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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  • “First, getting students to grapple with literary texts will in fact prepare them for ‘complex texts outside of literature.’”

    Yes! I completely agree with this statement. I teach at a charter high school for at-risk students and I have so many students who have a difficult time reading, not just literature but anything. I make a point of introducing them to literary works that they would not think to read, but will still find interesting. I have had students fall in love with The Catcher in the Rye, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Brave New World. Did they have a difficult time with these works? Yes. Are they more prepared to tackle difficult works in the future because of reading these works? Yes.

    You addressed so much in this post that I can’t comment on all of it, but felt it was necessary to second your above statement. I work extremely hard to teach literary works that I feel will engage my students because I believe it greatly benefits them to read and engage with these works. If literature did not impact students as much as it does, then our students would be prepared to “read, write, and research across the curriculum” simply by reading their textbooks for history and science. This is obviously not the case and, with all of the demands placed on teachers, it seems absurd to think that teachers in other subjects will be able to work literature in with what they are already required to teach. (And that’s assuming that teaching literature and reading requires so little skill that anyone that can read can teach those subjects. I can do enough math to balance my checkbook and remember some skills from algebra and geometry classes, but don’t see anyone expecting me to be able to teach those subjects.)

  • Robin Bates

    Thanks for sharing what you do, Gretchen–and for working with at-risk students. Here’s a thought about history and science textbooks: they are different that literature in part because they are less authentic, especially in those states where they are written by committees seeking not to set off political explosives. English teachers at least get to teach works that are True. Given the hunger for authenticity among children, especially teenagers, that’s no small thing.

  • I teach middle school level English so I will still be using litereature for most of our classroom reading. However, I have been told that I should pair every piece of fiction we use, with a piece of non-fiction. I think this is fine for grades six through eight.

    I have been told that the proportion of fiction used should then begin a steady decline until it has reached under 30% by the middle of high school. I’ve been told this by three different people at this point. The term “literary non-fiction” has never been mentioned.

    While I think teaching high school classes, as well as taking them, will soon be deadly-dull under this model, what’s being presented to me at my grade level looks a lot like the whole-language system/strategy we were using when I started teaching two decades ago. Whole-language has a bad reputation but I always enjoyed it.

  • Robin Bates

    I am all about teaching literature within context, whether biographical or historical context, cbjames (my own version of whole language learning), so have no trouble with English teachers teaching works of non-fiction along with literature. I could, for instance, imagine high school students reading an excerpt from Engels’ Condition of the Working Class in England along with Hard Times to capture their attention. What concerns me is the trend you describe, where non-fiction is seen as more useful and the element of delight is deemphasized. Gradgrindian untilitarianism. “Deadly dull” sums it up pretty well.


  • 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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