About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Harry Potter

Nope, I'm not going to make comments on the content of the popular books by J.K. Rowling. I haven't read them, and I have seen only two of the movies (which I found mildly entertaining). What I am going to point out is that the Harry Potter phenomenon certainly contradicts a popularly held notion: that children of the MTV and Internet generations don't read books because they have too short an attention span, or they are too shallow to be interested in anything other than teen celebrities.

Baloney. I have witnessed for the whole weekend my 8-year old daughter reading the fifth HP book (which is more than 700 pages long!), and preferring that over TV, by a long shot. Heck, I rarely have the stamina to read anything beyond 300 pages!

It seems to me that the under appreciated message of Harry Potter is that kids can read, do have a reasonable attention span, and can follow a relatively complex story without visual aids. The trick is to write something that they actually care about, that can hold their attention, that calls them back until the story is over, regrettably too soon.

In other words, they need the same sort of stimuli that reasonable adults need also. I don't pick up a book that doesn't captivate my interest or imagination, and if the book isn't good I let it go after a few pages. I don't see why my daughter should behave any differently.

The really good question is: how can we build on the HP example and get out more books that are really enticing to kids, more stories that help their minds grow and expand, that foster their critical thinking, their love of nature, their concern for humanity, or whatever else we would wish them to be into, rather than the latter idiocy by Britney Spears.


  1. I'm going to make a confession here. I love comic books, especially those by Marvel Comics.

    Now, hear me out.

    I honestly belive that the reason I read at all now is because I started reading comics when I was a kid.

    Now I know, comics provide visual aids, they don't stimulate the imagination like "real" books, yadda yadda yadda...

    But the thing I liked about Marvel (and what I like about it today) is that they didn't talk down to me. Marvel's stories had morals, consequenses,they didn't always end pretty. Their heros were flawed and had problems bigger than the villian of the month.

    From what I've seen of Harry Potter thus far, it's much the same.

    And that's what I think kids need from books today, stories that don't treat them like they're idiots.

    One last minor point. Has anyone here ever actually read a Hans Christian Anderson or Brothers Grimm fairy tale? If not, find a collection, read it, watch the Disney version and keep in mind that both were intended for the same audiances. (Verry different Little Mermaid.)


  2. Massimo, Everything you say is absolutely true. The key to ALL learning is reading, without that skill, nine-tenths of life will passes us by. Our school systems, especially in the early years, must stress this along with math and REAL science.
    A few years ago I took some courses at a local community college and was appalled that many people from high school age on up to 40 years of age could not read and could not write a coherent sentence, not to mention a paragraph.

    There were a lot that were competent, but I really felt bad that there were all these others who struggled so hard, yet were unable to take full advantage to the instruction offered simply becasue they were, and I don't think I'm exaggerating, functionally illiterate.

  3. What Noah said is very important. Don't talk down to the kids. Of course the material for younger ones needs to be appropriate, but if the writers of childrens' books are afraid to use "big words," then how are they ever going to develop a vocabulary?

    I'm a high school science teacher, and it's appaling to see how many kids, even in honors classes, don't think. If the answer is not very directly spelled out in a reading passage, they can't find it. No inferences, no deductions, no thinking.

    I suspect that most of the problem is that they were never really challenged in elementary school. Elementary teachers are quick to say the kids can't handle harder material. Have they looked at the video games the kids can master? The key, and I think this applies to Harry Potter (all of which I have read and enjoyed) is a do-able challenge. That's what makes learning fun. The best cartoons from my childhood were sophisticated enough for adults to enjoy. How many times have you seen an old Bulwinkle cartoon and seen adult-level humor you didn't get as a child?

  4. My two girls both devoured Harry Potter books along with Animorphs, The Baby Sitter's Club and a big handful of Richard Scarey. The Animorphs quickly became repetitive and formulaic. Harry Potter has retained some freshness... new ideas, new characters, new language twists, through at least the first 4 which I've read. I'm about to pick up book 5 from my daughter's room since I'm all out of Dawkins and Dennet for the moment. :-)
    I wonder, though, if reading is somewhat of a "class" thing? My wife and I are college educated and we taught the kids to read before they went to Kindergarten. When my older daughter was 3 she had the vocabulary of an adult and astounded both friends and neighbors. She's smart but I don't think she's that much above average. It was just that we spoke to her with adult vocabulary, with full sentences, with proper grammar and she picked up on it. I'm sure many more kids are capable of this if the parents and schools would just work with them.

  5. Die anyway said "She's smart but I don't think she's that much above average."

    Try working with the public for a while. Besides teaching, I work part-time in a grocery store. I think your estimate of what's "average" will change.

    I think there's another reason many people don't read for recreation. My wife has a friend who doesn't read fiction. From things she has said, I suspect that she doesn't form images in her head based on what she reads. That ability, and the ability to entertain propositions contrary to fact seem essential to enjoying fiction, especially fantasy and science fiction.

    Interestingly, there seems to be a tie between being a fantasy or SF fan and being a religious fundamentalist. I read about a study where the relatives of schizophrenics were more likely than average to be either/or. (perhaps both) Maybe this might explain the annoying propensity of the Science Fiction channel to run shows like Ghost Hunters.

  6. Interestingly, there seems to be a tie between being a fantasy or SF fan and being a religious fundamentalist.

    Fantasy maybe, but I would be surpised if the fundamentalist correlation held true with SF readers. I know many freethinkers who have read a great deal of SF.

    For me personally, Assimov, Heinlen and Clarke sparked much of my early agnosticism.


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