Reading Comprehension — reading the controversial

Standardized tests are infamous for these little tasks: read a paragraph and answer some multiple choice questions. The SAT is a prime example.


Though there are many problems with these tests, I think the worst seems to be that there is no risk in what one reads. Why? The content is not important to the reader. If the reader is to be successful, they must adopt a method of reading that delivers results (high test scores). They are not reading the content because they are interested or because they think it might be important.

And yet! what one reads in one’s day to day living, research, or internet surfing is of the utmost importance: it informs, challenges and strengthens our attitudes. Granted, various materials require different methods of reading. Still, one researches about what one is interested in, even if that is for remuneration. One comes across certain texts with certain goals. One is looking for something in the text. When we come across articles that make us angry, we are often already sure of what we will take away from the article. We tend to project far more into the text than what is often there when the topic is meaningful.

Think, for example, when you post a controversial article online. There are those who will like it and support it if it has certain buzz words and if it is linked to a certain ideology. And there are those who will dislike it for the same reasons. That’s not surprising. But what is surprising is that from the comments, it’s often extremely hard to figure out what exactly the article was really about. This is where we will find the largest gap between what the article says and what the reader comprehends. This is true not only of social media but also true of scholars and readers in general.

And shouldn’t this be the job of the reader, to understand the text whether they with it or not? For, if a writer can only ever write to those who already agree with them, then what’s the point of writing?

Perhaps a better task for comprehension would be to first find out the reader’s background, attitudes and allegiances in order to determine what they already agree with and what they don’t. Second, give them a lengthy text to read that challenges their position so that they have to spend a great deal of time with their foes. Third, give the student sufficient time to make notes and go back through the text for nuances. This forces the student to find what they think was important in the text. Finally, have the reader answer some questions aurally. Perhaps the results would be similar to the SAT, but I doubt it.  Any educators out there have experience with this?

The ability to comprehend material that one disagrees with is the ability to change your own attitude. In his Theses On Feuerbach, Marx famously said that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” There is a great deal of truth to it. But one must not forget that the word philosophy means to love wisdom. In other words, to learn to change yourself.

About JoeL

I completed a Master of Music degree from McGill University. I am currently working towards an Artist Diploma also at McGill. I like to do philosophy as a hobby.

1 thought on “Reading Comprehension — reading the controversial

  1. My problem with the nomenclature of “reading comprehension” is that it quietly and firmly asserts that this (answering multiple choice questions on neutral topics) *is* what reading comprehension is *all* about. When, in fact, it is as you say: it is relatively neutral; one can go about in society with great success with “reading comprehension” that is deemed sufficient by the testing agencies. It doesn’t really matter what they are reading as long as they are proficient in recognizing what is important for their work. That is to say, as long as they continue to have success in their work and that it does not change course. There is a lot at stake if their work changes course: attitudes, ideas, jobs, lives, and so on — surrendering any one of these things, throws one’s very being into question. Therefore, one must *not* question these things if one is to ensure one’s stable existence. The implication is that the status quo is sufficient, as it is, and it should not be threatened in any way, lest the whole of society be lost to the (supposed) abyss of a questioning lifestyle.

    The reluctance to give students the ability to read texts that push against their ideology is merely the affirmation that the current state of the situation is ‘good enough’ as it is. In other words, if we systematically teach our youth *not* to think critically (read texts against their own opinions), we intentionally pass our own ideas down to a generation which rejects any thought of the new. And, if this is not too bold, we implicitly suggest that the youth are not strong enough to engage with attitudes contrary to their own.


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