Knowers and Learners
I liked Betty’s post — aside from being pleased she came by to visit. I’ve been reading about Bill Gates for a biography I’m writing. One thing that you see over and over again in his early life, and Paul Allen’s, is that when they were teenagers, the gap between their skill and knowledge as programmers and the best in the country was not that great. They had a lot to learn, but endless energy, brains, and determination. So, soon enough, adults hired them to work on big projects. They were cheaper than adults, but good enough to not only do the work, but take on increasingly important tasts. In turn, the teenagers learned from adults while also gaining the knowledge, the confidence, that they could play in the computer world. As one of those supervising adults recalled, “we were treating high school students like real people.”
Bill and Paul were creators in a community of creators, learners in a cell of learners. My point in talking about the new history, and the use of the internet, and trade books, is that, traditionally, excellence in nonfiction for younger readers has been associated with two things: authority and story telling. On the one hand, we commend authors for accuracy, and, on the other hand, for grabbing our attention. The ideal book, then, is both certifiably true and "I couldn’t put it down" reading. Great. But what we are seeing now is a time where knowledge is changing, growing, daily. And so what a book can also be is an exploration, not an ending, an essay — where the author tests ideas, moves into dangerous territory, examines the new — not a firm conclusion. In other words it can be a learner’s report from the front, to share with other learners.
I have no desire to blame teachers. But I do think that in a nation where two-thirds of high school graduates are not prepared for college level research, writing, or, especially, thinking, we all need to talk about what nonfiction books should be. What is excellence in that environment? Should books be simpler, more photo driven, more graphic novelesque. Some say that given where students actually are, we need to meet them or we lose them. I am in favor of much more experimentation with visuals in nonfiction. But to me that is only part of the answer. The other is to encourage everyone in the world of books, reading, education, and young people to reconsider what a book needs to do. I think if young people found nonfiction books as dynamic and risk-taking as, say, some of the political songs they listen to, they would be interested. Someone will probably write a novel around the Jena 6 but why not a nonfiction book? Three nooses on the cover.Would kids read that even if it was more angry then fair. I bet they would. Then, with their teachers, learning together they could parse out the facts of the case, or the Duke Lacrosse Case. Let the author speak his/her mind, and let the learning begin.