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Four Things That Are Harder to Teach Than Reading

Expanded from remarks made at the annual summit of the Literacy Network of Greater Los Angeles

By Steven B. Sample, President
University of Southern California
March 5, 2009

I feel very honored to be with all of you as we open our annual summit. It’s my honor, as well, to serve on the Leadership Council of the Literacy Network of Greater Los Angeles. The work that the Network is doing, and the work all of you here are doing, is vital to this city to this state, and indeed to the entire nation.

I’m pleased that the Network has relied on resources that some of our faculty in USC’s Rossier School of Education bring to literacy training. And I’m delighted that the research our faculty does is helping to solve real problems in Southern California.

As I was considering what I might talk about this morning, whether any observations of mine would be useful or helpful, or even interesting, one thing seemed clear to me: You don’t need me to tell you what you already know.

As people who care about the future of this city and about the prospects for all who live and work here, you know very well that there are daunting challenges, especially when it comes to education and literacy.

So I shan’t restate the obvious. This morning I should like instead to focus our attention on four things that I believe are harder to teach than reading.

I. A Lifelong Love of Reading
First on my list is cultivating a love of reading. A lifelong love of reading. This goes beyond mastering the mechanics of reading. Of course many people are motivated to learn to read by their need to function in the world. They need to read labels, instruction manuals, driver’s license tests – in other words, the basics. These are all practical and important reasons to learn to read, and write.

On the one hand you have people who are pulled along by the mundane necessity of their own personal ambitions – navigating in the world, getting through school, getting a job. On the other hand, however, you have people who are pulled along by intellectual curiosity. These are people who love to read, who relish the worlds that open to them through reading.

It can be the magic of a story. It can be the provocative idea of a great thinker. It can be the interesting observation of someone describing the natural world or the sociopolitical world.

If I went around the room this morning and asked each of you, “What was the first book that really engaged your imagination, the first book that revealed to you the power of reading?” I’m quite sure each of you would have a vivid memory of that book, the first time, followed by subsequent times, when a world was opened up to you through reading.

For me it was The Wizard of Oz books, which my father read to me. My mother was actually the more literary of my parents, but my father really wanted to read these particular books to me. And I loved it. My father was also fond of the work of A. A. Milne, who wrote the Winnie-the-Pooh books. Sharing those stories with my dad was very special. One of his favorites was Milne’s book of children’s verses, Now We Are Six. To this day I can’t read one of those poems without thinking of my dad and choking up a bit.

One of our USC professors who does research on what motivates students to read, Robert Rueda, tells the story of the first time he was transformed by the magic of reading. It wasn’t until he was 10 years old. Laid up in bed with a broken leg, he grew tired of watching TV. A neighbor took it upon herself to clean out her closets and bring over a box of books to help occupy him. He shuffled somewhat listlessly through the box and picked up a collection of short stories by Jack London. The book hooked him from the first page.

Professor Rueda has never forgotten the excitement of that moment. A whole new world opened up to him. Reading allowed him to be active, using his imagination in a way he could not by simply passively watching a movie or television show. Reading was active, interactive – the author’s imagination and the reader’s imagination in lively conversation with each other.

You know the name of’s electronic book device? “Kindle.” How very apt. “The mind,” said Plutarch, “is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.” How do you kindle a lifelong love of reading? It is indeed harder than teaching people to read, especially given the competition for our attention – the colorful competition of computer screens, TV screens, and video-game sets.

All of you here know some of the ways to cultivate a love of reading. For one thing, read to children! With feeling! Research that Professor Rueda of USC has done shows that children whose parents or grandparents or older siblings read to them with no vocal inflection, who read to them mechanically, merely sounding out the words, did not become as excited about reading as the kids whose families read to them with animation. High voices, low voices, variation in rhythm and tone. With feeling, like a good storyteller.

When I was a senior in high school I was fortunate enough to have a exchange teacher from Great Britain in an honors English class. Every Friday he would read aloud to us. Initially we honors students were skeptical. We were pretty darn sophisticated, or should I say arrogant? We thought it was a waste of time. But, boy, did he convert us! He was gifted at “oral interpretation,” as it’s called. He was a superb reader, and we sat there spellbound.

Children also need to have reading material lying around the house. Like Professor Rueda experienced with a box of books at the bedside when he was immobile, simply having books and magazines available can be powerfully influential for children. We might call it the National Geographic syndrome: A child may not read the text of the magazine (and neither, for that matter, may adults), but the child looks at the pictures and then will eventually read the captions.

A few years ago my daughter Elizabeth was teaching first grade in a very tough public school on the South Side of Chicago. One day I got a phone call from Elizabeth. “Dad,” she said, “I want you to give me $5,000.”

“OK,” I said. “What for?”

She said, “I want to start a lending library in my classroom. I found a dealer in children’s books who gives huge discounts to teachers. Five thousand dollars will get me a great library for my classroom. You know, the school has no library; it was closed to meet salary obligations. These are the only books my kids will be able to take home, the only reading material that will be ‘in the house,’ so to speak.”

My daughter went out and bought hundreds of books. She put them in stacked plastic milk crates in her classroom. The kids were so hungry to read. They set upon those books like starving people at a free buffet.

Soon Elizabeth opened her lending library to the students in several other classrooms. With all of those books circulating freely, by the way, she never lost a single book – never had even one book that was not returned.

Her experience made me feel so good, and so hopeful. But it also made me angry, as both an educator and a taxpayer. For $5,000 you can set up a neat little lending library. No school boards deliberating, no red tape, no committees selecting the books, no six-figure line item in an already tight district budget. All you need to do is just go out and do it!

Here again we see the importance of having reading material readily available. Books and magazines lying around, just asking to be picked up and read.

And pervading this journey of discovery there must be a sense of play and delight. That, I’ll wager, is the sensation which spurred all of us on when we first picked up the life-changing book and read.

But this sense of play and delight does not mean people shouldn’t challenge themselves with sophisticated literature. I am a fan of what I call the “supertexts” – that is, those few texts which are 400 years old or more and which are still widely read throughout the world today. Among them are the Judeo-Christian Bible, the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Pali Canon of Buddhism, and the analects of Confucius. Also on the list of supertexts are works by Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Dante, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, and a few others. The list of such supertexts is extremely short (no more than a few dozen), but these enduring works continue to shape the way people think, write, speak, and act today.

If it’s true that “you are what you read,” then I am not ashamed to have a bias in favor of the supertexts. The German writer Goethe once said, “He who cannot draw on 3,000 years is living hand to mouth.” Reading and re-reading the supertexts enhances one’s intellectual independence, and it gives one insight into something that remains changeless – and that is human nature.

Now, someone might say, “Come on, Sample, do you really expect a grade-schooler to read Dante?” No. But I would like to see every high-schooler try some Shakespeare. A Japanese educator once told me that every high school student in Japan is required to read two of Shakespeare’s plays before graduating. I asked, “In Japanese?” “No,” he replied, “in English.” I was astonished. Most students in America are not required to read even one of Shakespeare’s plays before graduating from high school.

I realize that no third-grader is going to crack open Antigone. But I do believe that if we kindle a youngster’s mind with a love of reading early on, he or she may seek out Sophocles some day. That person may cultivate intellectual curiosity. That person may have learned to be a seeker, and will know from experience that when he opens a book, he is likely to be rewarded with a great treasure.

II. Calculus
Now let me turn to the second thing that is harder to teach than reading – and that is teaching calculus. And, concomitantly, teaching young people that they need calculus.

I strongly believe that there are two essential languages each student in America must learn: first, English and, second, calculus. Every child growing up in the United States should become fluent in at least these two languages.

By far the more important of these two is English. But the second basic language, after English, should be calculus. Calculus is the lingua franca of science and technology and the basis for much of advanced mathematics. Those Americans who are in this way bilingual have the intellectual agility to negotiate and shape the complex world of the 21st century. Those in this country who cannot speak the languages of English and calculus are relegated to the sidelines and can only watch the march of progress.

The importance of learning calculus may be a harder sell than the importance of learning English. And it may be a harder goal to fulfill. Why? I can venture at least one central reason: The vast majority of people have been scarred by dismally-taught math classes. Very few people comprehend that math brings both beauty and truth together, that it actually can be engaging, even an adventure of discovery. To the contrary, they find higher math scary and forbidding, and they question its purpose and value. Of course in this country we are suffering from a shortage of good math and science teachers. Finding a math teacher who can kindle – there’s that word again – a love of mathematics, or at least a respect and appreciation for it, is as hard as finding punctuation in a teenager’s text message. But that’s a topic for another speech.

While we’re on the topic of math and science, let me say a word about the so-called “new literacy” – that is, digital literacy, which is the ability to navigate new media and new technology.

Every spring semester I co-teach a leadership class for juniors and seniors at USC. I’m an electrical engineer by training, but these 20-year-olds run circles around me with their digital literacy: sophisticated PowerPoint presentations, multi-media shows, and facility with advanced computer software.

Literacy is being redefined, and must be redefined, to include sound and moving images, as well as text. But I maintain that it does not, and should never, replace traditional literacy.

III. Empathy
Now we come to the third thing that I believe is harder to teach than reading. And that is teaching empathy – our ability to feel with others and understand them.

Thomas Jefferson was a firm believer in the value and importance of education. As you know, he founded the University of Virginia. He believed that one of the results of education would be to transform what in a man’s nature is vicious and perverse into qualities of virtue and social worth. Jefferson believed that along with improving a person’s intellectual faculties, reading would also improve a person’s moral sensibility.

This noble ideal is one we can all embrace – the humanizing, the civilizing, effect of reading and education.

But knowledge is not enough. I needn’t remind you that the worst brutality of the 20th-century arose in the heart of European civilization. It arose among people who valued philosophy and the arts. When barbarism asserted itself, the humanities, the arts, philosophy, and even theology proved incapable of defense. Even worse, they sometimes colluded with tyrants and oppressors.

Without empathy, all of our cerebral accomplishments are hollow, all of our intellectual faculties are potentially destructive and deadly.

Now, educators, psychologists, and sociologists have debated long and hard as to whether empathy can be taught. As early as 1932, the great education scholar Jean Piaget asserted that empathy could indeed be taught. Other experts have concurred.

This skill, if we can call it that, assumes more critical importance as the world shrinks and we are concomitantly required to understand and interact with people who are not like us. I would say that along with literacy, the other necessity for the well-being and vitality of Greater Los Angeles is empathy. We live in a polyglot region. Within our massive population there are 120 different cultures, 96 cradle languages, 600 different religious groups, all living side-by-side. This unprecedented cultural pluralism is, I believe, a wonderful advantage. But it also puts us to the test. And, though imperfectly and haltingly, we practice tolerance better than most of our peers in other cities around the world.

Empathy requires moral maturity. It requires the ability to shift perspectives and step outside the self when dealing with other people.

I’ll suggest one good way to teach and learn empathy – listening. The average person believes that he is truly a good listener. From what I have observed, however, that belief is more a delusion. Very few people are good listeners.

I like to practice what I call “artful listening.” It is a skill I have worked on over the years. Artful listening enables one to see things through the eyes of others while at the same time seeing things from one’s own unique perspective – a process which I like to call “seeing double.” We need to prize and cultivate our ability to simultaneously view things from two or more perspectives. The person who can turn listening into an art is one who goes beyond merely listening passively; he becomes intensely interested in what’s being said and draws out the other person. Active listening is done with relevant and probing questions. And it is done with humility and respect.

Can active listening be taught? I believe so. Taught by example, certainly. Parents, teachers, clergy, anyone in an authority position can model artful listening to children. It takes mental discipline and moral discipline. It requires that we continually reel the mind back in from its distractions to attend to the person before us. Active listening asks us to continually remind ourselves that the other person and her perspective deserve attention and respect at the moment.

Empathy, as I said earlier, requires moral maturity. But I believe that the capacity for compassion, for feeling with another person and understanding her inner experience, is hard-wired into us. Without a doubt, human nature is a mixed bag. We have the capacity for the vilest cruelty, brutality, and insensitivity. But we also have the capacity for kindness, altruism, and sensitivity. Every day each one of us, whether adult or child, is exposed to stories and images of man’s cruelty to man. We see violence and degradation glamorized in movies and video games. We see life held cheaply. We witness others objectified and demonized. The only defense against this kind of moral turpitude is empathy.

IV. The Importance of Education
We now come to the fourth and final thing on my list that is harder to teach than reading. And that is, teaching parents, policymakers, and educators to truly and viscerally comprehend the importance of education.

All over this country we hear a lot of lip service being paid to the importance of children. “Children are our future,” et cetera, et cetera. But the sentiment rings hollow when we look at the statistics relative to education.

Consider what’s happening at the secondary level. Things are getting worse, not better: In just one decade the high-school completion rate in the U.S. fell from 77 percent to 67 percent today. That is, 10 years ago three-quarters of our students finished high school. Today just two-thirds do.

In the U.S. two-thirds of our students do not advance to college. And if they do go to college, the first two years are often catch-up years for students because they are not prepared to do rigorous scholarship. Not until their junior or senior year are college students in the U.S. on par or ahead of their international counterparts.

As has been noted widely, California has gone from “first to worst,” with state spending per pupil going from about $400 above the national average in 1970 to more than $600 below the national average in 2000. And this dismal showing occurs in a state (California) that is home to more Nobel laureates than any other state or any other country in the world. Truly a sad irony.

More than one-third of students in L.A.’s public schools drop out. That’s worse than the state average, which is already bad enough, with a dropout rate of 25 percent.

And let’s look at the situation in higher education. Measuring college attendance relative to other countries, the U.S. has slipped from No. 2 worldwide to No. 11. Among young adults (25- to 34-year olds), the U.S. has a smaller proportion of its people holding associate’s or bachelor’s degrees than does Russia, Canada, Japan, Korea, Norway, Ireland, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, and France.

We are seeing very low college completion rates in America. Think about this sobering shift: For many decades successive generations of Americans were more likely than their parents to earn college degrees. If the current trend continues, successive generations of Americans will be less likely than their parents to hold college degrees.1

How do we teach people to care again about education?

It begins with the family. I have been troubled by what I see as families abdicating their role in education. You may have heard President Obama’s sensible and adamant statements about this issue. Just last week in his first address to a joint session of Congress, he outlined the federal government’s education priorities. But he quickly added that the responsibility for our children’s education doesn’t start in Washington. It starts at home. No program or policy, he said, “can substitute for a mother or father who will attend those parent-teacher conferences, or help with homework after dinner, or turn off the TV, put away the video games, and read to their child.”

President Obama has often recounted how his mother – a working, single mom – would wake him up at 4:30 a.m. before she went to work to go through his lessons with him. You can imagine, he said, how an eight-year-old would grumble and complain about this. And “my mom would say, ‘This is no picnic for me either, buster.’”

Families must make education a priority, and get actively involved. Let me give you an example from USC’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative (NAI). The NAI is a long and rigorous college preparatory program at USC. Neighborhood students enter the program at the beginning of seventh grade, and the program’s teachers and staff work closely with these students and their families all the way through middle school and high school.

Those students who complete our NAI program, who apply to USC, and who get accepted by our own demanding standards, get a full-ride scholarship to our university.

About one-third of the students who participate in the NAI program end up at USC as undergraduates. Ninety-seven percent of our NAI students attend some type of college. Practically all of our NAI students are the first members of their families to attend college.

A crucial component of this very successful program is parental involvement. The students’ parents and sometimes grandparents have to sign a contract in which they agree to support their student in this program. This means that, like their students, they agree to show up on Saturdays, do extra work on weekdays, and really buckle down and help their children keep up with the extra demands. It’s a family project, with explicit buy-in from parents and grandparents, and explicit expectations of them.

So, that is one challenge: teaching parents to care about their children’s education, shaking them from their indifference toward the education of their own children.

Next, how do we teach policymakers to truly care about education?

A few times a year I visit the halls of government, making the rounds in Washington, in Sacramento, and in Los Angeles. I have never met a lawmaker who doesn’t claim to be a champion of education. Most of them are college educated. Most have children in school. Each of them believes that he or she is advancing education.

But something does not compute. We only have to look at the dismal statistics I cited moments ago. We know that something is out of whack, that our deeds are not matching our words.

When it comes to education, local and state governments are key. That’s where most policy is set, where standards are set, where priorities are developed, where budgets are created. Rare is the elected body, however, that can resist becoming mired in the quicksand of bureaucracy. California’s education code runs to several dense volumes. What I’m certain started with good intentions of equity and fairness has come to feel like a strait-jacket for many educators.

The federal government has a role to play too. Primarily the feds can set the tone by insisting on a concrete goal, and that is: Make it a priority for America to reclaim its place as the worldwide leader in education. I believe this is beginning to happen. Many of our lawmakers have seen the handwriting on the wall vis-à-vis the threat posed by China and India, both of which may eclipse us in educational attainment and international innovation and commerce in the 21st century.

President Obama and members of Congress have indicated their support for increasing science and technology research. They have recently increased the budget for Pell Grants, which support our neediest college students. And the president has announced an ambitious goal of – in just 11 years – reclaiming America’s No. 1 spot worldwide in the proportion of our population who are college graduates.

The nation responded in the past to educational imperatives. There was the Morrill Act of 1862, for instance, which established our land-grant universities. There was the G.I. Bill of 1944 and subsequent renewals which helped fund college education for veterans. I have faith (and I admit I am by nature an optimist) that our policymakers will see the urgent need to marshal the nation’s will and the nation’s resources to stanch the bleeding in our education system.

Now, how do we teach educators to truly value education? Here’s the common diagnosis, made by many but remedied by few: A child’s education is only as good as his teachers.

One of the most compelling solutions, I believe, is to push public K-12 schools toward a more competitive environment, to destroy the geographic monopolies that characterize public education today. America’s system of higher education is still the best in the world. And I’m convinced that competition has made it so. Both public and private universities in this country compete head-to-head with one another for the best students, for the best faculty, for research grants, and for private donations. There are no geographic monopolies in higher education as there are in K-12.

One model might be to have separate, competing public school systems serving the same district. Another tactic is to have teacher compensation based on students’ performance rather than on credentials and longevity. In other words: Provide financial incentives for good teachers and good teaching. And reward good public schools by allowing them to operate under more flexible regulations.

I’m well aware of the complexity of this final item in my list of four things that are harder to teach than reading. The solutions must come from a variety of angles and sources. At heart what is required is the collective will to improve, to once again put America back on top as the educational leader of the world.

So there you have them – four things that I believe are harder to teach than just reading: (1) a lifelong love of reading; (2) calculus; (3) empathy; and (4) the central importance of education for families, policymakers, and educators.

Let me conclude by pointing out a bright spot. A report issued just last month by the National Endowment for the Arts documents that for the first time in over a quarter-century, literary reading has risen among adult Americans. After decades of slumping trends, there has been an unambiguous increase among virtually every group measured in this comprehensive national survey. Whites, African Americans, and Hispanics have all shown significant growth in their reading rate.

Best of all, the most significant growth has been among young adults, which is the group that had shown the largest decline in earlier surveys. The youngest group (ages 18-24) has undergone a particularly inspiring transformation, from a 20 percent decline six years ago to a 21 percent increase today.

The National Endowment for the Arts attributes this positive new trend to the tireless efforts of families, schools, communities, and organizations who are making reading a priority.

The work all of you do here through your organizations, and the values you hold as individuals, are making a huge difference.

Greater Los Angeles today is not a very good model for K-12 education or universal literacy. But it can become that!

I hate to imagine how dire the situation would be without you. Every day, person by person, program by program, you are helping people reach their individual goals. You are helping them get ahead. Above all you are helping them fulfill their potential. And your successes ripple out to the wider society.

In short, you are the kindlers. I want to express my personal appreciation for the work you do. It is making lives better. It is making Southern California better, one person at a time.

1For an excellent resource on national statistics, see the College Board’s Report of the Commission on Access, Admissions and Success in Higher Education, Coming to Our Senses: Education and the American Future, December 2008.