The pedagogy of the fart

Thomas Spence, president of Spence Publishing, has a must-read piece in last week’s Wall Street Journal, titled “How to Raise Boys Who Read.” He takes aim at the latest fad, which is to get the video-game and television-besotted little cretins to read by dealing out books about farts and boogers, as if reading is itself the end, and any crudity that entices a four-foot tall barbarian to do it is simply pedagogy for the 21st century. Case in point, this fall’s top-ten humor book for children, SweetFarts. Here’s Spence:

“One obvious problem with the SweetFarts philosophy of education is that it is more suited to producing a generation of barbarians and morons than to raising the sort of men who make good husbands, fathers and professionals. If you keep meeting a boy where he is, he doesn’t go very far.”

Spence, father of six boys, goes on to observe that the much-lamented reading gap between boys and girls disappears when one’s sample is home-schoolers. I suspect this has less to do with the poor pedagogical practices of government schools (though it’s far easier to accommodate the physicality of a handful of boys in one’s home learning environment than it is to accommodate 15-20 of them in a classroom), than with the reality that parents who home-school are less likely to give their children a steady diet of attention-atrophying electronic media.

Which in turn suggests the delicious possibility that rather than wringing our hands over how quickly we can get every child “wired” for the new internet era, we ought to ask how quickly we can unplug their computers until such time as they’re able to compose a cogent essay on Shakespeare, elucidate the roots of the Great Schism, and explain at least three proofs of the Pythagorean Theorem.


  1. Ellen

    I have a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old, both boys. I was homeschooled, and I am planning to homeschool. Neither boy watches tv (only the occasional video on a long car trip, averaging maybe one video every 2-3 months). Both boys love to read books. =)

  2. Liz

    It’s also not – I hope – either/or. While our oldest has always been an avid reader, our 10-year-old was slow to read and congenitally stubborn, and I’m sure he’ll want to go find SweetFarts (hadn’t heard of that one yet!). We let him read all of its ilk over the past few years, but kept reading “the good stuff” to him at bedtime. Lo and behold, this year he’s reading the good stuff himself – in the bathtub, first thing in the morning, and just about every other block of time he has. If Spence calls us to not just meet a boy where he is (which I’m in basic agreement with), I guess our amended model is “meet him where he is, but make sure there’s an irresistible voice calling to him from up the road.”

    Disclosure: he’s still reading plenty of books about boogers. I trust the appeal will fade soon.

  3. Davo Pavo

    I was pretty excited to read this particular post because the word fart was in the title. I must admit I am disappointed that there weren’t any Isaac stories.

    What’s that say about ME?!?

    It does give proof to the statement that if you meet a boy where he is, he doesn’t go very far…..

    so Liz, fade? yes. disappear? don’t get your hopes up!

  4. Beth

    How to get boys to read? Here’s what you do.

    Refuse to have cable TV of any kind, and make sure the channels you do get have crappy reception. Passive-aggressively resist owning video games or systems, or at least make sure the batteries are mostly dead. Use the money you would have spent on cable TV to fill every available space in your house with awesome, visually irresistible books full of swashbuckling adventures, fascinating facts and gripping stories (including some boogers and passing of gas). Install two hammocks and a treehouse in the backyard.

    Then bury your nose in your own book, ignore your children, and see what happens. At least that’s how we operate around here.

  5. Tari

    It’s likely to be true, overall, that homeschooled kids read better books than their public/private-schooled counterparts, but that doesn’t mean that we as parents can’t change that with our own children if we want to. Boyd and Wm just finished reading The Count of Monte Cristo together (4 months, God bless ‘um!), and both Wm and Chris read all kinds of great books (for their respective ages, that is). We’ve made it a priority, and therefore they love books. Come to think of it, my dad made it a priority with me, and he couldn’t read his way through a “real” book to save his life. That pretty much tells me that ANY parent who cares can raise a child who loves to read. It just takes time (and lots of Golden Books). 🙂

    And schools can surprise you. Our first (swanky private) school had a full collection of Captain Underpants and his ilk, but our current public school librarian wouldn’t allow that trash in her library for money. At curriculum night last week, we were treated to a lecture from our 2nd grade teacher (who has books like The Boxcar Children for the kids to read alone) about reading aloud to your children through middle school AT LEAST, and in our 5th grade the kids had stuck up post-it’s with their personal book requests for the class library. They were all pretty typical (Percy Jackson, Benedict Society, Redwall, etc) but good books all the same.

    So a community full of parents, many of whom count English as their second or third language, can make good books a priority. And a man who can’t read above the level of USA Today can instill in his small child such a love of books that she grows up to voluntarily study Moby Dick TWICE in two different college classes. Have hope.


  6. Amy

    We were thrilled when the “Captain Underpants” series helped the boys get over the hump from the place where reading is really hard work to fluency. Now they can read anything and are willing to tackle the good stuff. There is definitely a place in the world for booger books.

  7. Briana

    We homeshcool, as did my parents, and from experience I think boys in general are slower to read. No booger book would induce my 9yr old to sit for hours. Not that I would ever give him that options. His 11 yr old sister has been reading since she was 4 and always has a book within reach. I know the 9yr old will catch up. He is a very hands on kid and will create things all day long. But might bring the directions to me to read. We’re fine going at his pace.

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