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FAMILY LIFE

Just Open a Book, and You Have Unlocked a Wealth of Wisdom

January 25, 1990|MIKE SPENCER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Wouldn't it be wonderful if knowledge and wisdom came to us through some kind of osmosis or were like property and passed on to us by our parents?

Just think of it. That great-aunt you always thought was a little squirrelly could turn out to have been a genius all along and leave you 80 years of erudition. You would walk into her attorney's office dumb as grass and bam! with the simple reading of the will, stroll out reciting the major addresses of William Gibbs McAdoo.

Or, you would be born with your parents' learning and that of their parents and so on--the knowledge of generations. When you first said "Dada," you'd be referring to the satiric, nihilistic art movement of the early '20s, not to your father.

But alas, as intriguing as that might be to contemplate, just the opposite is the case.

We come into this world with our minds as bare as our bottoms, no matter how many advanced degrees our parents might have. And we stay that way unless we do something to improve matters.

Everything that has gone on before must be learned by us and then relearned by our children.

As Harry Truman said, "There's nothing new in the world; just the history we haven't read."

What prompted these particular musings were some comments I overheard made to my 11-year-old by a playmate (of his, not of mine) complaining about the "big deal" his teacher makes of reading.

"It's such a total waste of time," he said.

My son rose--stirred is probably a better word--to the defense. "I don't think it's dumb," he said. "It's a lot of fun. Besides, you can learn a lot."

Then they went back to waxing their surf boards, leaving me to ponder how I would have reacted had the comment been thrown my way.

Reading is such an integral part of my life that challenging its value would be like challenging the necessity of my breathing.

But how do you articulate that significance to an 11-year-old, especially one who doesn't belong to you?

More importantly, how do you convince him that it could have similar meaning in his own life?

The answer may be that you can't, that about all you can do is give testimony, much as a true believer does at a camp meeting. And pray that they are listening.

With our own children, of course, it's different. We can--indeed, should--introduce them to literature long before they even have the capacity to read.

It's easy to find colorful picture books that intrigue little ones, and it's a small step from there to books with limited narratives in large type.

I'm delighted with my younger son's fascination with books and the adventures they take him on. Along with blood and a love of golf and the ocean, it is something we share.

We recently, for instance, took a week's golfing holiday to the Central Coast, and when we weren't on the course or he wasn't surfing, we were prowling bookstores at his request.

Without any modesty at all, I take credit for his involvement with reading. He has been raised in a house full of books, magazines and newspapers.

If he has a question about anything--from Stalin to stalagmites--he knows my answer is going to be, "Let's look it up."

Not for a moment do I discount the importance of a formal education, but I believe its singular purposes are to open doors and illuminate paths of knowledge. It provides an introduction. Then, we're on our own.

Our history is full of individuals with little formal educations who made profound impacts on our society. Two who come immediately to mind are Truman and the great 19th-Century black leader, author and orator, Frederick Douglass.

The former haberdasher and the escaped slave shared a depth of knowledge, especially of history and philosophy, that constantly amazed their respective contemporaries. (The only indication that either ever gave of a lack of formal education was that they both often mispronounced ancient Greek battle sites and that was because neither had ever heard them pronounced properly in a classroom.)

The other attribute they shared was a voracious appetite for reading. By the time he entered the Army in World War I, Truman had read every volume in his local library. And Douglass, except for basic reading skills, was entirely self-educated through books.

Now, I'm not saying all our children will be put on the path to fame with a few books and magazines.

Just that they're not going to get there without them.

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