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Better Ed often encourages the reading of older, classic, and challenging literature as part of our quest to promote a more rigorous education in today’s schools. Lest this encouragement turn into a “do as I say, not as I do” moment, I have sought to step up my classic literature repertoire in recent months, Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe being my latest selection. 

When I mentioned to a friend that I was beginning to read Ivanhoe she responded with, “Whew! I tried to get through that book, but I just couldn’t.” I had to admit to her that reading Ivanhoe was no picnic. Its lengthy sentences, intricate descriptions, deep vocabulary, and historical references are certainly not conducive to the skimming method many of us adopt while reading fluff fiction or articles on the internet.

Given the difficulty I had beginning Ivanhoe, I was a bit chagrined when I found it among a 1908 manual of recommended history readings for – brace yourself – eighth-graders.

These eighth-graders were not only encouraged to read this challenging text, they were also expected to understand it, as evidenced by the following comprehension exercises:

(Source: “Course of Study for the Common Schools of Minnesota,” 1908. Minnesota Historical Society Archives.)

Simple comprehension questions these are not. For example, the tournament referenced in the second comprehension exercise goes on for several chapters. Properly answering such a question requires understanding the storyline and the references to historical clothing, weapons, and practices.

The fact of the matter is that 1908 eighth-grade students were able to read and comprehend material such as this because they had a steady diet of it. They were not coddled and told to avoid a book because it wasn’t in their reading lexile; rather, they were presented with hard material in order to build up their comprehension muscles. I find this to be true in my reading of Ivanhoe, for the farther I read and the more I challenge myself, the easier and more understandable the story becomes.

Today’s students aren’t dumb. They have just been allowed to let their minds stagnate through a steady dose of easy books, entertaining movies, and five-minute articles on the internet. It’s high time we put an end to education stagnation.

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