The student was originally from Payson. He was a good student, actually interested in the class, the ideas. He told me he'd left Payson before graduating from high school because there was little for adolescents to do; so the "kids" all partied on six packs and drugs in the national forest.
A problem, perhaps, but not just Payson's problem. Teenagers in small towns and rural America are suffering from squirrel-cage syndrome. Everything seems to go round and round in a kind of caged-in tedium or boredom from which there is little chance of escape.
In Pine and Strawberry, you see them wandering about, some of them on bicycles, the "fortunate" ones raising dust as their four-wheelers race along dirt roads and into the forest. I've often wondered: how can kids who live in one of the most beautiful of all places in the world be bored? Why do they need motorized "toys" and television to escape ungratified lives? Answer: because that's the way their parents live, with little to stimulate imagination.
Socrates is reported to have said: "The unexamined life is not worth living." The goal of education is to teach us how to examine our lives, and the way to nurture the power of examination is through reading.
"Viewing" (as on television or film) can never be a substitute for reading as a way of encouraging careful thinking. Reading allows you to stop, to reflect, to contemplate; it invites you to go back, to check things out, to think again. What's more, the reading of good literature invites you to make your own pictures, your own ideas about the story it stimulates imagination. Reading makes you skeptical of easy opinions.
The other day I heard a man say, "I've never been good with books; I have a more practical mind that wants to get my hands on things." He assumed that statement settled the matter he was an uncritical thinker.
Not long before that, a neighbor had told me he'd "tried" going to Northern Arizona University after high school, but he "couldn't handle all those books." Now, I realize that the mind works in many ways, but I no longer accept the notion that some of us are not good with books. Reading is an act of self-discipline. It may not come easily until that magic moment when laziness is overcome and we are suddenly rewarded, realizing that former ways of thinking were significantly inferior.
A scenario: Betty Ann goes to school. She learns to read books, some of them stories. The teacher tries to get her to read and think about Tom Sawyer, The Red Badge of Courage, The Great Gatsby, The House of Seven Gables, Little Women. But when Betty Ann goes home, she quickly discovers that reading those books (or any others except instruction books) must not really have any value her parents don't read. She can't even talk to them about The Great Gatsby unless they've seen the movie, but the movie is not a text that's made for thinking; you can't go back over it. The movie is made for direct visual effect; it doesn't encourage your own imagined sense of the story.
What is even worse: The foundation for Academic Standards and Tradition reports that half of the education majors who will be our future teachers don't read books. That is unconscionable. A teacher who reads no books, both fiction and nonfiction, does not belong in a classroom with our children.
I suggest that we establish a coordinated reading program in our schools, where parents, teachers and children read some of the same books and participate in discussions that improve our thinking, stimulate our imaginations and help us address the many problems we face at the dawn of the 21st century. We will put an end to boredom and uncritical thinking.
Editor's note: The above article is the second in a series of monthly opinion columns by Richard E. Wentz, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University and a resident of Strawberry.
Before teaching at ASU, Wentz, who holds a doctorate from George Washington University in American history, served on the faculty at Penn State. His scholarly and intellectual interests have been religion and American public life, religion in American history, society and culture. Wentz is the author of a number of books and articles and is a member of the editorial board of Pennsylvania German Studies.
Comments and questions can be sent to the Roundup at P.O. Box 2520, Payson, AZ 85008; c/o Richard E. Wentz.