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Why Literature Might Disappear From Our Schools

If you skip today’s post because the title sounds boring or you just don’t care about today’s subject, then I want you to take away one thing before you go: School administrators are stupid.

Well, not all of them of course. That would be a generalization. But the administrators who make decisions on literature? Yes, stupid.

This, recently reported by The Telegraph, is the basis for my opinion:

A new school curriculum which will affect 46 out of 50 states will make it compulsory for at least 70 per cent of books studied to be non-fiction, in an effort to ready pupils for the workplace.

Books such as JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird will be replaced by “informational texts” approved by the Common Core State Standards.

Suggested non-fiction texts include Recommended Levels of Insulation by the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the Invasive Plant Inventory, by California’s Invasive Plant Council.

Good Lord. If teachers thought their eighth graders get sleepy from Shakespeare, wait until they get around to “Invasive Plant Inventory.”

The new educational standards have the backing of the influential National Governors’ Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, and are being partially funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Jamie Highfill, a teacher at Woodland Junior High School in Arkansas, told the Times that the directive was bad for a well-rounded education.

“I’m afraid we are taking out all imaginative reading and creativity in our English classes….”

Supporters of the directive argue that it will help pupils to develop the ability to write concisely and factually, which will be more useful in the workplace than a knowledge of Shakespeare.

Come on, man.

I think the teacher in the quote above has it exactly right. Where is the creativity and the imagination here? Are we raising a bunch of cyborgs who, 20 years from now, have memorized the periodic table of elements but can’t tell you who wrote The Great Gatsby? Or why Animal Farm is so important?

That’s just sad. To me, there’s a practical side of education—after all, probably the most useful class I ever took in high school was typewriting—but there’s also an imaginative side of education. And this is where school administrators have dropped the ball.

This appears to be the classic battle between science and art. And, judging by the fact that The Recommended Levels of Insulation By the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is on the new recommended reading list, it appears that science is winning.

All of us who love to read—millions of us—probably realized that love of reading thanks to experiences we had in childhood. If the school administrators here in the U.S. have their way, our kids won’t get that chance.

As a parent, I’ll be sure my son gets introduced to the literature classics, even if his teachers aren’t allowed to teach them.

Any thoughts on this?

[Update: Please read the retraction on this post here.]

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51 Comments Post a comment
  1. lightningjcb #

    Total BS. You just simply cannot do that to literature. It’s sacreligous, on so many levels. Reading has always been an escape (for me, personally), and by replacing core texts with non-fiction, well, yes, the so-called “children of the future” are going to be very unimaginative robots. America, as well as England have been the homelands of some very prominent writers, poets and playwrights – taking about the future’s inspiration leaves no room for creative growth. Where will the next bestselling book come from? Or will it simply not exist?

    Like

    January 7, 2013
    • I guess there will still be plenty of nonfiction bestsellers.

      Like

      January 7, 2013
      • lightningjcb #

        Then I won’t want to live on this planet anymore.

        Like

        January 7, 2013
  2. In the UK there’s a new system of education coming into place which will limit students to picking one creative subject for what would be equivalent to high school in the USA. Although Literature will still be a compulsory subject (for the time being), it seems as though education ministers, and the people who make decisions (most of whom do not have any recent experience of education, and have never taught children) do not understand the importance of imagination and creativity to the development of children.

    When innovation and creativity are so important to the current times, what with all the technological advancements we’re making, it seems ridiculous that so many schooling systems are underestimating the benefit of creative subjects.

    Where do they think the next generation of authors will come from? Do they plan to outlaw fiction? Book burnings in major cities?

    Like

    January 7, 2013
    • Andy G #

      Well said. I agree.

      Like

      January 7, 2013
  3. Andy G #

    It seems as though the people who made this decision have based everything on the assumption that the world needs “knowledge workers” (a term I borrow from “A Whole New Mind”), people who spit out facts and combine them in predicable and even prescribed patterns. In fact, if our schools turn out nothing more than automatons who can recall and recite facts, students will lack the ability to make insight into problems and merely repeat solutions that are “supposed to work” or have worked previously, they will fail to find the relationships between facts which can reveal deeper meaning and provide fuel for growth (of all sorts), and they will have little or no opportunity to surpass the expectations and mistakes of the previous generation. And isn’t that what education is supposed to be about? Creating a better and not merely duplicative tomorrow through our children?

    Like

    January 7, 2013
  4. I absolutely agree. As parents, my partner and I required thirty minutes of reading anything every day, even when the schools didn’t. If my daughter needs to know about insulation, I’m certain she can find what she needs in a few mouse clicks. If she needs to insulate herself from a cold world that only recognizes the value of facts instead of ideas, she will, I’m certain, wrap herself in a great book.

    Like

    January 7, 2013
  5. Although I struggled with literature in school, I truly appreciate re-reading them now. It would be a major detriment and I feel that it reinforces that children are not required to have higher functioning skills and that their attention spans can be shorter than ever. (I know the nonfiction books are there, but let’s face it who is going to read that when you can read a wiki article or encyclopedia article that’s 1/10th of the length!)

    Like

    January 7, 2013
  6. Hahaha! You’re wading into a classic battle of public v private education. One size fits all v custom tailored curriculum. People have strong opinions on the matter and will no doubt fire off some hot ‘replies’ to this post.

    As you point out, it is a parent’s obligation to ensure the child gets an education. How one defines education is subject to debate.

    Like

    January 7, 2013
  7. One thing seems clear, the people behind this idea have never read Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.” This is a dangerously stupid idea.

    Like

    January 7, 2013
    • lightningjcb #

      I shall post one to my local minister to see what he’ll think after reading it.

      Like

      January 7, 2013
    • Actually, Fahrenheit 451 is included as an example of appropriate reading in the common core standards: See page 58 of http://www.corestandards.org/assets/CCSSI_ELA%20Standards.pdf

      Like

      January 7, 2013
      • In fact no technical jargon works are listed in the core reading standards list (thanks for that URL). Fiction and creative non-fiction are highly praised within the document’s sidebar for their affect on critical thinking skills improvement. This is a train wreck of planning at odds. I suspect as is mentioned somewhere else among these comments that this greatly results from the decades-long movement to make public education so dysfunctional that private, non-accredited schools will appear the best alternative. Once the public school system is completely privatized and profits are distributed accordingly and access to education is realigned somewhat along the caste system of pre-Brown v. Board of Education and unskilled workers at minimum wage without benefits are the norm across America, reading will have gone the way of letter writing as a past time and few will even know to miss it in the muddle of bad priorities.

        Like

        January 8, 2013
  8. Kim #

    How exactly is reading “The Recommended Levels of Insulation By the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency” going to prepare a child any better than reading Shakespeare? Sure, throw in some non-fiction books so students learn how to read them, but making that 70% of a student’s reading is going really overboard. Utterly ridiculous.

    Like

    January 7, 2013
  9. thelifeofwritingandthewritingoflife #

    This is a terrible idea. God forbid that we raise kids who can think for themselves rather than just be soulless and mindless worker drones. With the exception of my english classes and participating in speech and drama, I was bored senseless in high school. Of course adults who can think for themselves are likely to realize how bad their rulers really are and force changes. Tyrants probably prefer unthinking citizens more than they do unarmed serfs.

    Like

    January 7, 2013
  10. Ryan #

    As a teacher, I can tell you that education (at least from the top) is highly contradictory. On one hand, most classes’ “standard course of study” is emphasizing the need for ‘higher level thinking skills’ and creative output (as opposed to rote memorization). Yet, the future of high-school reading material is surface level facts. To put it simply, how deeply do you expect a secondary education student to think and discuss on manuals and inventories? Hopefully, the new common core curriculum will be short-lived.

    Like

    January 7, 2013
  11. I thought introductory English composition courses in college (which I teach) were for “preparing” students to write for work. Why impose that on them in high school? Why not instead expose them to a little of everything and then let the next level of education worry about preparing them for careers? And even though I cite composition courses in college, most universities also require some sort of introductory literature course as well. It seems silly that high school administrators want to try to become college. They might as well become vocational schools.

    Like

    January 7, 2013
  12. You are completely right, school administrators are stupid. I’m glad that my son is a bookworm and the only complaint I’ve heard from teachers on him is that his nose is stuck in a book because the rest of his studies bores him. I’m not sure what the education system teaches anymore, I think they water down every subject. They make learning dull and uninteresting.

    Like

    January 7, 2013
  13. Interesting. I see the same trends here in Sweden. Science and Technology rules, and if our kids could only be better at Math and Physics etc. then everything would be hunky dory. Perhaps more politicians should read Stop Stealing Dreams.

    As a side note, in 11/22/63 there is a dialogue where they discuss Catcher in the Rye, and in that time period (1960 ca) it was banned from school libraries, most likely for other reasons than mentioned in the Telegraph article.

    Like

    January 7, 2013
  14. This is not good! Literature brings so much richness to our lives.

    Like

    January 7, 2013
  15. I think that a huge part of education is learning to think critically. There are few better ways of doing this than reading literature. It teaches you about the world that you live in and how to deal with it. Not only that, reading is enjoyable – or at least it should be – and where is the enjoyment in reading the non-fiction texts you list above.

    Like

    January 7, 2013
  16. This is totally crazy. How are students going to understand symbolism, irony, and allegory reading an instruction manual? It’s hard enough getting children now. I always say just because it’s a new idea doesn’t make it a better idea.

    Like

    January 7, 2013
  17. Far be it from me to accept anything that would limit reading, writing, creativity, and critical thinking but conclusions are being drawn from the snippets presented here that are not necessarily true or significant.

    When I was in High School I had one class a year where creative reading and writing was a part of the curriculum: English. In English each year there was an accepted anthology which was the text for the class and six to eight additional books (fiction, drama, essay, poetry) that were required outside of the text (remember those filmstrips of Oedipus Rex?). I also took six other classes which also had a main textbook with ancillary reading, all of a non-fiction nature. Was the ratio of fiction to non-fiction then similar to the new requirement?

    There is nothing suggesting that this non-fiction requirement is restricted to the English class but probably represents all classes. As it has always been, some books are best suited for specific classes: reading an Art History book in Spanish class wouldn’t make a lot of sense.

    Also, a title being on a recommended reading list is not the same as having that title be required reading; it simply means the book has been deemed acceptable for the use intended. There is no indication that Romeo and Juliet will be replaced by a tool & die manual.

    Having been both in the academic world and the business world, I can see a great need to give young students the skills to read and understand the vast amount of information required to maintain work skills in many careers. We may not be educating our students adequately if we dismiss this type of reading as being anti-creative and less important than literature. There is room for both. If you consider this proposed curriculum and match it with the teaching of reading, spelling, even writing, it is just as natural to have English education embrace the non-literature side of reading in English classes as it is to teach literature.

    On the other hand, we have states like Texas that have legislated against the teaching of critical thinking in the schools. This is a nefarious attempt to assure that the mob isn’t capable of thinking for themselves and therefore can be easily duped. This has nothing to do with fiction vs. non-fiction but it is a dangerous attack on our freedom and should be fought against at all times.

    Like

    January 7, 2013
  18. This sounds more like something from the Onion than from real life. Luckily, the Telegraph (who should know better!) has completed misinterpreted the curriculum change, probably in their excitement to ridicule us Philistine Americans.

    See here http://message.snopes.com/showthread.php?t=83439 for a better explanation and a link to the actual writeup of the curriculum change.

    From that writeup:
    “The percentages on the table reflect the sum of student reading, not just reading in ELA
    settings. Teachers of senior English classes, for example, are not required to devote 70
    percent of reading to informational texts. Rather, 70 percent of student reading across the
    grade should be informational.”

    Also, the recommended nonfiction texts (see p. 58) are still literary in nature: Thoreau, Emerson, Orwell, John Adams, Elie Wiesel. Nowhere could I find that EPA insulation report in the actual curriculum recommendations, which makes me think the Telegraph added that little embellishment themselves.

    You’ve fallen for what is basically anti-American propaganda here.

    Like

    January 7, 2013
    • Indeed, it looks like I did. I know better. The Telegraph reported this a few weeks ago, and thousands of other sites picked up on it. I marked it to talk about later without doing that much research on the topic. Once I pulled up the actual standards, a lot of great literature was in there, including TKAM.

      I think I’ve built up a lot of angst against American education because of its shunning of literature, and this felt like an opportunity to jump on them even more. But it was definitely some creative reporting on the part of The Telegraph. Shame on them, and shame on me for taking the bait.

      They haven’t posted a retraction, but I will tomorrow.

      Like

      January 7, 2013
  19. My gut instinct is to agree with you and most of the comments here. But there is another side to the story, as Mike wrote above. Why can’t critical thinking and creativity be fostered by non-fiction? Is the Origin of the Species any less thought-provoking than the Great Gatsby? Is Homage to Catalonia any less analogous to despotism than Animal Farm? Are Emerson’s essays any less well written than Lord of the Flies? And aren’t there many classics assigned in school that dulled the eyes of many students, turning them off of literature forever? Wouldn’t it be better for the love of literature to come through curiosity rewarded out of the classroom than from assignment in school? Is the book on insulation any worse than the mawkish YA books like Twilight they “teach” in high school classes today because the students don’t “relate” to the classics?

    Like

    January 7, 2013
    • The Telegraph’s reporting was loose and I didn’t follow up. My mistake. I’m going to correct that tomorrow.

      To your point, yeah I believe nonfiction can be treated critically and we can learn a lot. I’m just coming from the POV that literature and fiction, in generally, is typically shunned. I used to do it myself.

      Like

      January 7, 2013
  20. I have to put in a dissenting voice here. There are several things from the Telegraph article that are highly misleading and that you are perpetuating here.

    1. The requirement for 70% non-fiction is across the entire school curriculum, not just English class. So, assuming that students are reading and analyzing non-fictional texts in science and social studies courses, most of the reading in English classes would still remain fiction.

    2. I think that it is safe to assume that an invasive plant inventory would be material to be worked with in a science class. Perhaps students would analyze the list, trying to figure out what traits make plants invasive. Suggested non-fiction reading for English classes include texts that I read in high school English such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou and writings by Elie Wiesel. (The Language arts common core standards can be found at: http://www.corestandards.org/assets/CCSSI_ELA%20Standards.pdf. Examples of appropriate texts for grades 6-12 can be found on page 58)

    3. The article quotes a teacher complaining about the standards, but doesn’t give any information about the motivation behind the standards. From what I have read, the new standards are based on studies showing that students with more experience analyzing and writing about non-fiction texts are better prepared for college and have improved critical thinking and writing skills. Educational studies sometimes don’t hold up when more widely implemented and maybe these reforms should have undergone further testing first, but there is good evidence and a concrete motivation behind the new standards.

    Like

    January 7, 2013
    • You’re totally right. I bit on some loose reporting by The Telegraph. My post tomorrow will hopefully clear things up.

      Like

      January 7, 2013
    • Excellent rebuttal, biblioglobal, and I am glad to see Robert’s quick acknowledgement. I love fiction and would have done an Eng Lit degree except for practicalities. So I took engineering. My ability to think and write clearly has kept me employed for 40 years. In the same period I have probably read and enjoyed over a thousand novels. I learned to think and write clearly through study and critical analysis of all kinds of text and ideas and subjects. Successful writing is not just “creative.” It is disciplined and original and deliberate, and that tends to be missed in our educational system these days. There is still a place, albeit limited, for stream of consciousness but that is usually meant to be private. The focus on creativity is sometimes an excuse for lack of discipline. Bah, humbug!

      Like

      January 7, 2013
  21. Melissa @ Swamp of Boredom #

    Sounds like a story from The Onion was picked up by mainstream media. Or at least, that is my fervent wish.

    Like

    January 7, 2013
  22. You’re welcome, future generations! We Millennial’s are a generation of readers because of creative works like “Harry Potter” but at least you will know whether or not the insulation in your walls are thick enough.

    Like

    January 7, 2013
  23. The new Common Core Initiative is a way to allow students to become more prepared for the work place. THe standards cross state lines, and all grade levels. Each year they build on themselves. As far as non-fiction, there has always been a segment of the year that is devoted to non-fiction. It is generally used to teach how to research, gather information and characteristics of that type of text. In my 1st grade classroom, my kids absolutely love non-fiction texts. With that being said, most of the year is spent on texts such as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (Roald Dahl), Judy Blume books, and Judith Viorst. On any given day, the bookshelves are packed with fun, easy read stories. Without the works of great authors like Kate DiCamillo (The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane), our students may never develop a passion for reading. There are typically four units of study in a year. Only one of those units are devoted to informational text. I would prefer to always read fiction to my students, however in an effort to provide a very well rounded educational experience, I think that all texts must be introduced and offered.

    Like

    January 7, 2013
  24. xrunningaround #

    Reblogged this on L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N..

    Like

    January 7, 2013
  25. A LOT OF THOUGHTS ON THIS, but mostly one of stunned shock. You know, in Pakistan, its pretty common to hear conspiracy theories every other day – there’s a secret international movement to suppress the Pakistanis, the elite are preparing for the end of the world, and so on, but the one about how we’re all becoming stupider over time – that seems to be ringing eerily true. Like you said, dropping literature from school curriculum will turn kids into little cyborgs – creative thinking? analytic thinking? powers of associative learning – gone. I was raised in the States, and it was in third grade that I fell in love with books. It was my teachers and my class-assigned novels (The Endless Steppe, Heidi, & Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry) that encouraged me to step into the world of literature. Here, in Pakistan, where 90% of children in elementary school don’t even understand English, it seems to be that the US is throwing away a gift that they have taken for granted for far too long. Here, there is no concept of literature being important – it’s considered a pastime for the elite, akin to playing golf and wallowing in piles of money. I wish little kids read books. I wish there were pubic libraries that children or even adults could easily access. How can school boards in the States make this decision? Stunned. Shocked.

    Like

    January 7, 2013
    • You know, I’m sure that the non-fiction course being included in the curriculum are important. I understand the value of non-fiction books in education. But I just think that just as safeguards are introduced for non-fiction education, certain mandatory safeguards should be put in place for the teaching of fiction.

      I’ve spent so much time hearing from people how novels are useless and never taught them anything, and I’ve always been surprised when they’ve said that, because every novel that I read, I learn something about life. Sometimes I learn a lot, and sometimes I learn a little. But always, I learn.

      I know that this measure does not mean that fiction books will be completely eradicated from the curriculum, but it doesn’t ensure that they won’t either, does it? Today’s kids have got so much pressure on them. The way they’re exposed to fast-paced technology 2.0 lifestyles, there’s kids who are 13 and talking using their iPads while talking to their boyfriends on their smartphones and buying skimpy dresses for a birthday party. It’s insane the way reality has become so one-sided. In my humble opinion, literature is a critical balancing force.

      Like

      January 7, 2013
  26. Oh nooooo. Is this a final decision? I can imagine that there are lots of teachers and parents upset about this. I doubt that they’ll go down without a fight (me included).

    Like

    January 8, 2013
  27. Irrespective of whether the Telegraph was misleading, I feel that its high time the policy makers really look at the market and realize what is required and expected out of a student when they step in the professional sector. Further policies should be made keeping that in mind.

    Like

    January 8, 2013
  28. Reblogged this on ajsanders.

    Like

    January 8, 2013
  29. As a high school Language Arts teacher, the changes to education make me very nervous. Literature is one of the best ways for students to understand difficult social concepts, historical situations and human behavior. Fiction easily bridges the gaps and help readers grasp knowledge about social issues (Frankenstein), social injustices (To Kill a Mockingbird) and even human nature (Of Mice and Men).

    Like

    January 9, 2013
  30. How disturbing! Just this morning I posted a video on my blog – Mallika Sarabhai’s Ted Talk, which emphasizes the importance of the arts.

    Like

    January 10, 2013
  31. As a high school English teacher who works with Common Core, I can tell you that the article’s author misunderstands the “70% nonfiction” recommendation. The recommendation applies to reading across ALL subjects (i.e. math, history, science, etc.). Notice how everyone assumes that “real” reading is done ONLY in English class. But that’s the point of the recommendation: to encourage students to read more (besides the traditional textbook) in the other core classes rather than just in English. Common Core actually recommends that students read MORE high quality literature in English classes. P.S. I love this blog & appreciate the attention you’re paying to this subject.

    Like

    January 13, 2013
  32. First I’ve heard about this, but it’s such a bad idea I’m actually awestruck by the stupidity of it. It sounds satirical.

    For a while there’s been a movement here in England to make skills more ‘relevant’ to the workplace, and to an extent I can agree – calculating taxes, rather than vectors, in maths for example.

    But there’s more to life than JUST practical skills.

    Like

    January 26, 2013
  33. alexandrajade97 #

    While science is important and needs to be taught to students, critical thinking is so much more important, and critical thinking is what we learn from books such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Animal Farm. As a student, I am horrified by this. Nonfictional books can be useful, but memorizing practical skills is not going to challenge your mind or help you to grow as a person. We read To Kill a Mockingbird last year in English and just read Catcher in the Rye this year and they are books that teach life lessons that young people need. Invasive Plant Inventory is not going to teach anyone life lessons. This curriculum change will lead us the problem China is having with their students, they can memorize a 700 page novel but they cannot analyze what the book means or understand its significance. Because they never learned critical thinking skills.

    Like

    February 3, 2013
  34. Shocked Parent in Nebraska #

    Let’s just be honest here: CONSERVATIVE administrators are stupid. NOT kidding, I just had a fight with my kid’s district because they were going to stop teaching the Salem Witch Trials. No more Arthur Miller, much less the history behind the trials. Reason? The word “Witch” freaked out the brainwashed conservative masses here in Nebraska.

    Like

    May 31, 2013
  35. Ohh wow, I’m from the UK so I had no idea this was happening. It sounds like an awful idea. I feel bored simply at the word informational texts!

    Like

    June 30, 2014
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