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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Dumber, Smarter, and the Whole Question of Context

I see by the New York Times, that there is a new round of books about how we Americans are "hostile to knowledge." This, of course, relates directly to the questions of context brought up by Betsy and Chris in the recent thread on McCarthyism. If kids don’t know anything, are not bothered by that — are even content and proud in their ignorance, the amount of context each book needs to supply shifts from "a great deal" to "nearly impossible." Lament, lament, lament My own personal experience tells me we are going down precisely the wrong track.

Just this Wednesday I went to to high school in Washington Heights — located in a relatively poor Dominican, black, neighborhood, it was the kind of school that features not only metal detectors at the door but a couple of police squad cars parked near the entrance. I was there to talk with juniors and seniors about my book on Race. You might think this would be a mismatch — a book some reviewers have said would be tough for any kids not well versed  in history, a school where daily life challenges students’ attention. And yet what I found, over and over, is that the young people (who had all read some or all of the book, and discussed it in class) said "this is interesting." Of course kids are polite, and nice to any visiting author. But what I was hearing was not just, "thanks for coming," it was, "I read your book" — which is something completely different.

I realized that we as adults are intimidated by what kids don’t know, and don’t know they don’t know. We want them to come to us either filled with knowledge or aware of their ignorance. But what we forget is that they are curious, they are interested, they can be challenged. We don’t actually always need to engage them with storytelling, or to completely fill in the blanks. We can trust that if you bring something fresh and exciting to their attention that can spark their interest, that can lead them (perhaps with the help or a teacher or a librarian) to search for the context they did not previously know. We need to trust that ideas, theories, points of view are interesting to teenagers. They actually want to think, if given half a chance by a book. Once they get thinking, then they can go out to find out what they need to know to bolster their arguments. 

I think that instead of lamenting the general state of American culture, we should go directly to teenagers, and speak our minds. That, then, encourages them to use theirs. We don’t need to wish our kids were all going to Eton and Harrow and were fully imbued with a Western classical education stretching back to Greek and Latin. Instead we can speak to them the way the way tutors do at Oxford and Cambridge — as intelligent young people capable of thought. We adults are the ones who need to be brave. That is what will interest young people, no matter what their background or prior knowledge, in reading and learning.