What Does "Commercial" Mean?
This question came up when Marina, my wife, was reading an article in the Times with our 8 year old son Sasha. Marina was trying a technique that her public school teacher had used in second grade — selecting one Times piece a week to read with her kids. The articles are chosen not so much for content as to introduce kids to the thinking, argument, and writing style of a good newspaper. I was pleased that Sasha knew the term "eligible" from our talks about sports (a "tackle eligible" play in football), but we noticed he struggled with other words such as "divert," "dwarfed," "concept," and when we asked him what "commercial" meant he was sure he knew: the ads for cereals toys and cars he seens on TV. He was not wrong, but, of course, only partially right.
Seeing Sasha’s unfamiliarity with these terms brought something home to both of us: while fiction introduces kids to new words, to fine writing, to rich forms of storytelling, non-fiction adds another key piece to kids’ education. Nonfiction demands context. To make sense of the real world, whether in science, or social studies, kids need to know the relevant terms, concepts, and structures. Popular culture embeds kids in a grid of its own — from the texting vocabulary we discussed here to real skills in manipulating digital enivornments. But all of that is, as I’ve said, horizontal knowledge. Nonfiction forces you to grapple with the real world, with the past.
When teachers or librarians steer young people away from nonfiction, when teachers avoid challenge and focus on a standard average, we leave kids adrift in popular culture — we create a ghost generation. If we want to prevent our children from being ecotoplasmic students, floating in the streams of the present, we have to give them the foundation, the flesh and blood, the roots that come from context, from nonfiction. I have said, and will say again, nonfiction is a pleasure, not a duty. Thinking is fun. But nonfiction is also a necessity. It is the soil our children need to grow.