Guest: Hechinger, Fred
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Fred Hechinger
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. There was quite a telling piece in The New York Times the other day that quoted John Adams in 1765 saying, “A native American who cannot read or write is as rare an occurrence as a comet or an earthquake”. Well, this isn’t so true today, particularly if you change “cannot” to “will not”, for there are now so incredibly many Americans who perhaps can but certainly won’t read. And if print literacy remains important to the survival not just of polite but of accomplished society, then we in this country are in trouble; more trouble than many of us in this age of McLuhan may choose to recognize. The Times article was about the desire to read, about how we can instill this desire in our children. Its author, an old friend, is my guest today. Fred Hechinger, President of The New York Times Company Foundation, was for many years the newspaper’s education editor and still writes its weekly column about education.
Fred, thanks for joining me today.
HECHINGER: Always a pleasure.
HEFFNER: Well, you know, you suggest in your article some of the techniques that have been demonstrated as effective in instilling the desire to read. Reading to your kids; you said you started at six months. But beyond a handful of very concerned parents, what difference does it make? Are there that many who will really follow this advice who are concerned enough themselves to do it?
HECHINGER: Well, I think it’s really very easy, and it’s a lot of fun reading to your children. First of all you can read them the kind of things you enjoy or that you remembered you enjoyed. And you begin to get a kind of a reaction from the children that’s quite different from what you do with them ordinarily. First of all it quiets them down. It establishes a kind of rapport between you and the child and the book and the child, the pictures in the book. And it isn’t, it really isn’t an attempt, as many parents think, it’s not an attempt to get the child to read early, not to push them into reading, but to get a sense that in this strange contraption that’s a book there’s something worthwhile, there’s something you can enjoy. And you enjoy together in the beginning and of course quite naturally if the child enjoys being read to there comes a point at different times to different children, there comes a point when the child says, “You know, I’d like to be able to do that myself. Why should I have to wait until Daddy or Mommy are ready to read to me? I’d like to do this myself”. And that really starts the desire to read, which I think is half the battle.
HEFFNER: But what you have to start with is not just the child ready there. There are enough of them. You have to start with the interested and ready and willing parent.
HEFFNER: And where do you find them, Fred?
HECHINGER: Well, that’s the problem. I think many parents are too busy. Obviously there’s the problem there of children who grow up in homes where the parents themselves are not literate, where they don’t, either don’t read or don’t believe in books. And that could be poor homes and it could be rich homes. A lot of rich children are brought up not by their parents but by babysitters who don’t really have much interest in reading. So it’s a problem; it starts with the home. And this is one of the things that people don’t realize when they talk about children not learning to read, for one thing, or not wanting to read after they’ve learned to read. It’s creating the desire. One of the big city school superintendents, Ruth Lamb in Chicago said, “If we could get our parents to read to our children 15 minutes a day, we could revolutionize the schools”.
HEFFNER: What is happening to the matter of reading in this country? You know, over the past 26 years you and I have done so many of these programs on why Johnny can’t read, on the little red schoolhouse and so forth and so on. Going back a quarter of a century, have we been going downhill? Uphill? Where are we?
HECHINGER: We went downhill for a while. We went downhill, I would say, in the late 50s and 60s. I think we’ve started to go uphill again.
HEFFNER: What makes you think so?
HECHINGER: Well, the scores; the reading scores themselves are encouraging. In the last two years or so, two or three years, the reading scores almost everywhere in the country have been going up. Now, that may mean to some extent that there’s more drilling for the reading tests, but I think there’s an indication that there has been an upswing. I think part of the reason is that people generally are beginning to be more serious about the importance of the school. And the sort of arguments about the schools have died down and there’s more time for teaching.
HEFFNER: You mean whether the schools are good or bad, whether they’re doing their job or not.
HECHINGER: Yeah, well, yes. And you know, we went through a period, some of it for very good reasons, we went through a period when the parents were boycotting the schools, the teachers were on strike, the civil rights groups were up in arms, frequently with very good cause. But it did mean that a lot of time was taken away from the business of the schools of teaching, and more than that, the children got a sense that what goes on in the school is really not all that important, when they saw the adults on the barricades outside. Now that’s gone. And I think certainly we’ve made progress. The problem, I think is – and that’s really, I think, what I was writing about – the problem is that important as it is to teach the children, the process of teaching them to read, and this is what we’ve been talking about in the past, the different methods, each group has a different approach and thinks that the other approach is terrible; I don’t think that’s all that important. I think good teachers can teach with all kinds of methods. But what I think is a problem is that there’s so much emphasis on the process, so much fear that the children won’t learn to read, that in the course of this you forget that what really matters is that the child wants to read. The child feels that having learned this very difficult skill – it’s a difficult skill – a child wants to talk first, and now the child learns to read. And if the child doesn’t feel that it’s worthwhile, it doesn’t do any good.
HEFFNER: What about our adult population? Does it manifest a desire to read in terms of figures that we can see in our public libraries?
HECHINGER: No, no, not nearly as much as it should be. An awful lot of…Well, you have to differentiate. A lot of people read what they must read for the job, for the profession, and so forth, but not for enjoyment.
HEFFNER: Fred, aren’t you spitting against the wind?
HECHINGER: Sure. A lot of the things that in our society are fighting the business of reading. There are other things to do that are in a sense easier. On the other hand, if you really enjoy reading, and if a child starts to enjoy reading early on, it’s a wonderful activity that doesn’t require any great technological setup. All it requires is a book. And you can be alone with the book and you can think about the book. You can imagine things which you can’t imagine if you –forgive me – when you see something on television. It’s there. It’s spelled out for you. Or in a movie. With a book you can build the…Let me give you an example. Our youngest son quite a number of years ago was absolutely enamored with the Hobbit books, just loved them. And then…
HEFFNER: I could never understand them.
HECHINGER: Well, I couldn’t understand them either, but kids did, and they were great for kids. And you may remember at one point one of the networks made an animated movie or show of the Hobbits. And John was excited about it. He had been waiting for it. And we sat down and watched it together and it wasn’t more than five minutes into the show he turned to me in real disgust and said, “That’s not what the Hobbits looked like”. And this was important. In his mind he had created something and there on the screen was something that was totally different from what he had imagined.
HEFFNER: Well, if we’re going to be anecdotal…
HEFFNER: …I do remember my two sons, one evening listening to one son talk about having seen Kon Tiki. And they had read it in school too. And to him it was much more real on the screen. And I wonder whether we aren’t now talking about differences in perception in the capacity to perceive in the one way through reading, and the capacity to perceive through the electronic or film media.
HECHINGER: Well, the two can and should complement each other. And I’ll give you another example from my own experience. The same son, he was about, I’d say about eight years or nine years old. By sheer chance happened to tune in on television into the old, you remember the old Paul Muni movie of Louis Pasteur.
HEFFNER: I remember reading the book.
HECHINGER: Well, exactly. He saw the movie. He was absolutely, you know, it ws just the greatest thing. It was just right for his age. It was everything. There was the detective story aspect of the microbes, the animals that were dying, the battle of the scientist against the old god and so forth. It was just great. And for several weeks after that he came home with an incredible number of books from school, not only about Louis Pasteur, he had read this book itself, but books about microbes, books about that whole investigation. And it wouldn’t have happened without seeing it on television first.
HEFFNER: Well, I remember too all the programs we did about television and reading, does it help, does it hurt? We go back a long time. I wonder whether it isn’t time now to recognize what Marshall McLuhan was telling us, that in a sense thanks to what Mike O’Neill called “the beady red eye of television”, well, McLuhan said, “Every school child knows that going to school interrupts his education”. And that it doesn’t make sense for old timers, print oriented people like you and me, to continue to press something that just isn’t in the cards. Maybe we should be spending our time helping people become more literate in the newer literacy, in the newer means of communications.
HECHINGER: I wouldn’t go that far. I think the two should go together. I think television has a great contribution to make. I think, on the other hand, the book is a different medium; it has a great deal to offer. I think the two should be working together rather than against each other. I think what you are saying has been quite true and it’s been true because for quite a long time the people who were teaching in the schools had grown up without television, and they hated television. And they prided themselves…You know, they used to, the greatest thing they could say is, “I never watched it. I don’t own a television set”. Now, they cut themselves off from the children, because the children grew up in a different world. And the teachers didn’t know what the children saw at home. That’s changing because a new generation of teachers is coming in, and it’s a generation that has also grown up with television. And so they, the children and the teachers come together. And I think that’s really the way it ought to be.
HEFFNER: Well, you know, you talk about “should”. You say, “Let’s not dichotomize the situation. They should read; and of course, they should get the most out of the other means of communications”. But once again I wonder whether we old timers aren’t continuing, aren’t continuing to put a premium upon a lost, an almost lost art that will be a vestigial remnant of the rich and the well-born, or at least the well educated, in the future.
HECHINGER: I don’t think it’s a lost art. I don’t think it will ever be a lost art.
HEFFNER: No, no, no, not a lost art; a lost cause.
HECHINGER: A lost cause? I don’t think so. I think again, take live children. We saw Shakespeare in the Park with our son, saw Midsummer Night’s Dream. And he enjoyed it. And then he read it, and he enjoyed it differently. And two weeks ago as an assignment in school he wrote four Shakespearean sonnets, and they were good. And it wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t read.
HEFFNER: But Fred, listen, you know I’m not arguing with you against or about reading or not, not at all. We’re both linear people, book people, pre-McLuhan, Gutenberg people. But if we’re talking about a quarter of a billion Americans and we’re talking about literacy and we’re taking the counterpart of what you said John Adams said, then I wonder whether we don’t have to spend more energy in another direction rather than beating that same old horse that may be so dead now for most people it doesn’t deserve to be beaten any longer.
HECHINGER: Well, what will happen if nobody writes books? Nobody writes things on paper? What’ll happen to television? What’ll happen to the stage? What’ll happen…It’s the basic medium, whether you write on a word processor or on a yellow pad doesn’t really make any difference. The basic medium is still writing. And if you don’t write, what’s going to be on the screen? What’s going to be on the stage? What’s going…You know. That’s what bothers me. And that’s why I think children really even today, really in the first (???) have to grow up learning to love to read, to love what’s in the books.
HEFFNER: You see, the problem is here, and that’s why I ensnared you and trapped you into coming on the program, the problem is when I read the book, I know that I don’t disagree with Fred Hechinger one bit about this, but you keep talking about “should”. You keep talking about “should”, and I agree with you on that. But what happens?
HECHINGER: All right. Let me leave the “should”. Let me go to the many children, even today, and these are children who also love television and love the non-print media. And there are many children who really love books. They love to read. They read E.B. White, they read the Dr. Seuss books (I’m talking about the little ones now), and for them it’s not “should”. The problem is when you don’t give them that, when you don’t give them to understand what excitement is in a book, or even worse, forget for minute about the parents reading to the children; if their first primers, their first books with which they learn to read, are deadly and dull, all right, they’re learning to decipher what’s in those books, and they say, “Well, what’s it worth? It’s terrible stuff. It’s boring.” And that’s, I think, what pushes people away from reading. And I don’t think it has to be “should”. I think there are a lot of children who really love to read. And incidentally who love to write.
HEFFNER: Then why have we been going – I teased this out of you before – why have we been going downhill?
HECHINGER: I think we went downhill because for a certain period for a number of reasons, the great expansion of the schools, the teacher shortage, the society turning in other directions, a lot of people talking about school isn’t really important and so forth. You know, we went through this period. When reading really wasn’t taught very well, and children didn’t learn how to read. And there wasn’t any high priority on it. And so it went downhill. And a lot of the…I don’t necessarily agree with all the people who have written books like Why Johnny Can’t Read and so forth. I don’t necessarily agree with their methods, but I think they had an important point. You’ve got to teach children to read. It’s not an automatic thing. Some children learn it more easily than others, but it has to be taught. And if you don’t teach it and if you don’t teach it well – and incidentally, if you don’t teach it with materials that are worth reading – you can go back again if maybe – you started earlier with the quote – but you can go back again to the early teaching of reading with McGuffy’s Reader. Now, McGuffy had, there are a lot of things that we don’t like in it today, and I certainly don’t advocate going back to that. But the fact is it was an interesting book. Had a lot of interesting stories in it. And it was not talking down to the children. And the children felt that they were learning something that’s worthwhile.
HEFFNER: Well, you know, as of course I don’t, because you’re familiar with the educational structure around the country. Does what you know of it, does what you see inspire this hopefulness?
HECHINGER: Yes. I think there’s a real, there has been real renaissance. I think more teachers are interested in this. I find that when I write about things like this column about reading to your children or an earlier column on teaching reading through writing and so forth, the response both from parents and from teachers is enormous. And the teachers who want to read the book, who want to really succeed in teaching their children. So I think from that point of view there has been an upswing in, I don’t know, I don’t know what, we never know the reasons. Maybe it’s the economy. Generally in the past, I’m sorry to say, whenever things were tough the schools get better for some reason.
HEFFNER: There’s nothing else you can do. You have the money to spend on them.
HECHINGER: And people worry about it. When an economy is down, people worry much more about how important it is for their children to be educated.
HEFFNER: Do you see the possibility that there will be a considerable cadre of well-trained, well-educated – not well-educated – well-trained, educated, reading technocrats in the future, a substantial cadre? And then a vast subculture of people who are basically in our own terms illiterate?
HECHINGER: I think some of this is happening for another reason, which is also technological. I’ll get back to your, I’m making your point now.
HEFFNER: I need every bit of help I can get.
HECHINGER: (Laughter) The arrival of the computer as a teaching tool is really moving in that direction, because you can, particularly for the teaching of reading and writing, the computer is just enormously useful. And at least for the time being the people who would be working on that will be that kind of relatively small, committed, intelligent group that understands this, and we hope they will slowly carry a larger group of teachers with them. But it will happen in that way.
HEFFNER: If you had to find yourself a crystal ball and become prophet and were to look to the middle of the next century, or to this time in the next century, toward the end of it, what do you think will happen to our educational, not structure, not the nature of schools, elementary schools, junior high schools, etcetera; what do you think will happen to the whole educational thrust in our society?
HECHINGER: Of course, reporters should never try to predict.
HEFFNER: Neither you nor I will be around to see if you’re right of wrong.
HECHINGER: I think that probably one of the things that will happen is that a good deal more of the learning will move out of the classroom.
HEFFNER: You mean McLuhan will prove to be correct?
HECHINGER: Yeah, that’s right. A lot of it will move into the living room, where you learn on a console. So a lot of the, to some extent, in many ways the school will be supplemented, bypassed. I hope the school people will supplement it. Others think it might be bypassed. That depends, the answer to that depends on how effective the schools are to move with the times. I think on the other hand that it will be very wrong, and I think dangerous, if we move entirely in the direction of the, you know, what Toffler calls “the new cottage industry”, where everybody just works form the console, because quite obviously that would mean a loss of human contact. And one of the great advantages of being in the classroom in addition to what you learn is that you’re with other children and that there’s an exchange of views and opinions involved. It can be said of course that you can have an exchange of opinion with a computer. It’s not the same thing. But I think more of it will move out of the school.
HEFFNER: Kenneth Clark was seated in that chair just the other day talking of course about questions of black and white and education. And here is a man who has always been a prime believer in the efficacy and the meaning and the role of education in our lives, rather depressed about what has not happened in terms of desegregation. Do you see any relationship between what happened to our educational structure and the efforts, minimal efforts or aborted efforts at desegregation?
HECHINGER: I think, and you know I feel so strongly about what Ken has been doing and preaching about, but I think the major failure really of the kind of integration that he and I had hoped for has been outside the schools. The schools were asked to integrate the society. And as the schools have frequently been asked to do the things that the society hasn’t been doing. And the schools can’t do it alone. And the society really had lagged in terms of all kinds of integration: housing integration, job integration. And the schools haven’t been able to do the job alone. So from that point of view I think there has been a certain amount of failure. But there have been a lot of accomplishments. There are integrated school systems. There are integrated universities. I think just a few days or weeks ago we celebrated the integration of Old Miss. Well, when that happened at the time, nobody thought it would ever be a fully integrated university. So there has been progress. What worries me, and I guess it would worry Ken Clark too, is that the things we are talking about, at least for a while, are likely to widen the gap again. The affluent kid is more likely to have a computer at home than the minority kid. The affluent child is more likely to go to a suburban school where the school provides more of these opportunities. And so I think there could be a setback because of that.
HEFFNER: That’s why I asked you before whether there isn’t some real possibility in our times that we are aiming – not “aiming”; that’s a poor word – we are being directed toward a continuing dichotomization, or polarization between the culturally rich and the culturally poor.
HEFFNER: And that it parallels, unhappily, the economically rich and the economically poor.
HECHINGER: Absolutely. Some of the things that Washington is planning for the public schools on the one hand, the private schools on the other, is likely to do that kind of thing. It’s likely to stratify the society. The cutbacks of federal support for school districts with large numbers of poor children is going to make a difference. I remember when California first passed the Proposition 13, that summer the state education department cancelled all summer schools for the state as an economy measure. Well, what happened was that in the well-to-do district the parents got together, they set up private foundations, they collected the funds, they rented the school buildings, they hired the teachers, the same teachers, and their children went to summer school. But this wasn’t happening in the poor districts. That’s the kind of stratification, new stratification that we haven’t had in the past.
HEFFNER: Of course that’s stratification in relation to budgets.
HECHINGER: That’s right.
HEFFNER: But you were also talking about technology and its…
HECHINGER: That’s right. That’s right.
HEFFNER: …impact upon this. And you see it as contributing…
HECHINGER: Absolutely. Unless we really work hard on counteracting it. We have a program in New York now, an experimental program, just started, in six schools; each one has one classroom that’s entirely computerized. Every child has a microcomputer on his or her desk. And these are classrooms in areas where there are disadvantaged children. Now, if you can do that kind of thing with enough children then I think we can overcome it. But there’s no certainty that we will.
HEFFNER: I’m glad you’re so hopeful, Fred Hechinger, after all these years.
HEFFNER: Thank you so much for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND.
HECHINGER: Nice being with you.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.