For Core Standards, More Lit, Not Less

Pauline Baynes, illus. from  "Prince Caspian"

Pauline Baynes, illus. from “Prince Caspian”

A couple of weeks ago, spurred by an article in The Washington Post , I ranted about how the Common Core State Standards are prompting English teachers to teach less literature. A couple of readers (Marcia and Linda) wrote in to argue, very reasonably, that I got something wrong. The Standards, they said, are not designed to drive literature out of English classrooms. Their aim is to get other disciplines to teach more reading.

I’m willing to believe that such is the intent of the standards, but the reports I’m hearing—English teachers should let me know whether I’m right to be worried—is that too many administrators regard English as the only place where reading is taught. Therefore, they are leaning on English teachers to drop certain literary works in favor of, say, essays by Malcolm Gladwell (to cite an example offered up by an English teacher interviewed by The Washington Post). I like Gladwell but he’s no Shakespeare, Twain, or Toni Morrison.

As I examine the language on the Common Core website, I can understand why certain administrators are confused. Notice the slippery language in the following excerpt from the “myth vs. fact” section, which seems to question the usefulness of a literary education. Note the use of the word “however,” for instance, which suggests that literature instruction may not prepare students for the heavy lifting of college (“history and science”). Note also how “literary non-fiction” is given special emphasis. (For the record, Gladwell does not count as literary non-fiction. Emerson and Thoreau do.) Tell me that I’m not being paranoid when I detect a modern-day (albeit more sophisticated) Gradgrind dispensing “facts” to dispel the “myths”:

Myth: English teachers will be asked to teach science and social studies reading materials.

Fact: With the Common Core ELA Standards, English teachers will still teach their students literature as well as literary nonfiction. However, because college and career readiness overwhelmingly focuses on complex texts outside of literature, these standards also ensure students are being prepared to read, write, and research across the curriculum, including in history and science. These goals can be achieved by ensuring that teachers in other disciplines are also focusing on reading and writing to build knowledge within their subject areas.

I find it revealing that the clarifying “fact” is directed specifically to English teachers, informing them that, unless they focus on “complex texts outside of literature,” their students will be unprepared to “read, write, and research across the curriculum.” What about teachers in other disciplines? Oh yes, I guess we need to mention them. (But if they are thrown in almost as an afterthought, it’s probably because the writer assumes that it’s mostly English teachers who are “focusing on reading and writing.”)

There is an insidious (and age-old) dualism between the beautiful and the useful that underlies the reasoning here—and in America at this time, the beautiful is going to lose out every time. The assumption is that literature is for children but, when you get to college, you will need to put away childish things.

To the Gradgrinds involved with the Core Standards, I make two counter arguments: First, getting students to grapple with literary texts will in fact prepare them for “complex texts outside of literature.” Second, history and social studies teachers (and I could add science teachers as well) would actually benefit from using literary texts in their own classes. In other words, teach more literature, not less.

I have colleagues in the St. Mary’s History Department who have assigned Hard Times when teaching the industrial revolution, All Quiet on the Western Front when teaching World War I, and Night when teaching the Holocaust. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that they are turning to Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning novels to teach Tudor England. To be sure, my colleagues go on to differentiate between “story truth” and “happening truth” (Tim O’Brien applies these labels in his memoir about fighting in Vietnam, which he labels fiction), but they know that, once having become emotionally engaged with the time period, the students are more open to traditional history.

I return to my discussion of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey to make the point a different way. Catherine Morland thinks that she hates history, but I would argue that her problem is not with history per se. Her problems is with badly written history. As I wrote in my post, Henry Tilney assumes that one must be tormented in order to learn, but Austen isn’t buying. She notes in her novel how much Catherine learned, as a child, from fictional reading and how much she didn’t learn from reading that tormented her. The author appears to mock her heroine but is instead taking shots at her education:

She never could learn or understand anything before she was taught; and sometimes not even then, for she was often inattentive, and occasionally stupid. Her mother was three months in teaching her only to repeat the “Beggar’s Petition”; and after all, her next sister, Sally, could say it better than she did. Not that Catherine was always stupid—by no means; she learnt the fable of “The Hare and Many Friends” as quickly as any girl in England.

Catherine certainly needs to grow up, and somewhere along the line she will need to move beyond the Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe to, in the words of Lewis Carroll, books “without pictures or conversations.” I’m just saying that the delight that comes from literary language can extend to all subjects.

C. S. Lewis weighs in on this issue in a wonderful episode in Prince Caspian. The suffocating realm of the Telmarines is being overthrown—a realm that banished Caspian’s nurse and her “fairy stories” about old Narnia—and we see a school being liberated. “Liberated” involves Bacchus and his Maenads turning the building into a glade and the teacher’s desk into a rose-bush. A change in the history curriculum also appears to be in the offing:

The first house they came to was a school: a girl’s school, where a lot of Narnian girls, with their hair done very tight and ugly tight collars round their necks and thick tickly stocks on their legs, were having a history lesson. The sort of “History” that was taught in Narnia under Miraz’s rule was duller than the truest history you ever read and less true than the most exciting adventure story.

Conservative though Lewis may have been in certain respects—after all, he was a Medievalist in love with classic texts—he sounds like Paul Goodman and other 1960’s educational experimenters here. Make learning vital, I hear him saying, and children will be excited, not tormented.

What I as a college teacher want from entering students is a fire for learning. My best students are usually those who were inspired by teachers, and those teachers frequently make good use of powerful stories.

I’m not altogether saying that FedViews by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco – one of the documents mentioned in the Washington Post article—be taken off social studies reading lists if the teachers really want to retain them. I would argue, however, that such texts should be kept only if students, in examining them, see themselves as engaged in an exciting quest. Dry documents need not be dry if the assignment is set up narratively in ways that capture the imagination, as I know from my experience of being a high school debater. I read lots of articles on whether “Congress should establish uniform regulations to control criminal investigation procedures” because I needed the information to defeat other teams.

But if such works are assigned in anticipation of a future employer telling you, “Johnson, I need a market analysis by next Friday” (the quote is from the man who led development of the Core Standards and he is not being ironic), then education will be an excruciating torment. The result will be, like Catherine Morland, students who appear inattentive and stupid.

In Northanger Abbey, Catherine applies her fictional reading to General Tilney and arrives at a fairly deep understanding of him, even though she needs to make a few adjustments to her theories. She’s right about his being a Gothic villain but must understand that he locked up his wife in a psychological rather than an actual prison. Well-read high school students will make comparable adjustments in college. Nothing good is accomplished by discouraging reading that simultaneously engages them and makes them wise.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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