SparkNotes Quashes Intellectual Fire?

From Pixabay

From Pixabay

My mother clipped a Jan. 2015 article from her local paper about a visiting English teacher / mentor who came to talk to the Issaquah School District, in the Seattle suburbs, about the problem of reading avoidance among teenagers. The consultant, Penny Kittle, raised several interesting points, but the passage below caught my attention:

Kittle said teenagers are finding ways to succeed without a lot of in-depth reading. Websites like SparkNotes provide summaries of many well-known books. Instead of poring through “To Kill A Mockingbird” or “Lord of the Flies,” students can pass exams with less effort.

“We know the kids do that, and they perform pretty well because we have a lot of bright kids in Issaquah,” Henderson said. “They do really well, but they’re still not building those muscles, so when they get to college, it’s going to be a bit of a shock.”

Technology brings many wonderful benefits, but it also provides intellectual shortcuts for American students who have been conditioned to believe that passing a test is the goal rather than experiencing classic literature, struggling with difficult words and syntax, and really learning something — getting an education, not just a grade. We teachers want students to experience the process of reading, which flexes those critical thinking muscles, not just to come to class waiting for someone else to rattle off a synopsis.

When we as readers focus on getting to the end of the chapter instead of appreciating what the heck the author is actually doing in the chapter…well, we’re going to miss out, mostly on learning about ourselves. Anyone can tell us what happens in To Kill a Mockingbird or Lord of the Flies. No one else, however, can tell us why we personally are drawn to or unimpressed by Scout as the narrator of Harper Lee’s classic novel, or how we react to Simon’s fate in Golding’s brutal allegory.

I’m used to hearing students ask, half in jest, “Is there a SparkNotes for this?” I’m certainly not against SparkNotes as a supplement to reading, as a true spark for comprehension and deeper appreciation. I’m just against the site as a substitute for hard, long effort and self discovery.


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