Deep reading and the ACT Test

A culture that puts deep reading at its center fundamentally transforms human minds.

One way of moving forward is to identify subcultures who are good at what you want to be better at and figure out what they are doing that works. Then you can do it, too.

One of the mysteries of the present world is the startlingly high average intelligence of European Jews. “Jews in America and Britain have an overall IQ mean somewhere between a half and a full standard deviation above the mean,” said political scientist Charles Murray in Commentary, “with the source of the difference concentrated in the verbal component.” He observed that average IQ score of Ashkenazi Jews has been calculated to be between 110–115, which is significantly higher than that of any other ethnic group in the world. Anthropolotists have suggested that this superiority may be the result of “selective inbreeding.” Others have pointed out that widespread antisemitism through the centuries created selective pressure under which only the most intelligent of Jews could prosper by excelling in occupations that required a lot of verbal and mathematical ability.

Some have sought the answer in cultural rather than genetic factors. Talmudic culture placed great emphasis on study and scholarship. Their culture was text-centered beyond that of any other culture, and most Jews were taught to read as children, even if they were fated to farm for a living. Outstanding Talmudic scholars were sought out as husbands, even if they were poor, providing a selective bias in favor of those skilled at reading and speaking. As the world shifted toward a greater emphasis on intellectual achievement, Jews were ahead of the game due a culture of advanced literacy stretching back centuries.

I was thinking about these things because I work in a school whose leadership wants to improve our average ACT scores. This is largely a political development. A few years ago, the state’s chief education official got rid of the Smarter Balance test and announced that Montana would henceforth give all juniors the ACT test and use it for whatever statewide test scores are used for. From the point of view of a typical school administrator, that would mean evaluating the schools’ performance, and, by inevitable extension, evaluating school administrators by ACT scores.

I would like to help. Two years ago, I donated all my Saturdays in February and March to do an ACT prep class for a few motivated juniors. In a probably unrelated move, that spring the principal reassigned me from teaching the AP class to monitoring a study hall. I was told one of the coaches wanted to get out of teaching the junior English classes, which took a historical approach, starting with Puritans and including seminal texts such as The Narrative of Frederick Douglass and the Declaration of Independence. Where’s the fun in that?

My experience may illustrate what I think the main problem might be in improving ACT scores: the school is dominated by a commitment to sports that is similar to the commitment of historical Jews to textual study. But then, the sports teams haven’t been doing all that well. Nevertheless, the importance of sports leads to daily distractions and high absences. Good readers get notably less acclaim than good athletes. Since the ACT test is more a reading test than anything else–to do well on it, a student should have had several years of practice at reading increasingly complex texts. But even many kids who do read a lot read the rather schlocky YA stuff in the library more than they join or keep up with cultural conversations about ideas and trends. One would think a school that wanted to raise ACT scores would contemplate a renewed emphasis on reading–deep reading–at all levels.

The Jewish manner of reading provides some guidance to those whose goal is to improve ACT scores (though I also think that thinking about the situation in that way is somewhat similar to changing one’s diet and exercise in order to qualify for cheaper insurance premiums), as though other reasons for being healthy were inconsequential. We live in an age that’s often addled by numbers. But back to the point: the Jewish manner of reading is deeper and more complex than students are taught in a typical high school English class.

Chiam Potok provides a small glimpse into how it works in The Chosen, which I used to teach because it communicated to some students the romance of learning. The novel features two Jewish high school boys during World War II. It’s a coming of age story in a peculiarly Jewish manner: both boys make large gains in their ability to understand and discuss Torah and the Talmud, notwithstanding that their scholarly methods differ in important ways. And even though they meet each other as competitors in a softball game, sports in this book is a mere pastime. Study and learning lie at the heart of life, for both boys. “I want to be like Danny,” a student once told me. That aspiration somewhat contradicted her life as a party girl, but we need to get visions of a different world before we can begin moving toward them.

Biblical scholar Avraham Gileadi provides a detailed glimpse of what the Jewish manner of reading entails. He says that Jewish readers “rely on interpretive devices such as types and shadows, allegorical language, underlying structures, word links, parallelisms, double meanings, key words, codenames, and other mechanical tools.” When Isaiah says

Arise, shine, your light has dawned,
the glory of the Lord has risen upon you!
(Isaiah 60:1)

his parallelism equates “light” with “the glory of the Lord.” The parallelism is completed by “The light ‘dawning’ and the Lord’s glory ‘rising.'” The next verse shifts to a contrast:

Although darkness covers the earth,
and a thick mist the peoples,
upon you the Lord will shine;
over you his glory shall be visible.
(Isaiah 60:2)

Israel’s light is contrasted with the darkness that covers the earth. “In the first two lines, ‘darkness’ parallels ‘a thick mist,’ and ‘the earth’ parallels ‘the peoples.'” All the earth’s people are enveloped in a dark mist, and “the second two lines parallel the Lord’s glory with the Lord himself.” He will come in glory.

In the next verse, the idea of light is repeated:

Nations will come to your light,
their kings to the brightness of your dawn.
(Isaiah 63:3)

The light is the brightness of Israel’s dawn, and it attracts the nations and kings. Exploring the text further, we see that by returning to the image of light, with which he began, Isaiah has constructed a chiasmus. Chiasmus was a common poetic form among the Hebrews. Its basic form is A B B A. Here’s an example from Voltaire:

“The instinct of a man is
to pursue (A) everything that flies from him (B), and
to fly (B) from all that pursues him (A).”

Chiasmus creates a reversal in which similar words begin to resonate in new ways. Isaiah shows that the nations returning home parallels Israel’s rising. Since “light is a creation motif and darkness a chaos motif, kings and nations (Israel’s descendants) escape destruction by sharing in Israel’s regeneration.” Such poetic structure allows Isaiah to “say” things that weren’t said at a surface level.

Consider his text about one of Israel’s major sins, idolatry:

Their land is full of silver and gold
and there is no end to their wealth;
their land is full of horses
and there is no end to their chariots.
Their land is full of idols:
they adore the works of their hands,
things their own fingers have made
(Isaiah 2:7-8)

Since what is parallel becomes conceptually synonymous, the lines that begin “their land is full of” creates an identity between “silver and gold” and “chariots” and “idols.” Also, the parallel lines introduced by “there is no end” add “wealth” and “chariots” to the catalog of idols. While a simple reading of the verse might conclude that idols includes only “works of men’s hands” and “things their own fingers have made,” a deeper reading that is awake to the literary structure Isaiah uses grasps readily that “idols” is a far more expansive term. All that we seek and pursue that is not God is included in the term “idol.”

There’s more—as a lifetime of study will reveal. But my intention isn’t to offer a course in deep reading. It’s just to suggest that texts often communicate far more than inexperienced or untrained readers may notice. For centuries, the Jewish culture emphasized their young being able to read more deeply and more precisely. This emphasis has, apparently, led to vast and measurable differences in Jewish aptitude at intellectual tasks.

The success has been often remarked. Here’s Charles Murray again:

In the first half of the 20th century, despite pervasive and continuing social discrimination against Jews throughout the Western world, despite the retraction of legal rights, and despite the Holocaust, Jews won 14 percent of Nobel Prizes in literature, chemistry, physics, and medicine/physiology. In the second half of the 20th century, when Nobel Prizes began to be awarded to people from all over the world, that figure rose to 29 percent. So far, in the 21st century, it has been 32 percent. Jews constitute about two-tenths of one percent of the world’s population. You do the math.

So how do they do on school tests? “New York City’s public-school system used to administer a pencil-and-paper IQ test to its entire school population. In 1954, a psychologist used those test results to identify all 28 children in the New York public-school system with measured IQ’s of 170 or higher. Of those 28, 24 were Jews.” The Jews have done very well on written tests. So well that in the 1920s the Ivies began revising their admissions policies (to consider nonobjective factors such as recommendation letters) because too many Jews were being admitted.

I do have a theory, though, that if Jewish culture shifted its emphasis from understanding the word of God to scoring higher on the ACT, that high-quality culture that has developed would begin to decline.

Engaging the real questions might be fun

What are schools for? Nobody remembers.

Schools tend to be shaped by how people, at least tacitly, answer three questions: who are we? what future are we moving toward? and what tools and resources can we command?

Things have changed: the culture in which students are embedded; expectations for the future (and thus what and how people should be learning if they are to be prepared); and the technology of teaching, learning and communicating. The answers to all three questions are significantly different for most young people than they were ten years ago, and profoundly different than they were some decades ago when the liturgies of public high schools took shape. Honor Roll? Detention? Homecoming Week? Prom?

Schools have changed relatively little, mainly because of turf battles fought by the knot of organizations that we politely call “the education system”: teachers unions and school boards try to protect their monopolies, publishing companies try to reinterpret all new ideas back into the profitable forms of the past, various levels of government try to protect their relevance by getting in front of every new concern, pretending to lead while aggressively and often destructively following whatever trends they have the wit to perceive. The school reform movement has made schools very noisy and unstable in many ways, but they have had little impact of measures of learning.

Everyone knows we could do better, so lots of places are weary of intellectual mobilizations and deployments that lead only to more calls for mobilization and deployment. The Change Industry continues to spew forth buzzwords and workshops which administrators buy and roll out with the shallowest of understanding and the most flexible of commitments. Staffs are like the blind men trying to comprehend the elephant, each with different experiences and perceptions. Attempts to reach consensus with the cliched practices of small groups jotting phrases on big sheets of paper and then “reporting out” to the whole group facilitator, who jots on the whiteboard lists of cliches, the lowest common denominator of mindless phrases retained from the ideological propaganda that has replaced older forms of folklore.

In the fifties, everything was expected to be “efficient.” In the sixties, “natural” was good.
For a while everything was “interdisciplinary.” Then all good things were “authentic.” Now, the dominant adjectives are “diverse” and “inclusive”–all adding up to “respect.” But there’s no thought of collecting real knowledge to confirm or disconfirm anything. Data is collected sloppily and mindlessly to bolster Powerpoints to persaude someone or other that things are “being addressed.” As happened in ancient Rome when “success” and “appearances” drove out all weightier concerns, we now witness the rise of rhetoric and the decline of everything else.

And without intelligent adult guidance, many kids are pushed into useless post-secondary programs that guarantee nothing beyond unconscionable levels of debt.

It would be greatly energizing and considerable fun to seriously engage the real questions and to create new schools that used the enormous power of our new teaching tools to prepare kids for the real world which continues to flow into us and over us, changing everything except what Russell Kirk called “the permanent things” (which we can be sure will turn out to be what today’s youth most need to see and understand).

The dying of the light

Michael Federici is the author of one of the better books about the philosopher Eric Voeglin. In this brief article, he summarizes how historical experience engenders language that can illuminate the truth of reality for those who are open to such illumination. This made me think about the United States’ Bill of Rights, which forms a nexus of knowledge about the dangers of states gained bit by bit through centuries of bloody history. It’s framed as a series of limits on the state that are necessary to protect human liberty and dignity.

Such masterpieces of political literature should form the basis of the political and social education of our young. Instead, the symbols that illuminate human liberty and dignity are dissolved by the deconstructive acids of late-modern ideology.