Dinner with Dick and Jane

Peter Wood

I ran into Dick and Jane in front of the Whole Foods on Route 1 yesterday. I see Dick frequently at the fitness center. Though he is in his mid-sixties, he keeps in shape, and we share some interests in reading. Recently he put me on to Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood, perhaps the best of pirate novels. But I hadn’t seen Jane in—my goodness!—over forty years. 

She still wears her blonde hair in a flip with a red ribbon—though I suppose the blonde gets some assistance these days. She also still has that dimpled expression just on the verge of turning into a scold. I wasn’t surprised to see the Obama sticker on the bumper of her Prius. But people are never entirely what you expect. It was Dick, the Republican and aeronautical engineer who stood by Sally when she was convicted for her part in the Weather Underground armored car robbery and sentenced to forty years at Alderson in West Virginia. And it was Dick’s contributions to the Clinton Library that got Sally sprung in President Bill’s spate of pardoning in his last days in the White House. 

Jane has been estranged from Sally ever since that grizzly attack on the judge with the booby trapped cocker spaniel. I also noticed the PETA sticker on the bumper. 

For all that, Jane was pretty cordial. She probably wouldn’t like the comparison, but she wears her celebrity childhood with the kind of good grace that Shirley Temple did when she became a diplomat in the Nixon years. The little-girl hair style she sports is ironic but not sourly so. She is cheerful about being recognized for exploits when she was six or seven.  

Dick invited me over to his house for an impromptu dinner. Sally was in town for a Scott Foresman and Company reunion. At dinner I asked them both what they thought about reading instruction today. Dick was concise: “It stinks.” Jane was more circuitous: “It’s a different world. Schools are more diverse. And teachers have to compete with video games and instant messaging and new social pressures. But I do think reading isn’t as well taught as it was when we were starting out.” 

Dick poured his Coors Light® into a glass. “Well, it is not as though Sally and I are experts. We just happened to be the kids that Foresman picked for the series. It could have been Jack and Alice, or Paul and Helen. “

Jane adopted her patented pout and interjected, “They picked us for a reason. Not many children that age could be coached into delivering lines as dumb as, ‘Oh, oh, oh. Oh, Dick. Look and see.’ I mean we had to act like it was natural to speak in monosyllables and repeat, repeat, repeat. ‘Oh, Dick. See Baby Sally. See Baby Sally go. See Baby Sally go to the federal penitentiary. See Baby Sally walk. Walk Baby Sally, walk, walk, walk.’” 

Dick scowled. “Leave Sally out of this. We were talking about how kids learn to read. I agree, we aren’t experts, but I don’t think the Scott Foresman people were all that wrong. Break things down into simple parts. Master the simple stuff and gradually build up to more complex models. That’s what we do in engineering. You don’t solve problems by trying to do everything at once. That’s what the teachers do today when they talk about ‘whole language.’ They ask children, in effect, to grasp everything at once. As a result, some children barely learn to read at all, and hardly anyone gets a decent introduction to grammar.”

“Listen to you,” said Jane. “You sound like Bill Bennett and all those stuffy we-know-better-than-you cultural conservatives. Look, times change. Kids today learn a lot of things by osmosis. They play with computers from the moment they are in the playpen. They just understand how things work. And linguists say that’s how we learn language too. It isn’t a science problem that has to be broken down into a million little steps, one by one. Our minds at that age just soak stuff up. I’m not saying that the schools today have it all figured out, but thank God they are beyond that ‘I see three big cookies’ line I had to perform. Today, I see a hulking macaroon, an epic biscotti, and a prodigious pfeffernuesse.”  

“Listen to yourself,” answered Dick. “You didn’t suffer much by learning how to read step-by-step. You went from three big cookies to gourmet nouns without Sesame Street or PlayStation to give you that gestalt.” 

Jane turned to me and said, “We must be boring you!” I said not at all. I had just read Mary Grabar’s piece “Boyz n the Book,” in this week’s Weekly Standard, commenting on the slant in reading instruction towards what girls like to read. In Grabar’s view, a good part of the reason for the disproportionate number of boys who know how to read but read very little is that educators and cultural gatekeepers like the American Library Association push material calculated to appeal to girls and shun the books written for masculine tastes. Essentially, books about human relationships and teenage angst, and plots culminating in emotional resolutions win approval; books featuring adventure, action, and dangers heroically braved are seldom seen. 

Grabar cites the American Library Association’s list of 25 “Outstanding Books for the College Bound,” almost all of which cater to feminine tastes. “No books on this list offer soldiers, male athletes, or adventurers.”  When they do appear, male characters are often gay, sensitive, or engaged in the kind of self-discovery that is the standard story arc for of female characters. There is a double standard at work here. Feminine tastes receive strong reinforcement, but male tastes are to be rebuffed, as one school of education put it, to avoid “stereotyped views of boys’ interests and capacities.” 

I was hesitant about mentioning the Weekly Standard to Jane. It didn’t seem likely to be part of her regular reading, but I was curious what she would make of Grabar’s points.   Her answer was intriguing: “What we have available to read definitely affects how we read. Children do pick up certain things naturally. They understand plots. You don’t have to explain to a child how Jack and the Beanstalk works. A child just knows. But children definitely do have tastes and if you just force them to read stuff that you think is good for them, you’ll turn many children off reading altogether. And I do think there is something to the criticism that the approved reading lists today slant towards girls. It’s deliberate. The schools of education see themselves as progressive. They want to do away with old forms of masculinity.” 

                “Do you?”

“No. I mean I’m glad that our culture has opened up the concept of gender and the idea that women and men can more freely decide for themselves what they want to be. But I think a more genuinely progressive position makes room for sex differences. As I said, some things come naturally. Boys and girls have differences apart from those rooted in gender stereotypes. Teaching ought to respect those differences rather than try to eradicate them.”

I asked whether the Dick and Jane readers respected real differences or promoted stereotypes, and Jane said, “It was a little of both. I go back to the books and see pictures of me playing with dolls and Dick playing with trains, but if I flip the pages, there’s Sally playing with trains and me skating. We were active kids. And the stereotypes, if that’s what they were, didn’t slow us down.”

“Didn’t slow you down, Jane,” said Dick, “but I found it pretty hard to pursue my intellectual interests. The house had hardly any books and we were constantly encouraged to play. I remember once we told to cut out a lot of paper shapes—boats, cars, a cat—and then throw them up in the air. I’m not sure what the point was supposed to be but I felt terrible. I wanted to put some order into the world and here we were just making a mess.”

                “So you became an engineer,” said Jane with her pout.

                “Don’t try to psychoanalyze me.   Engineering is my discipline and I like the combination of rigor and aesthetics, but I have lots of other interests.”

“You do,” said Jane, and there followed an awkward and no doubt meaningful silence. I asked, “So, Dick, do you think there is a place today for books like We Look and See and We Come and Go starring up to date versions of you and Jane?” 

“No. I agree with Jane. That time is gone. But there is definitely a need for better approaches, from kindergarten right though college. I stick with the idea of breaking complex tasks into simpler ones, teaching formal grammar, and as soon as possible giving students the opportunity to discover real books. Escaping the PC pablum foisted by the sensitivity trainers is another problem. You probably couldn’t design a system of education more efficient than ours in discouraging boys and girls who have any sense of intellectual adventure—though boys inevitably suffer more under today’s Ms. Grundys.”

I let the topic drop and we went on to discuss the election, the economy, Jane’s retirement from magazine editing, and the prospect for a manned mission to Mars. I wondered about Sally’s current doings but decided it was better not to ask.       

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