EDUCATION/ The Art of Reading
It is mid-September. By now, children have already filed back into classrooms and taken their seats in front of new teachers whose names have been scribed across fleetingly pristine chalkboards. For those students who could decipher these inaugural words of the new school year, the ensuing instruction may stagger, stump, or bore stiff. But for those not yet able to derive any meaning from those clusters of loops and lines, the forthcoming year will offer the possibility of profound transformation: they will be beckoned into the realm of literacy. Some will enter stumbling, others careening, and others, sadly, will tarry at the gates, unable to cross its threshold.
Possibly the most famous educator of the 20th century, Maria Montessori identified the act of reading with the translation of ideas, rather than simply the decoding of disassociated words. She wrote in The Montessori Method, “What I understand by reading is the interpretation of an idea from the written signs. The child who has not heard the word pronounced, and who recognizes it when he sees it composed […], and who can tell what it means; this child reads”. That Montessori used the terms, “written signs” is noteworthy; words are nothing if not signs. If they do not signify even a fragment of underlying reality, written words are no more than the peculiar scrawls they appear to be in eyes of the pre-literate child.
In his Republic, Plato characterizes literacy as the fruit of an epiphany: “We weren’t literate until we realized that, despite being few in number, the letters are fundamental wherever they occur, and until we appreciated their importance whether the word which contained them was great or small, and stopped thinking that we didn’t need to take note of them, but tried hard to recognize them everywhere, on the grounds that literacy would elude us until we were capable of doing so”.
According to Plato, it is only through our recognition of the significance of letters that we become literate. The process is one of conversion. The revelation that written words signify “great or small” realities opens our minds to broader truth. Literacy presents us with the incredible, yet terribly sensible notion that inky scribbles, like pigmented brush strokes, represent something real. Moreover, once we become aware of the relationship of text to reality, we suddenly recognize written words as things of import to us as individuals. Literacy means that words on a page, like those shouted from a hilltop, can no longer be ignored. A man who puts his thoughts on paper in a literate society gives power to his ideas. The reality of his published words affirms the reality of his convictions. This is why dictators burn books; by destroying printed words they seek to eliminate ideas.