April 18, 2006

Dream on

A friend wrote me about Richard Morin's "Unconventional Wisdom" column in last Friday's Washington Post. You decide if the study qualifies as either unconventional or wisdom.
"Learning the Wrong Things from Poetry"

Fill your house with books if you want little Billy or Beth to grow
up to be an academic all-star. Shakespeare is good. But stay away
from poetry -- books of poesy on your shelves may dumb down your

A research team headed by demographer Jonathan Kelley, of Brown
University and the University of Melbourne, analyzed data from a
study of scholastic ability in 43 countries, including the United
States. The data included scores on a standardized achievement test
in 2000 and detailed information that parents provided about the
family. The average student scored 500 on this test.

The researchers found that a child from a family having 500 books at
home scored, on average, 112 points higher on the achievement test
than one from an otherwise identical family having only one book --
and that's after they factored in parents' education, occupation,
income and other things typically associated with a child's academic
performance. The findings were presented last month at the annual
meeting of the Population Association of America in Los Angeles.

Of course, it's not the number of books in the home that boosts
student performance -- it's what they represent. The researchers say
a big home library reflects the parents' dedication to the life of
the mind, which probably nurtures scholastic accomplishment in their

They also found that not all books are created equal. "Having
Shakespeare or similar highbrow books about bodes well for
children's achievement," they wrote. "Having poetry books around is
actively harmful by about the same amount," perhaps because it
signals a "Bohemian" lifestyle that may encourage kids to become
guitar-strumming, poetry-reading dreamers.
Darn. And here two kids are taking piano lessons and the third wants to play the banjo.

By the way, I don't suppose anyone pointed out to the researchers that all those highbrow books by Shakespeare contain an awful lot of verse? Never mind...

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