Keeping it real — or at least non-fictional.

Jay Mathews has had two short articles about non-fiction books in schools.  The initial article is here, with a follow-up here.  The problem he is addressing is an (alleged but probably true) dearth in non-fiction in high school curricula.   I found this paragraph particularly interesting:

Educators say non-fiction is more difficult than fiction for students to comprehend. It requires more factual knowledge, beyond fiction’s simple truths of love, hate, passion and remorse. So we have a pathetic cycle. Students don’t know enough about the real world because they don’t read non-fiction and they can’t read non-fiction because they don’t know enough about the real world.

Mathews is being tongue-in-cheek, of course.  (True catch-22 situations are exceedingly rare.)   But there clearly is a reading problem in schools — I’m just not convinced that it’s a non-fiction problem.  It seems rather unlikely that one must read non-fiction to learn about the real world.  One can learn vast amounts about the “real world” by reading fiction.  Maybe not by reading Harry Potter or Twilight, where the emphasis is on character and the supernatural.  But The Name of the Rose, Heart of Darkness, Vicomte de Bragelonne, and The Odyssey (just to pick four books from the shelf right in front of me) all tell their readers about different times, places, and cultures.  In fact, I’m not convinced that there really is a substantial difference between non-genre fiction and nonfiction — at least not in terms of giving readers the sort of broad understanding of the world necessary for further reading and exploration.  I don’t think it matters if you learned about short-wave radios from The History of Ham: How the Short-Wave Changed the World, or from Frank and Joe’s adventures in the Hardy Boys series.  What matters is that you learn about short-wave radios.

Still, non-fiction is a different type of reading experience, and if there was more of it in school, then there would be a greater variety of reading experiences.  That’s probably a good thing.

Finally, I don’t think that the dearth of non-fiction is a very recent phenomenon.  I have trouble remembering a single piece of non-fiction (textbooks excepting) that I was assigned to read in high school.  There were a few in junior high, but not a one in high school that stuck in memory.