Sentenced to read

Sentenced to read

In a recent case where a group of teenagers defaced a school with insensitive graffiti, the judge threw the book at them.

While a book wasn’t literally thrown, the phrase is much more apt here than in the usual sense of giving someone a severe punishment.

The judge ordered the minors to read a book a month from a specific list and write a book report on it (they can also watch movies from a list and review those).

CNN story by Sophie Scott

Book ’em, Dano.

I am torn on this one, and I’ll be very interested to read your comments.

I think a lot of it will have to do with what you think the outcome of a conviction should be.

If you think that the goal should be to rehabilitate the guilty parties, then the judge’s requirement seems like a reasonable one.

I do believe that reading books tends to improve one’s empathy, and there has been evidence to that effect.

One of the books on the list is

To Kill a Mockingbird (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

The book helps you see other’s points of view. When you read dialog “spoken” by a character, you are, in effect, looking out through that character’s eyes. You will naturally try to understand their thoughts in that situation, to better understand the dialog and the book.

If we say that these teens lack empathy, and that at least certain books can improve empathy, then ordering these teens to read books is not all that different from making a condition of parole that someone attend a chemical dependency program.

It could be treatment.

It could also be education (like required attendance at traffic school after a moving violation), which could be considered to be part of treatment. If you believe that the defendants really didn’t understand the impact of what they were doing, educating them could be helpful.

I recall two instances from when I was a young child where I said/did something out of ignorance that would be considered offensive.

My family was very involved with the civil rights movement, and I don’t think I was particularly prejudiced…that would have been unlikely, I would say, when I was under ten years old being raised in that environment and around the types of people I knew.

Still, I mentioned to my Significant Other recently that I only easily recall a very prejudiced parody version of a TV theme song, not the actual original version. It had the “n word” in it, but I literally did not know what that word meant at that point. I had a vague sense of it being something mythological, like a unicorn. When I said the word, I had absolutely no intent to be saying anything bad about anybody. I didn’t relate it to real people, and I had never heard the word around the house, I’m sure.

I also recall being in Mexico as a kid and seeing a translated version of the comic book “Blackhawk”. I excitedly said something like, “Oh, ‘n*gro’ means ‘hawk’ in Spanish!” I’d forgotten that in Spanish, the adjective comes after the noun. I thought it was a cool, powerful image.

I debated with myself just now censoring that word, which is a Spanish word for a color (it means ‘black’). It has many legitimate uses in Spanish, certainly, and it’s used in a lot of contexts in the USA (there is an Oscar-nominated documentary about James Baldwin ((James Baldwin))with it in the title this year), but some people find it offensive so I figured I would err in that direction.

If you believed that these 16 and 17 year olds didn’t know what a swastika actually was, then educating them would make sense. I find that hard to believe in this case, though. When you look at the target and what was said, it certainly seems that they understood the context.

If you are looking for rehabilitation (and education can be a component), then this sentence makes sense (it also includes visiting some specific museums and writing about it).

In that perspective, I like the sentence.

The other major perspective on “crime and punishment”, though, is punishment.

Many people think that punishment and deterrence is the purpose of the law, and I’ve seen that suggested in the comments on this blog, by people I consider to be intelligent and compassionate.

That’s a big concern for me with this story.

It could easily be interpreted that reading is being used as a punishment, especially when children might hear about it. They are going to tend to think that a judge punishes, not heals (a jail term isn’t a vacation, and a fine isn’t a present)…and this then tells them that reading is an onerous task.

Regular readers also know that I’m unconvinced by required reading in school…encouraging reading, absolutely, but I think many people didn’t like books they were required to read in school…even though they may like them when they re-read them years later.

Will being sentenced to read make it less likely that they become regular readers later?

I do like that the judge is giving them a list, rather than a specific assignment each month. The teenagers will, I think, have a hand in choosing the book to read, which invests them in it to some extent.

Having thrashed my way through this in this post, I’m comfortable with the judge’s intent…but I’m still not sure about the collateral effects it may have.

What do you think? Do you agree with the judge’s sentence? Does it make a difference that these are juvenile offenders? Would you do something different for a 25 year-old…or an eight-year old? Can reading books improve people’s empathy…and would that reduce this kind of activity? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.

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5 Responses to “Sentenced to read”

  1. Lady Galaxy Says:

    I taught high school English for 19 years and was a Title I Reading Specialist for 11 years. I have always been opposed to using reading and writing as forms of punishment. When you force somebody to do something as a form of punishment, it makes them resent the activity. My goal was to help students learn that reading and writing was something one could do for fun, not for punishment. I wanted them to have an attitude of “we get to read today” instead of “we have to read today.”

  2. Edward Boyhan Says:

    I guess how I respond to this depends upon what for the judge (and the involved community) might be a desirable outcome. I did a little research on Ashburn, Virginia. Not too long ago it sat in a mostly rural county (Loudon) of Virginia. More recently it has become an upscale ($100K+ average income) suburban community near to Dulles International airport. It is 71% white, 14% Asian, and 8% African American.

    It would not surprise me if the defendants had little or no daily exposure to any black Americans (the school defaced specifically existed for black families).

    I have a tendency to personalize these kinds of things. I grew up in a town (in NJ) statistically not much different than Ashburn. Up until the age of 13, I didn’t know any black people; there were none in the local school systems. When I was 14, the family moved to Madras India where overnight I was a very small minority in a sea of people of color with all kinds of customs, mores, foods (you name it) were completely foreign to me. Culture shock doesn’t begin to describe it.

    I was sent away to school in Switzerland where most of the students didn’t speak any English (German & Italian being the majority languages). In the English section there were many people of color from all over the world. Many of them came from very wealthy backgrounds. All of them (save for the Americans) spoke with very decided BBC accents — it gives you a very different perspective from what one might experience in the USA. I have learned from this that the language one speaks, and (more importantly) how one speaks it has a lot to do with how one is perceived in society. I have a couple of friends who actually went to school to learn how to speak without a defining accent (one from deepest darkest Brooklyn; the other from cockney East London) — they felt this was essential if they were to get ahead.

    So I guess I’m dubious that reading books is going to foster much towards a desirable outcome. And writing book reports? Give me a break — that’s no guarantee that any of the books will actually be read (isn’t that what Cliff Notes are for? :grin).

    I would think that some kind of community service that would force them into constant contact with people of color of limited means. Or something, but I don’t think reading a book is going to accomplish much.

    With all the disruptions brought about by technology, I sometimes wonder whether reading as a way of learning, getting educated, etc. is the best way. Going forward I wonder if there might not be better ways to educate. Is literacy going to matter all that much? (heresy I know :grin)

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Edward!

      I have also had the experience of being the only person visually like me in a social situation (when I was a child), but it was sporadic.

      However, I do think that books engender or enhance empathy, and there are studies which support that. Even though I don’t visualize when I read, it seems necessary to comprehension to at least try to see the dialog speaker’s point of view…it’s hard to have the continuity of even to whom the person is speaking and how if you don’t.

      Could there be other ways going forward? Virtual Reality, which I’ve started to cover in The Measured Circle, can help with that. It’s a different process, but when I’ve walked around the actual Chernobyl in VR, it gives a very different feel. You can easily interact with people from different cultures…or simply “visit them”. VR can be simply a game, but it can be more than that…depends on how it is used.

      Reading, though, since it requires us to imagine something into existence, is, I think, more impactful.

      Interesting to me that you consider the judge and the community…but didn’t directly address value to the convicted. 🙂 That’s reasonable, the way I framed the story, which was considering the sentence handed down.

      • Edward Boyhan Says:

        Books are a way of storing what we know (including stories, etc.). It is also a way of learning.

        My thoughts go a bit beyond things like VR (or AR) to what I call AH (augmented humans). I often wonder what the “outcome” of studying/learning on the “Jello” between our ears might be. What is the difference between an “unlearned” brain, and a “learned” brain? Might there be some way of transforming from one to the other via a pill or a machine? For all we have learned over the past 50 years about neuronal networks, we actually know precious little how things are stored and retrieved from that “Jello”.

        Yesterday, I was trying to remember the name of one of my roller skating teachers from 40+ years ago. I used all the tricks I could think of involving internet searches to no avail — my mind was a complete blank as to her name. Then today, out of the blue, her name popped into my awareness. What was that all about? What was the process that brought her name to the fore? How is her name stored in my head? Why was access blocked? What removed the blockage?

        If we could understand these things, we could do so much. OTOH I could see using that same understanding to imprint attitudes, religious or political beliefs. If we can do that, then what does that say about so many things — a discussion I fear awaits us some day — hopefully one a long ways away.

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