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.


  1. I remember being assigned non-fiction readings in elementary and high school, both in history and in English. In English, biographies, diaries and period newspapers were often assigned, as were poems based on historical events; Charge of the Light Brigade, Evangeline, In Flanders Fields etc. In history, I remember being assiged readings from Herodotus, accounts of the Mt Vesuvius eruption, the Magna Carta, Pepys account of the Great Fire of London, Hiroshima, All Quiet on the Western Front and Is Paris Burning. It’s likely that my teachers would have used more, but the small-town library resources were limited and it was decades before the internet arrived.

  2. Well stated, Joanne. You don’t remember the nonfiction from HS, because most nonfiction we read in schools is in a textbook, and textbooks tend to disappear in HS, in favor of novels and workbooks.

    We’d probably be serving students much better if we let them read the sort of nonfiction we want to read — information and how-to, rather than biographical and historical nonfiction.

    Garr Reynolds’ Presentation Zen, for example, would be a marvelous choice of nonfiction, which could be used in a speech or technology class to show students how to create a good visual and work it seamlessly into a presentation.

  3. It’s important to know about short wave radios? Still?

  4. Cardinal Fang says:

    In a related issue, I’m disappointed that high school students don’t have more writing assignments that are neither writing fiction nor writing about fiction. Many adults need to write memos, descriptions, explanations and instructions. These kinds of normal writing tasks are neglected in favor of literary analysis, but how many adults need to analyze the use of the river metaphor in American fiction? Not many. Not as many as need to succinctly describe their accident to the insurance company.

  5. What *is* new, as far as I can tell, is the predominance of realistic nonfiction that relates closely to the daily lives of school children–as seen in, say, the works of Jerry Spinelli, which are very popular at our local school. This seems a result the notion, popular with educators, that students are most engaged by assignments that relate closely to their personal lives. Effects of this highly questionable practice include:

    1. Limiting what children can learn through fiction (e.g., about other times and places; about other walks of life).
    2. Making reading assignments particularly inaccessible to students on the autistic spectrum, who are often lacking in the everyday background knowledge that the realistic fiction of everyday life assumes.

    Katharine Beals

  6. Don Bemont says:

    My experience fits in well with this. Especially in my English 1 (freshman) course, I assign quite a bit of nonfiction, and it is almost universally despised. Whether we discuss content, structure, or rhetorical devices, and whether or not I choose content that feels relevant to a rural ninth grader, this is always the part of the course that students look back on with a grimace.

    Whenever I reflect on the experience, it is Neil Postman’s observations that make the most sense to me.

    The experience of growing up on television has altered the nature of literacy since 1950. As older English teachers are painfully aware, the falloff in reading time and the rise in screen time brought shorter attention spans and diminished experience with sophisticated language. However, as Mr. Postman notes, television has made readers particularly impatient with exposition. If the material is not narrative, it comes across as alien culture.

    If you pick up older novels such as A Tale of Two Cities or Last of the Mohicans, you will be quite surprised at how much of the text consists of exposition intruding into supposedly narrative space. (Les Miserables takes this to an extreme.) In my experience, this accounts, far more than the vocabulary, for today’s high school students’ difficulty with older texts.

    As a practical matter, though, the only way I have ever found to build a bridge between the average high school freshman and nonfiction is to begin with nonfiction that contains an unusually high narrative content: plenty of dialogue, rising action and suspense, etc. However, in my experience, once the amount of exposition in the piece rises beyond minimal, the class will be in agony.

    Just a hunch: internet reading is going to reverse this trend, and has probably already begun to do so.

  7. I am truly mystified by the lack of nonfiction in school curricula. When I teach my Intro to College English courses, I am required to teach at least three genres, and I teach nonfiction, fiction and poetry, in that order. I believe I may be the only teacher in my college to include nonfiction, and it is exceedingly difficult to find college literature cross-genre anthologies that include it. However, I love teaching nonfiction, especially personal essays, and in general, students seem to enjoy reading it. Yes, they have to be taught how, but this is true for fiction and poetry as well.

    However…what exactly does Matthews mean by “nonfiction?” Do high school students no longer read The Diary of Anne Frank? I also teach a course on personal narrative, and I find it terrifically easy to get students to engage w/ memoirs. What’s more, reading and analyzing memoirs requires many of the same skills that reading and analyzing fiction does, so the divide puzzles me.

  8. Kirk Parker says:

    Hey momof4, All Quiet… is actually fiction.

  9. I stand corrected; it was used as an example of historical fiction and we were studying the period. We also did the poems of Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon.

  10. >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.

    I agree in principle, but the problem is that lots of authors of children’s fiction either don’t actually bother to get their facts right or simply don’t bother to include much factual material. The Hardy Boys books would have told you precisely squat that was factual about short-wave radio, for example. A Wrinkle in Time contains very little actual physics.

    The Tom Swift books actually contained nonsense science: reading them for factual content would actually make you dumber.

    The only author of juvenile fiction I know of who actually included science in his novels was Robert Heinlein, writing back in the 1950’s.