they read, the less they think; the less they think, the easier they are manipulated. QED.

Second, if the vulgarization of reading is not intended, presumably for the convenience of control, by those who draw up the educational scheme, they must be ignorant themselves of the more elevated purposes of reading. I would therefore suggest that they, the education officials, make no haste to teach others, until they are properly taught. After all, in a mercantile sort of place like Hong Kong, where the thirst for interests always supersedes the reverence for learning, we must be cautious enough to take the proclaimed objective of any government project, be it educational or cultural, with a pinch of salt.

We should also note that the documents cited supra are marked by anti-intellectualism and philistinism. For instance, do we need any educators to tell us the reason why we read, trivial as it is, is to ‘keep in touch with friends through correspondence’? This is as absurd and anti-intellectual as to ‘teach’ someone that caviar can in fact be used very effectively to feed the swine. As to philistinism, nearly all the purposes of reading given above can easily boil down to the fulfillment of the conditions that guarantee students’ competence in their future work, but alas, such qualities as are more worthy of liberal education, namely wisdom, virtue, and a keen aesthetic sense, are consigned to the limbo of oblivion. For me, a passionate reader for more than twenty years, the prime reason why we should read is not as practical as the education officials promote, nor is the effect of reading as measurable and palpable as they intend. We read, I would say, primarily because we need books, immortal embodiment of human nature, to understand ourselves, thereby learning to live better. To conclude my critique hitherto, I would like to quote Flaubert's remark on the art of reading: ‘Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.’ What a pity that the precepts of our officials fall either into the category of ‘childish reading’ or that of the ambitious one.

Major policy on the reading culture in school

As I have remarked supra, our education officials think that reading should be promoted, by and large, for the sake of language proficiency, and learning capacity related to practical and social purposes. It follows that reading is just as functional and instrumental as any other teaching kits. No doubt we cannot expect, while our teachers coldly treat books as some inanimate tools, that their students would love books as affectionately as their friends, or pay them the due respect that they would to their mentors. Reading being instrumental to some practical ends, the way it is promoted in school can only be no less target-oriented. And no less futile, I should say, so far as reading’s lifelong impact upon the students is concerned. The EMB (now the Education Bureau) documents have provided schools with ample suggestions and guidelines on the implementation of ‘Reading to Learn’, of which I shall review some.

To begin with, let us examine the reading materials. It is suggested that students’ reading habit not be confined to literary works; that they read a wide variety of text-types such as newspapers, magazines, and non-printed materials from the web and CD-ROMs to keep themselves updated on current affairs and newest information; and that they not omit to read even maps, signs, statistics, yearbooks and charts so as to ‘cope better in their daily life’, and also memos, reports, and speeches ‘for further study and work’!(Myths & Principles) Curiously, while we all concern ourselves with HOW MUCH we ought to read, as if reading many books, be they classics or bestsellers, could infallibly make us wise, nobody seems to care about WHAT to read. After all, reading rubbish in quantity cannot turn us any wiser or more knowledgeable, just like owning a kiln of bricks does not necessarily make one a mason.

For clarity’s sake, let me enumerate once again the reading materials proposed by our most scrupulous education officials: newspapers, magazines, websites, CD-ROMs, maps, signs, statistics, yearbooks, charts, memos, reports and speeches. We can easily imagine students possessing such ‘reading skills’ will be so much grist to the mill of Hong Kong’s employers, particularly those in the business sector. Strange to say, instead of motivating students to read for their benefit first-rate literary works which, as the findings of a survey show (see supra), they rarely read, our education officials choose either to encourage the students to read what they, in effect, already read in abundance on their own initiative (magazines, websites, for instance), or to urge upon them readings of little, if any, worth, among which we can name maps, signs, statistics, yearbooks, charts, memos, and reports. Among the vast treasure of human culture, are these the most valuable things that teachers ought to recommend their students to read? Is it still education, be it good or bad, to tell the youth to spend their precious time in vain on such readings, while life is short? I would let you answer at your discretion. Not exactly rocket science.

Remember, practical knowledge of daily skills and sufficient awareness of current events are good only in the sense that we are enabled by them to get on with the world, but so far as getting on with ourselves is concerned, they are of no avail at all. There cannot be any education proper if what the teachers aim at imparting is only useful skills of daily life, but not the way to make sense of life. To be honest, I dare not think of what kind of society I will be living in, surrounded by fools bred among nothing but newspapers, magazines, websites, CD-ROMs, maps, signs, statistics, yearbooks, charts, memos, reports, and speeches. Hereto I want to add but one more remark: it is indeed superfluous, or even somewhat malevolent, to warn students against reading too many ‘literary works’, while actually they are to busy themselves reading rubbish all the time.

Secondly, let us consider the teaching of reading skills. The resource package offered by the Education Bureau advises that essential reading strategies and skills (skimming and scanning, for instance) should be taught along with word identification. These skills include strategies of predicting, confirming, monitoring, reflecting and evaluating. As tools for comprehension, they are fine. But to say that these skills are fine is one thing, it is, nevertheless, quite another to advise them to be taught. The education officials, I would say, are just no less mistaken and misleading as regards WHAT to read than HOW to read. After leafing through nearly all the documents concerning ‘Reading to Learn’ available on the Web, I have not yet come across a single line that tells how to distinguish classics from rubbish, nor have I learnt even some vague idea about how to read well. The officials seem to care so little about the quality of reading materials that it suffices for their clear conscience to merely direct students to various sources of text types, in spite of the fact that, among what they put at the disposal of students, hardly anything is worthy to be read. As regards reading skills, so much the worse. In the light of what the officials have proposed to teach, I believe that they have confounded the elementary instruction of reading, which it is groundless to single out for special treatment on the teachers’ part, with the more valuable teaching of reading well, which is as yet neglected by our educators. In other words, the officials are as much unaware of the profound difference between reading and reading well as between good and bad books.

It is indeed questionable whether the skills as mentioned in the documents should be taught in school. If so, to what good? Drawing upon my own experience, I find the teaching of these reading skills quite unnecessary for students overall. The fact is that many children of normal intelligence can, in due course, develop these elementary skills independently and spontaneously, just as I did while a child, provided that they are intrinsically motivated to read (with which I shall deal shortly afterwards). And for those more advanced in school level, the recommendable reading skills should not be such as only to help students read fluently business letters or efficiently cull information from lengthy texts, which has been the sole concern of teachers and students for decades in Hong Kong. Ideally speaking, it is the art, not techniques, of reading that teachers should impart to the senior students. By ‘the art of reading’, I mean the habitual exercise of our mind to make critical responses to a text, to appreciate its intellectual and aesthetic values, and, most important of all, to relate the text, however long ago it was written, and however distant is the place where it was composed, to our present life so as to establish continuity with the past and the otherness. In so doing, we succeed in elevating ourselves to a higher and broader level of experience, and laying open, as it were, the way back to Paradise, having drawn ourselves out from the status quo of transient and limited being. Such is the art of reading that can give full play to educatio, the Latin word from which ‘education’ derives, and which, in its most literal sense, signifies the action of ‘drawing out’.

Thirdly, let us deal with the method of motivation our education officials suggest. Teachers are told that all students, whether they be interested in reading or not, need to be motivated in two ways: at the outset, ‘by material rewards like prizes, certificates, etc’, and afterwards by creating ‘opportunities for students to enjoy reading and demonstrate their achievements in reading’ in order to secure intrinsic motivation. These strategies can be exemplified by the so-called reading scheme (like ‘Best Reader of the Year’) which usually awards to students, who have read a certain number of books within a certain period of time, something like certificates and prizes (corresponding to the first type of bait, namely material rewards), and which also requires students to produce book reports or create reading profiles containing such tasks as oral presentations, story re-telling, role-play, model-making, picture drawing, etc. (corresponding to the second type of bait, i.e., demonstration of their achievements) Now we should first ask: are the guidelines given above really helpful in motivating students to read? The answer is affirmative according to a survey conducted in 2001 by the Education Department on the reading habits of students. The findings reveal that in primary schools, students appear to spend more time on reading in those schools that offer awards to encourage reading.

Nevertheless, I invite you to look deeper into the long-term consequences behind the apparent success about which our educators are often too ready to be complacent. This is mere common sense that whatever habit, especially the mental one, we acquire in childhood will be deep-seated in our nature for a lifetime. Seeing that Hong Kong students have been enticed into reading since childhood by certificates, prizes, and ‘demonstration of achievements’, which must depend on others’ approbation and recognition, alas, they will be led astray for ever without running across the real nature of reading: solitude, independence and silence. Let us hear what the gurus of reading say: for Harold Bloom, reading is rather ‘a solitary praxis’ than ‘an educational enterprise’, and ‘it matters, if individuals are to retain any capacity to form their own judgments and opinions, that they continue to read for themselves’ ; in The Uncommon Reader, George Steiner, one of the greatest literary critics of our time, tells us that ‘genuine reading demands silence’. What is the point of quoting them? Here are the illuminating opinions on reading penned by two of the greatest readers in our time, and it is only by contrasting their opinions with our education officials’ that we can debunk the prevalent creed of reading in Hong Kong.

I have to side with the gurus to argue that reading is essentially a solitary act in which we have to learn how to think (for this, silence is a prerequisite) and judge independently; it is therefore quite ironic to promote reading, which consists in solitude and independence, by means of extrinsic motivation and external approbation. In spite of the temporary success concerning the reading habit of primary school students, as reported above, the general lack of interest in serious reading among the Hong Kong populace, I believe, must partly be attributed to the inadequate use of enticements in school, and partly to the prevailing apathy towards books among the teachers themselves. In regard to the former, students ‘trained’ to read for material rewards would not care for books anymore when they get nothing in return, or simply outlive the childish desire for ‘useless’ certificates. With respect to the latter, the Education Reform is once more to blame, for the teachers who, apart from their routine work, have to put in extra time to develop cross-curricular activities or a school-based curriculum, as the reform requires, are already so overworked as to be deprived of all leisure and strength that could have otherwise been devoted to reading. Is it reasonable to expect that teachers, in the circumstances, can still keep on reading and sharing that mythical ‘joy of learning’ with students?

Analogous to virtue, reading is neither to be taught by words, nor by enticement, but by deeds. Socrates, when asked to declare his notions of justice, replies, ‘Haven’t you noticed that I never cease to declare my notions of what is just? I declare them by my deeds, anyhow, if not by my words. Don’t you think that deeds are better evidence than words?’ In my opinion, the only justifiable motivation for students to read is the unaffected and insatiable passion, on the part of teachers, for books, and good books alone, not whatever rubbish one happens to find in the newspaper columns or magazines. Arguably, the present practice of reading, marked by extrinsic motivation and pragmatic ends, will bear far less fruit in long term than when students are moved to read for themselves by teachers’ genuine love of books, though material rewards and show of achievements may produce some immediate and observable success. But if lifelong education is to be sustained, if the objectives of our education can be taken at their face value, and if educators ought not to strive for measurable results of which they can readily boast, I must call to your attention that the success our schools have hitherto achieved is somewhat overstated.

Examples of school-based practices

From all these false conceptions of reading, it naturally results that the grand educational project our officials have formulated cannot yield much healthy fruit. In this part we will briefly review three examples of school-based practices found in the resource package of the Education Bureau website, presumably held to be the best models on which schools can plan the implementation of ‘Reading to Learn’. Instead of commenting on the three projects separately, I shall make some overall remarks after describing them all in broad outline.

The first project, entitled ‘Inter-disciplinary Studies’ (Levels: S1-S3), seems to be designed by the education officials themselves, for the source is left unmentioned. It is essentially divided in four parts: first, in two English lessons allocated for this reading program, students are asked to read some materials and perform the tasks designed by various subject teachers; second, reading files are kept to review the progress; third, the reading skills learnt in these two lessons are to be assessed formally in the examination; fourth, students are required to read books chosen from a list of non-fiction graded readers. The second project , entitled ‘Census 2001’ (Levels: S1-S7), comes from Buddhist Ho Nam Kam College. The objective of this project is to promote civic education through reading, and the reading materials are selected from various websites related to population census. The task is no more than discussion and doing a worksheet with nine simple questions. The last example is called ‘Reading Award Scheme’ (Levels: S1-S4, S6), from HKTA The Yuen Yuen Institute No.2 Secondary School: students are here required to read 10-11 books at minimum; book reports are to be submitted afterwards and their reading ‘achievements’ are recorded in the Student Handbooks.

Having thus outlined the three projects, I am now to subject them to a critical review. So obvious is their unanimous stress on the demonstration of tangible products (such as records and worksheets), as well as their shared indifference to the choice of reading materials, that we should not fail to note that the three examples given above are perfectly in line with the mind-set, as discussed previously, of the education officials themselves. Doing tasks for different subjects, filling in worksheets after browsing through this website or that, and handing in book reports to the school, are nothing new under the sun. What is the point of highlighting ‘Reading to Learn’ then? Even back to a thousand years ago, at the time of the Northern Song dynasty, did a student not read likewise, without the prompting of the ‘key task’, in order to learn? So are we being told that this is what ‘Reading to Learn’ can achieve at its best? Well, I simply do not think the result is impressive enough to be proud of: reports, worksheets, records, etc, continue to dominate, nay, disrupt in the field of reading, while reading itself is forgotten. Can any of the officials in charge of the Education Reform, with all sincerity, say that students, having these flat and insipid projects thrust upon them, will take to reading afterwards? And even if they do, what are they likely to read? Websites? Newspapers? Magazines? Bestsellers?

* * *
In the light of the observations above, I would conclude this essay, from a rather humanistic perspective, that the practical approach to reading, which it is the ambition of our government to inculcate into students, is generally adopted to the detriment of the traditional art of reading, which consists in the power of appreciation, responsiveness, and penetration. The art, though fondly cherished and vigorously defended by a handful of élite readers, has been quickly losing ground, among the public, to the cheap enjoyment of multimedia and pulp readings. It is therefore the duty of educators to check the growth of intellectual sloth, and the decline of literary taste, in a time when bad books always top the bestseller list, and the memory of classics is gradually obliterated.

But upon our inspection, the Education Reform, in so far as reading is concerned, seems to attend less to the interests of students than those of employers: instead of curbing cultural vandalism, it takes further steps with the crowd to reinforce it so much so that classics are leveled down to go hand in hand with newspapers, yearbooks, reports, statistics, charts, and memos, most of which being commercial stuff of no intrinsic value. Students are exhorted and trained to read for purposes more compatible with the need of the Hong Kong business sector than that of their own souls. Hardly convinced of the merit of reading in this way, schools only go through the motion of following the trend set by the officials, and keep on designing perfunctory school-based projects to little avail. Whether our students are thus manipulated to satisfy the needs of a certain influential social stratum, I cannot say for certain, but the making of a competent employee for a corporation, I firmly believe, more often than not proves to be the undoing of an authentic reader for himself.

5 留言:

Hermes 說...

Well written essay with a boring topic, should write bullshit such as 《港女聖經》及《Blog中百萬年薪》, those're the crap that can get published nowadays. Charts and graphs will be at least more colourful in comparison.

Johnny 說...

OH, you have read the books? really bullshit? I wanna buy it but won't read it and then attack it, tell me where did you buy it, thx a lot!

Y.T. 說...

The writer said: "Let us hear what the gurus of reading say: for Harold Bloom, reading is rather ‘a solitary praxis’ than ‘an educational enterprise’, and ‘it matters, if individuals are to retain any capacity to form their own judgments and opinions, that they continue to read for themselves’ ; in The Uncommon Reader, George Steiner, one of the greatest literary critics of our time, tells us that ‘genuine reading demands silence’."

I am inclined to believe that what these two great readers described is actually a rather modern phenomenon. For the better part of Western history, reading meant reading aloud; sight was not detached from sound: for the sound was an organic component of the experience of reading. Whether it was printing that separated the connection between sound and sight, and eventually subordinated one to the other, I do not know. But delivery--a crucial element in the classical conception of rhetoric--seemed, by its very emphasis in university training, to have made it a habit of scholars to read aloud.

To my way of thinking, reading aloud has the advantage of putting the reader in the virtual position of a speaker ready to communicate with his audience: to inform it, or even to move it. Reading silently seems rather to keep the reader all unto himself, isolating the thought from all the attendant emotions and interlocutory reactions. Instead of a "solitary praxis," reading can well be a communal and communicative experience.

倉海君 說...

Y.T.,

In the West, the manners of reading silently probably date back to the seventh century, when the evolution of word separation took place. Until then, the readers had to plod their way through scriptura continua, with their eyes moving in series of fixations and saccades. Physical pronunciation, in effect, much facilitated the decoding of unseparated writing and the retention of phonemes. In this case, they did not read aloud simply for rhetorical training, or to relish an oral performance, but were also driven by necessity. It might be no small feat to read silently in the past, so it is not hard to account for Augustine's amazement when he saw Ambrose reading alone with his voice silent, and his tongue still.

Yet we have to note that the development of reading manner depends not only on the way the language is transcribed, but also on the structure of the language itself. Research indicates that the Chinese graphic tradition provides optimal conditions for developing the ability of silent reading, so I doubt, in light of such findings, if reading aloud was as predominant in the Chinese history of reading as in the Western one. I do not mean that the Chinese people were not used to reading aloud, which is obviously wrong: the Chinese students in the past are so well known for their chanting aloud the text to be memorized, and swaying the body to the cadence of the sentences. But I wonder if this practice was equally prevailing in China. Had it been the case, Zhu Xi (朱熹)'s advice of "心到,眼到,口到"(《童蒙須知》) would have been somewhat superfluous. The Chinese people, I think, would read aloud only when they intended to learn the text by heart, and ample evidence can be found in history books to demonstrate that a lot of readers could read, or even memorized verbatim, a text, silently, rapidly, and to nobody's bewilderment.

The reason why the two critics were quoted (well, I am the writer of the essay) is hardly related to the practice, be it modern or ancient, of reading aloud or not. I was stressing the importance for a reader to be withdrawn from the crowd, and remain intent on the book in a silent ambience, as opposed to the guide-lines drawn up by the Education Bureau.

To know more about silent reading, I would recommend Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading, one of my great favourites.

Y.T. 說...

倉海君:

I am certainly inclined to concede the validity of your accounts for the practice of silent reading in the West and in China. But if I point to the past glory of rhetorica--not only in the Greek and Roman days, but also in the one-third of the scholastic curriculum devoted thereto, and much more so since the revival of letters which we tend to call the Renaissance--if I point to this, I mean to suggest that the word was once much more intimately connected with the sound than it is now; writers then were trained to write with one eye towards the rhetorical quality of the prose, and readers were used to regard much writing as ready for delivery.

As for the Chinese case, I am a little reserved as to the proposition that Chinese, given its graphic tradition, is optimally suited to silent reading. Absent proper punctuation, it is exceptionally hard to resist reading classical Chinese aloud, the flow of the sentence being in such a case the most, if not the only, practical guide for proper cadence.