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Lessons People Learn from Books

Publication Date: 2015-10-02

This is from "A Not-So-Tearful Farewell to William Bennett," Phi Delta Kappan, September 1988.
It still speaks to what we can learn from kids.

Secretary of Education William Bennett told the audience in Allentown,Pennsylvania, "I won't be putting out Bill Bennett's list of books for the American people. But if anyone asks me what I think worth reading, I am happy to give my opinion--which includes works by authors ranging from Homer to William Shakespeare to Mark Twain." Since Bennett refers to the same half-dozen children's books again and again in his speeches, I asked him, "Does your recommendation that elementary students be exposed to the great works of literature, works of worthy moral message, include any works published in this century? Do you have any books published after, say, Heidi to recommend to elementary students?"

Secretary Bennett paused for a long moment and finally confessed, "No, I don't." Then he launched into a witty account of reading to his 3-year-old, sharing such books as Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. Bennett closed his amusing anecdote with, "I suppose Wild Things has no moral message--except, of course, 'Always obey your parents.'"

So Bennett does know a 20th-century book after all, one that every primary student in the country also knows. From research that I set in motion immediately after hearing Bennett's remark, however, I concluded that it's pretty hard to find a primary grader who learns from that book the lesson that Bennett thinks the book teaches. Here are some of the lessons found by first- and second-graders in Allentown, the same city with which Bennett shared his view of the book's moral:

  • If you watch TV and it's scary, don't believe it.

  • Never be afraid of monsters because there ain't none.

  • Don't chase the dog down the steps with a fork.

  • You don't have to be where you don't want to be.


  • And when a fourth-grade teacher asked her class if they remembered what the book was about, here's what they said:

  • Your imagination can go anywhere --if you command it to.

  • You don't always need to be the top person to be happy.

  • Being king wasn't enough, and Max wanted to go home.


  • This is pretty powerful stuff, and no teachers who reads a lot of good books with her students will be surprised by the children's insights. Of some 80 children who were asked about the meaning of the book, only one first-grader agreed with Secretary Bennett, saying that the lesson was, "Listen to your mom." Most children got far more out of the book.

    Perhaps our new secretary of education will visit classrooms, asking children about Where the Wild Things Are and other matters that they care about. and maybe the new secretary will discover one of the most important things a teacher ever finds out: although children always learn something, they often don't learn what you think you taught them.


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