Reading and the Humanities

Reading is on of the most important aspects of the humanities, and happens even when we don't think it is happening. We read pictures; we read movies; we read social situations. Reading refers to understanding the ways in which our world is intelligible.

But that broad sense of reading should not distract us from the most obvious and basic sense of reading, that is, understanding the words on a page. A recent study tried to account for why girls are doing so much better than girls in school, in general, since the 80's. Many things had been blamed - television, hip-hop, video games - but the research argues that in fact the most likely thing is that boys have neglected reading, and have paid the price.

Now, girls needn't feel too smug - the difficulty of reading is not gender specific. It is true, in some cultural places it has been seen as unmasculine or effeminate to read. And yet, many girls struggle as well with reading that is more than the most basic literacy. In other words, it is one thing to say that a person has basic literacy, and another to have the skills to succeed as a humanities student.

Reading in the humanities requires more than basic literacy. It requires the ability to recognize different kinds of text. It requires a certain level of background knowledge, that gives one access to the descriptions or arguments being made. It requires understanding the context in which the text fits.

And as importantly, it requires the ability to look at the text as more than just an object in the world to be decoded. Consider how we interpret an iconic text such as the Bible. Many people have interpreted it in vastly different ways. Many people have claimed their own interpretation as true and correct, straight from God. And yet, many of those interpretations have been very different, even diametrically opposed. The Bible has been used to justify the most terrible social systems (e.g., apartheid, inquisition) and the highest actions of humankind. It has been used to justify different political, economic and moral systems.

How is this possible, that one book could do all this? Do people just not know how to read? No - they know how to read. But the reading brings out who they are. It is as if the book questions the reader, rather than the reader questioning the book. The book asks, "who are you that could read me this way?"

Any text does this. It is not just a matter of subjectivism - many people may, in fact, agree with a particular reading, and our readings came from somewhere. The point is that good reading is simultaneously a questioning of the text, and a questioning of ourselves.