keeping an eye on the tree and the forest

Dave's Exegesis is my eclectic site of exegesis on pretty much everything I can think of, whether biblical studies, theology, music, movies, culture, food, drink, sports, or the internet.

Reading Not a Skill? Not So Fast!


Mark Bauerlein wrote a summary in The Chronicle of Higher Education of Ed Hirsch and Robert Pondiscio’s perceptive article in The American Prospect, “There’s No Such Thing as a Reading Test“.  The title of Mark’s review is “Reading is Not a Skill“. As someone who cares about interpretation, I don’t think that title is complete (probably just designed to be controversial) because that is not what the article is about.  As Mark agrees with Hirsh and Pondiscio, their contention is that reading tests in schools are inadequate because the students don’t have knowledge of the reading samples they are being tested on.  If students simply had a familiarity with the subject matter of the samples, their results would improve.  Let me complete Mark’s sentence: “Reading is Not a Skill That is Being Tested Well”.  I think by “reading” we really mean “interpretation”.  The bigger issue is that people don’t know how to engage grammar so as to ascertain meaning from written texts.  That is what is really being tested in “Reading” tests.  Thus, I will continue to beat the drum for the study of Discourse Analysis

Reading Is Not a Skill

By Mark Bauerlein

Over the years, I’ve spent some time reviewing items on reading-comprehension tests, evaluating the passages selected as texts and checking the following eight or ten questions for accuracy, validity, etc. It can be a draining activity, scanning rather dry and often remote informational text, then spotting ambiguities or confusions in the questions that must be corrected.

One thing, I’ve found, lightens the load: a little knowledge about the passage material. Just a little bit helps a lot. Indeed, the difference between no knowledge and a little knowledge means much more than the difference between a little knowledge and abundant knowledge.

That’s my experience, and it corresponds with long-time arguments made by E. D. Hirsch and others about the importance of “domain knowledge” to reading comprehension. A recent essay in The American Prospect (magazine motto: “Liberal Intelligence”) argues just that. It is by Hirsch and Robert Pondiscio, and it bears the blunt title “There’s No Such Thing as a Reading Test.”

Hirsch and Pondiscio lay out the conventional understanding of reading.

“The culture of testing treats reading ability as a broad, generalized skill that is easily measured and assessed. We judge our schools and increasingly individual teachers based on their ability to improve the reading skills of our children. When you think about your ability to read—if you think about it at all—the chances are good that you perceive it as not just a skill but a readily transferable skill. Once you learn how to read you can competently read a novel, a newspaper article, or the latest memo from corporate headquarters. Reading is reading is reading.”

That outlook sounds common-sensical, Hirsch and Pondiscio admit, and they grant it partial accuracy. “The ability to translate written symbols into sounds, commonly called ‘decoding,’ is indeed a skill that can be taught and mastered,” they write.  One can “read” words that have no meaning (“rigfap,” “churbit”), and one can sound out words in a sentence filled with allusions to something one doesn’t understand (say, a 10-year-old reading a paragraph on the Thirty Years War).

“But,” the authors insist, “clearly there’s more to reading than making sounds. To be fully literate is to have the communicative power of language at your command—to read, write, listen, and speak with understanding. As nearly any elementary schoolteacher can attest, it is possible to decode skillfully yet struggle with comprehension. And reading comprehension, the ability to extract meaning from text, is not transferable.”

Why? Because texts contain embedded assumptions, things the writer assumes the reader will know. Their example: “A-Rod hit into a 6-4-3 double play to end the game.” Think of the implied meanings. One, it’s the ninth inning. Two, a man on first and one out. Three, the Yankees are behind. Etc. If you don’t have the domain knowledge, you’re not a bad reader. “You merely lack the domain-specific knowledge of baseball to fill in the gaps.”

This is why reading is not an abstract transferable skill (except at the most basic levels of literacy). Hirsch and Pondiscio note that “poor readers” do well when faced with a passage whose subject matter is familiar to them, “outperforming even ‘good readers’ who lack relevant background knowledge.” The problem is that knowledge in one area usually doesn’t help you to comprehend a text covering a different area.

The authors quote Dan Willingham on the national implications of the knowledge factor:

“The mistaken idea that reading is a skill—learn to crack the code, practice comprehension strategies, and you can read anything—may be the single biggest factor holding back reading achievement in the country,” Daniel T. Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, recently wrote in The Washington Post. “Students will not meet standards that way. The knowledge base problem must be solved.”

You see the problem, though. If reading is not an abstract, transferable skill, if reading comprehension relies upon sufficiently broad knowledge of important cultural, political, scientific, historical, and artistic materials, then we run squarely into delicate Culture War questions of curriculum. The inevitable question arises, “Who’s to say which traditions and histories and literature and philosophies should be required in the classroom?”

I’ll take Hirsch/Pondiscio’s advice: “Rather than idle away precious hours on trivial stories or randomly chosen nonfiction, reading, writing, and listening instruction would be built into the study of ancient civilizations in first grade, for example, Greek mythology in second, or the human body in third. . . . Let’s say a state’s fourth-grade science standards include the circulatory system, atoms and molecules, electricity, and Earth’s geologic layers and weather; and social-studies standards include world geography, Europe in the Middle Ages, the American Revolution, and the U.S. Constitution, among other domains. The state’s reading tests should include not just fiction and poetry but nonfiction readings on those topics and others culled from those specific curriculum standards.”

Narnia vs. Lord of the Rings


I am partial to both the books and movies of Lord of the Rings as more compelling, imaginative, and integrative than the Chronicles of Narnia. Thus, I found the following intriguing.

‘Narnia’ vs. ‘Lord of the Rings’: Competing Visions

By Alyssa Rosenberg

As a child, I made it all the way through The Chronicles of Narnia, and read a couple of the books repeatedly, but I never managed to finish the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As an adult, though, I’ve rewatched each of the Lord of the Rings movies more times than I like to admit (if TNT airs a weekend marathon of them, I’m a slave to the couch), but I was unmoved by The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and have no interest whatsoever in the inert subsequent movies, the next of which is forthcoming shortly:

I wonder if the answer to why Tolkien’s movies are working while Lewis’s aren’t lies in this somewhat abstracted paragraph from Adam Gopnik’s 2005 essay on Lewis:

Tolkien hated the Narnia books, despite Lewis’s avid sponsorship of Tolkien’s own mythology, because he hated to see an imagination constrained by the allegorical impulse. Though Tolkien was certainly a devout Catholic, there is no way in which “The Lord of the Rings” is a Christian book, much less a Catholic allegory. The Blessed Land across the sea is a retreat for the already immortal, not, except for Frodo, a reward for the afflicted; dead is dead. The pathos of Aragorn and Arwen’s marriage is that, after Aragorn’s death, they will never meet again, in Valinor or elsewhere. It is the modernity of the existential arrangement, in tension with the archaicism of the material culture, that makes Tolkien’s myth haunting. In the final Narnia book, “The Last Battle,” the effort to key the fantasy to the Biblical themes of the Apocalypse is genuinely creepy, with an Aslan Antichrist. The best of the books are the ones, like “The Horse and His Boy,” where the allegory is at a minimum and the images just flow.

It seems to me that those writerly sensibilities are matched by those of the filmmakers who took on those competing universes. Peter Jackson was deeply committed to building a complete, coherent world that we could enter entirely, leaving points of reference to our own universe behind because we didn’t need them. By contrast, we always enter Narnia through an earlier version of our own world, and Narnia’s full of references to it, whether religious metaphor, or tea in a faun’s hidey-hole. And the special effects in the movies seem determined to convince us of their miraculousness, not of their reality, it’s about refracting our world back to us with new possibilities, rather than about letting us escape into another one.This article available online at:

JJ Abrams at TED


This is a fascinating talk by the popular creator of ABC’s Alias and Lost and director/producer of Mission Impossible III and the latest Star Trek.

Link for TED:

Link for video:

Pain in the Pulpit


Below are some great observations by a local UCC pastor about the trend of what churches are expecting of their pastors these days.  It seems like a contemporary outworking of 2 Timothy 4: 3-4:

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.

August 7, 2010

Congregations Gone Wild


Swampscott, Mass.

THE American clergy is suffering from burnout, several new studies show. And part of the problem, as researchers have observed, is that pastors work too much. Many of them need vacations, it’s true. But there’s a more fundamental problem that no amount of rest and relaxation can help solve: congregational pressure to forsake one’s highest calling.

The pastoral vocation is to help people grow spiritually, resist their lowest impulses and adopt higher, more compassionate ways. But churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them. It’s apparent in the theater-style seating and giant projection screens in churches and in mission trips that involve more sightseeing than listening to the local people.

As a result, pastors are constantly forced to choose, as they work through congregants’ daily wish lists in their e-mail and voice mail, between paths of personal integrity and those that portend greater job security. As religion becomes a consumer experience, the clergy become more unhappy and unhealthy.

The trend toward consumer-driven religion has been gaining momentum for half a century. Consider that in 1955 only 15 percent of Americans said they no longer adhered to the faith of their childhood, according to a Gallup poll. By 2008, 44 percent had switched their religious affiliation at least once, or dropped it altogether, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found. Americans now sample, dabble and move on when a religious leader fails to satisfy for any reason.

In this transformation, clergy have seen their job descriptions rewritten. They’re no longer expected to offer moral counsel in pastoral care sessions or to deliver sermons that make the comfortable uneasy. Church leaders who continue such ministerial traditions pay dearly. A few years ago, thousands of parishioners quit Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minn., and Community Church of Joy in Glendale, Ariz., when their respective preachers refused to bless the congregations’ preferred political agendas and consumerist lifestyles.

I have faced similar pressures myself. In the early 2000s, the advisory committee of my small congregation in Massachusetts told me to keep my sermons to 10 minutes, tell funny stories and leave people feeling great about themselves. The unspoken message in such instructions is clear: give us the comforting, amusing fare we want or we’ll get our spiritual leadership from someone else.

Congregations that make such demands seem not to realize that most clergy don’t sign up to be soothsayers or entertainers. Pastors believe they’re called to shape lives for the better, and that involves helping people learn to do what’s right in life, even when what’s right is also difficult. When they’re being true to their calling, pastors urge Christians to do the hard work of reconciliation with one another before receiving communion. They lead people to share in the suffering of others, including people they would rather ignore, by experiencing tough circumstances — say, in a shelter, a prison or a nursing home — and seeking relief together with those in need. At their courageous best, clergy lead where people aren’t asking to go, because that’s how the range of issues that concern them expands, and how a holy community gets formed.

Ministry is a profession in which the greatest rewards include meaningfulness and integrity. When those fade under pressure from churchgoers who don’t want to be challenged or edified, pastors become candidates for stress and depression.

Clergy need parishioners who understand that the church exists, as it always has, to save souls by elevating people’s values and desires. They need churchgoers to ask for personal challenges, in areas like daily devotions and outreach ministries.

When such an ethic takes root, as it has in generations past, then pastors will cease to feel like the spiritual equivalents of concierges. They’ll again know joy in ministering among people who share their sense of purpose. They might even be on fire again for their calling, rather than on a path to premature burnout.

G. Jeffrey MacDonald, a minister in the United Church of Christ, is the author of “Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul.”