New education standards elbow out literature

Is nonfiction more rigorous than literature? An important education initiative thinks so

Published December 4, 2012 7:41PM (EST)

English teachers are fretting that a set of curriculum guidelines could reduce the teaching of fiction and poetry in the classroom, the Washington Post reports.  The Common Core State Standards, which will be implemented by more than 40 states by 2014, require that 50 percent of elementary school reading be nonfiction, climbing to 70 percent by 12th grade. Supporters, the Post says, believe American students have suffered from “a diet of easy reading and lack the ability to digest complex nonfiction, including studies, reports and primary documents,” leaving them unprepared for higher education and the working world.

Schools face problems ranging from overcrowded classrooms to crumbling buildings to malnourished students. But the idea of rigorous common standards in general, if not these specific guidelines, has support from powerful interests including the Department of Education, the U.S. Army and numerous reformists. Some of the suggested ideas would be a notable change from what almost all Americans remember of high school.

The Post writes:

Among the suggested non­fiction pieces for high school juniors and seniors are Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” “FedViews,” by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco (2009) and “Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management,” published by the General Services Administration.

The standards “mandate certain critical types of content for all students, including classic myths and stories from around the world, foundational U.S. documents, seminal works of American literature, and … Shakespeare.” That said, English teachers in particular are distressed over a perceived devaluing of literature.

Jamie Highfill is mourning the six weeks’ worth of poetry she removed from her eighth-grade English class at Woodland Junior High School in Fayetteville, Ark. She also dropped some short stories and a favorite unit on the legends of King Arthur to make room for essays by Malcolm Gladwell and a chapter from “The Tipping Point,” Gladwell’s book about social behavior.

“I’m struggling with this, and my students are struggling,” said Highfill, who was named 2011 middle school teacher of the year in her state. “With informational text, there isn’t that human connection that you get with literature. And the kids are shutting down. They’re getting bored. I’m seeing more behavior problems in my classroom than I’ve ever seen.”

That could be the guiding anecdote of a Malcolm Gladwell essay. But seriously, the standards appear to suggest that nonfiction is by definition more rigorous and practical than fiction and poetry. But is “The Tipping Point” a tougher slog than “Moby Dick” or more thought-provoking than an average “literary” novel?

Executive Order 13423 --  a five-page slurry of legalese probably unread by President George W. Bush, who signed it -- and “The Tipping Point” do have one important thing in common, however: they’re both written in distinct idioms that adults encounter in the working world. Is prioritizing these modes of language over a more literary curriculum, before students have even reached college, of any lasting value? I’m not sure but the blind favoritism of nonfiction shouldn’t be mistaken for teaching kids to think. Let's hope the folks writing the curriculum have something smarter in mind.


By Alex Halperin

Alex Halperin is news editor at Salon. You can follow him on Twitter @alexhalperin.

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