Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

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SilentReading 1 - 19 May 2018 - Main.JoeBruner
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In the elementary classroom children read both out loud and silently. Children learn, in large part, through mimicry, and reading out loud enables them to more directly mimic their parents and their peers. It also serves the valuable function of allowing teachers and peers to check the reader for proper phonics and understanding. But from the first or second grade onwards, children are also given silent reading time, a space where freedom and autonomy allow them to explore texts in their own manner, choosing what is read and re-read, taking recourse to a dictionary if necessary, and often choosing their own book and assignment. In middle-class classrooms, by second grade, it is generally understood that the silent reading is the real reading. The student who can only read aloud is viewed with a disdain similar to that we harbor for the student who can only breathe out their mouth. The independence of the silent and imaginative engagement with the text is a form of liberation for children. If they are a minority they do not see represented in the world around them, the text can have options for that in Red Scarf Girl, Midnight's Children, or even Frederick Douglass's autobiography. More broadly, if they are discontent with their place in the world or even just their community(1), reading silently them allows them to be someone else, or at least be from somewhere else. But did we always read silently?

A friend directed me recently to a couple of pieces about St. Ambrose, a Bishop of Milan noted in St. Augustine's Confessions for his strange practice of silent reading. "When [Ambrose] read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud."(2) To read, both in education and for recreation, was to a great extent a social activity. “Psychologically, silent reading emboldened the reader because it placed the source of his curiosity completely under personal control. In the still largely oral world of the ninth century, if one’s intellectual speculations were heretical, they were subject to peer correction and control at every moment, from their formulation and publication to their aural reception by the reader.”(3) Into the 18th century, excessive nighttime reading was viewed with great suspicion, on the ostensible basis that one might burn down their house. The poet Samuel Johnson was mocked after his death for reading at night with a candle so often that it was a miracle he hadn't caught fire sooner.(4). Throughout the medieval period, councillors advised rulers not to let anyone at court take meals alone in their room. The famous soprano operatist Caterina Gabrielli created a small scandal in Sicily when the Viceroy sent a page to ask why she was not at his party and she was found alone, reading, in her room.(5)

Outside, perhaps, of the later academy, to read silently people had to steal shards of time from places like the early morning and late evening. When Benjamin Franklin talked about the merits of rising early, he was in large part using that time to read silently by himself. In the economic history view, we found a new way to allocate the scarce resource of our attention. In the 21st century, new demands are being placed upon our attention that make the old strategy unviable unless we change something. The econodwarf would say we choose whatever we prefer, but we do not actually do it that way, partly because their is not a choice all of ourselves prefer, partly because we usually find ourselves texting or clicking on the next buzzfeed article without any deliberation about what we prefer.

For both Eben and myself, additional autonomous reading is especially central because it played a critical role in our development, and it probably has a special human function in general that grants it such a central role. But it probably holds across a broader trend of complaints I am hearing from my generation - we are discarding many hobbies and skills and becoming more boring because screens eat our time.

-- JoeBruner - 19 May 2018



1 : I was always very resentful of the fact that I was a child

2 : Confessions, Augustine, Book 6, Chapter 3]]. If Augustine saw fit to mention this, it was probably unusual in 400 AD for people to read in such a way. In Roman education, classic texts were typically read aloud as preparation for the higher education practice of declamatio, where original speeches for hypothetical legal or political situations were composed.

D. Vance Smith interpreted this reaction as noticing a great rudeness. "[Augustine is] surprised by his rudeness at not reading out loud to share with him. The default assumption in the classic period, if you were reading around other people, you’d read aloud and share it.”{{

3 : ibid.

4 :

5 :

Revision 1r1 - 19 May 2018 - 20:53:15 - JoeBruner
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