A farewell to literature?

I’m back in Utah at last, after a semester in New York City, a too-short beach vacation, and a road trip across the country with my two dogs. Sorry about the radio silence.

The common core language arts standards have come under a great deal of fire this past month. My paleo-teacher prejudices notwithstanding, I’ve sympathized with efforts to improve students’ ability to interpret non-fiction texts and analyze argumentation. I taught these skills in AP Language and Composition, and continue to teach them to AP history and government students online.

But – two frequently-voiced criticisms of the common core do resonate with me. First, I share fears that the new language arts standards will drive out good literature (although it strikes me that good literature has been fleeing classrooms in recent years even without the common core.) Second, I share fears that many recommended readings reflect a politically-correct ideology. My years as a debate coach taught me that students benefit from learning to understand and argue both sides of difficult issues. That SHOULD be a skill that the new common core language standards help them develop . . . but not if the readings are one-sided.

Anyway, here’s a thoughtful critique of the common core standards, written by a young English major. She interviews several of her literature professors, and, unsurprisingly, they express dismay at the proposed curriculum changes. Her bottom line:

Schools don’t exist as job-training camps. They exist to educate students. To be truly educated, students need to graduate with more imagination, not less. They need to face questions about what it means to be a human being — they need to stop sleepwalking, if they’ve started it already — and they need to start learning how to love strangers. We all know that becoming properly educated is a lifelong endeavor. But Washington gives students a huge disadvantage if it leads them to think that memorizing data and processing facts is 70 percent of living well.




  1. Carolyn Sharette

    Glad to hear from you Mary! I would like to point out what I call a “false question”. I’d love to get this out on the record as I believe this false question ends up leading us down roads in education discussions filled with unproductive dialogue and we never really can get to the “heart” of what changes we need.

    OK, here’s the false question: “Do students needs to memorize factual information or learn how to think critically?” Of course, the question isn’t usually posed exactly that clearly because everyone would figure out how silly it is, but every time I read an education article where an agenda of “critical thinking” is being pushed, it is based upon the ‘either/or’ framework – do we drill factual information and skills, or do we teach kids to “think”? In fact, the “critical thinking” group often uses their “teach kids to think” mantra to justify the abandonment of skills-based programs, data collection, and the importance of factual knowledge in our schools.

    The truth is, we must have BOTH – you simply cannot be a credible critical thinker if you have no mastery of facts by which you can validate the conclusions you make when doing all that critical thinking! And, of course, teaching facts “in isolation” and skills with no generalization and extension to paradigm-altering perspectives is nonsensical as well, and something I have never seen. But from the readings, you would think we have a HUGE problem with schools teaching drills and facts all over this country. Of course, we don’t because as E.D. Hirsch says, the “anti-knowledge” movement has taken hold and is handicapping our kids.

    Being heavily involved in a school that is based in the Classical Education model where ALL learning phases are honored, (drills, facts, logic, argumentation, rhetoric) I will admit that I haven’t met a school leader yet from a “basics” school where kids are taught facts and skills to mastery where the school teachers and leaders believe you should stop there and not extend the kids into the logic and rhetoric phases. I have never met one who believes you should just teach facts and skills with no application or extension. Yet, from how often you hear this argument from the “anti-knowledge” group, you would think there is a whole group of educators out there that insiste on teaching facts in isolation and skills with no meaning, and who don’t believe in “critical thinking”. I am totally serious to say that I have never met ONE educator who takes this position.

    So there really is no argument between the “just facts” folks and the “just thinking” folks (because there are no “just facts” folks). Unfortunately, there are plenty of “just thinking” folks. I have met many educators who believe that facts and skills are important but not vital – they give it a shot, but when kids don’t meet benchmarks, they placate themselves by using other “metrics” to show their kids are good “thinkers” – they pass them from grade to grade knowing they don’t have the basic skills needed for the next level of learning, so that level becomes degraded. This continues until our standards are low, our fail rates high, and we have lost a generation to the “soft bigotry of low expectations”. (I believe that was George W. Bush)

    Those who are uncommitted to facts and skills set up a false argument to defend their position, by pretending there is a group they are fighting against who believes students don’t need to learn to think. Let’s not be tricked by these bogus arguments and false questions.

  2. howard beale

    For a rare time I actually agree with Carolyn.

    But here’s what happened with testing. Most of the tests created are bubble tests (computerized versions of them in some cases). This usually tests just the most basic information and recall learning. Since there is such pressure to teach to the test, the teaching then gravitates less to critical thinking and just to the recalling of facts. But if you make tests that are more challenging and more demanding and ask for these skills of course you have to teach both facts and critical thinking skills as Carolyn suggests.

    And yes, I’m sure test scores will go down. Too many of our students can’t critically think, analyze sources or even write well developed thoughts at any age. But over time things change. So I would rather go with this and go through the learning curve of it all and let the chips fall where they may. But we must not pile on teachers. Replacing all the teachers because of low test scores isn’t going to help. Teachers and schools are part of the learning process but parents and students must also be accountable and if the bar is raised I’m actually hoping everyone rises to the occasion.

    Finally, this latest tragic shows to me that teachers aren’t the problem. If teachers (and administrators) are willing to take bullets for their children, I’m pretty sure they are standing up and teaching their children the best they can. One who loves teaching and loves their children will die for them I suspect is doing the job. Most teachers are doing the job, it’s time to get off their case.

  3. Ryan Dubois of Tremonton, Utah

    The argument that the Common Core relieves the schools from reading literature is based on false premises and/or lack of understanding of the core standards. The Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects has ten literature standards and ten informational text standards.

    First, it is extremely important to note that the finished core is not singularly the language arts core. Multiple subjects share these standards, meaning that teachers across multiple contents share the responsibility of literacy development. Much of the responsibility for informational text literacy can and should be shouldered by the history/social studies, science, and technical subjects teachers. School departments should coordinate their literacy efforts one with another.

    Second, the core standards increase rigor in reading by outlining the complexity, quality, and range of reading texts appropriate to each of the various age groups. This provides the teacher with a road map. Teachers are now better equipped than ever to make informed decisions about which literature pieces should be matched to which grade levels.

    Third, the core provides a whole host of examples of classic literature that would be appropriate for classroom use. The examples seem to point to an increased emphasis on literature from the canon.

    Lastly, the core itself states the following about choosing classroom content:
    “While the Standards focus on what is most essential, they do not describe all that can or should be taught. A great deal is left to the discretion of teachers and curriculum developers. The aim of the Standards is to articulate the fundamentals, not to set out an exhaustive list or a set of restrictions that limits what can be taught beyond what is specified herein.”

  4. Western Sib

    Hi Carolyn,
    Totally agree with you. “Critical thinking” can’t be taught in isolation. Without facts, it basically devolves into “I feel” as opposed to “I think.” As I tell my students, you can’t think great thoughts unless you know some ‘stuff.’

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