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.