By Julia Steiny
Last week I had kind words for the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Building intelligence through building knowledge is a far better approach to educating kids than the current obsession with covering vast amounts of content. In last week's column, CCSS expert Kate Gerson fleshed out some of the Standards' strengths.
That said, however, the huge landscape of CCSS resembles the complexity of a human personality — fundamentally good, but not without fault. We can appreciate the sinner while rejecting the sins. The CCSS have been criticized for many flaws, which in most cases is due, I think, to misunderstanding what the Standards actually say.
But there is no misunderstanding their aggressive devaluing of the role of literature in teaching English. Dr. Sandra Stotsky is probably the most vocal critic, here discussing the reduction of reading literature to no more than 50% in English classes.
Many others have also cried foul on this issue, and rightly so. Great literature — poetry, drama, philosophy and seminal religious texts like the Bible — have been the foundation for educating the "learned" since time immemorial. If the goal is to help students feel comfortable analyzing and understanding complexity, what better way than cultural classics? But no longer.
In literature's place — and doesn't this say it all? — goes "informational text."
Can't the academics hear themselves? I'm reminded of Richard Mitchell's lament The Graves of Academe, a laugh-out-loud meditation on the deadly language academics often use that kills communication. We know what non-fiction is, and we know great writers, journalists and biographers can tell a factual narrative as a riveting story. My kids loved reading The Hot Zone in science class, and in Physics, QED was so impressive to them, Richard Feynman became a much-quoted hero. But according to the CCSS these books could be read in English class and held in higher esteem than mere stories such as, say, King Lear.
And what, pray, seems to be the problem? Of course, kids don't like classical literature unless they've gotten enough background to appreciate it. But shouldn't education prepare them to see through the eyes of the culture that created Tom Sawyer, for example? Understanding other times and cultures trains students' empathy, among other things, even if we don't identify with or approve of the non-modern values. Private schools certainly guide students through a wealth of great literature, but they can teach what they like and don't battle political correctness. If public education is about training the workforce, who needs Jane Austen?
I think that what's at issue is that "informational texts" confine themselves to scientifically verifiable truths that are intrinsically a-cultural. Like philosophy and religion, fiction by its nature has no hard information about the objective world. It is culture-bound. Historical fiction may use historical facts to set the stage, but is not responsible for being correct in every detail. But that reduces its value for the CCSS. Facts must anchor what students should know and be able to do.
To me the scientifically verifiable truth is essential, to be sure, but the truth of fiction is often deeper.
Prior to "the media," human entertainment was sitting around at night after a long, hard day and talking, telling stories, gossiping. Sometimes stories took on a life of their own, growing from favorite anecdotes about people we actually know, to honored tales about one's ancestors, to the Olympian scale of gods, goddesses, and God. These stories were the transport mechanism of great wisdom that the elders of a culture related and preserved from their generation to another. The stories evolved and changed, along with the culture itself. Embedded in such stories were lessons critical to that culture's values. Lear and Oedipus both allow their giant egos — Aristotle called it "hubris" — to blind them to a truth they were unwilling to face. I have seen little hard data emanating from research on ego blinded to truth, but that doesn't make the lesson less valuable.
As a Rhode Island resident, I wish our students got a firm grounding in The Emperor's New Clothes so they could be far more discerning of their leader's so-called facts.
But no one dares claim the authority to say what ancient wisdom should be received by contemporary students. Instead, the CCSS displaces the remnants of Western Civilization, adjusted as it has been in recent years with the riches of James Baldwin, among others, to make way for inarguable facts.
Charles Dickens lamented this very issue in his aptly-named novel about education: Hard Times. Louisa, the schoolmaster's daughter, nearly comes to ruin having no instruction in the truth of fiction, specifically the nature of love. Instead, her father taught "Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else." You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them."
We've been down this road. If educators are not cultivators of the culture, who's left?