Is literature necessary?

Never Mind Algebra. Is Literature Necessary?  English teacher Tim Clifford, not a fan of Common Core standards, asks the question on the New York Times‘s Schoolbook.

English teachers already have given up on teaching spelling, vocabulary, and grammar, Clifford complains. Creative writing has been “replaced with unending persuasive essays that are the darlings of the Common Core standards.”

Many schools teach reading as a set of skills to be mastered rather than as a journey to be embarked upon. Children are taught how to predict, to connect, to draw inferences, and so forth, but they are rarely allowed the leisure to savor what they read or to reflect on the art of good writing.

Until last year, his sixth graders conceived, wrote and illustrated a 20-page graphic novel, learning “story structure, characterization, use of dialogue, and exposition.” Now, as a result of Common Core standards, they must write an eight-page research paper, “filled with facts but devoid of imagination.”

The Common Core has already veered many schools away from narrative writing, or almost any type of creative writing at all. So what’s left to be picked from the remains of English study?

Literature.

Starting this year, at least half of all reading in our schools is supposed to be non-fiction. And that includes kindergarten.

What makes matters even worse for later grades is that students already read non-fiction almost exclusively in all their other courses, so if you take science, social studies, and math into account, only one-eighth of student reading will be literary. And that fraction is likely to shrink in the future.

If algebra is dispensable, why not Austen? Clifford asks. Both can be difficult for some students: Graduation rates might rise if students didn’t need to struggle with algebra or Austen. Neither is essential for most jobs.

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Comments

  1. As a sixth-grader, or any-other-grader, I would have vastly preferred writing an individual research paper on any topic (literary, historical or scientific) to writing any kind of story, particularly the illustrated variety. If it was done as a group project, which seems likely from the phrasing, that would have at least quadrupled the torture and agony. I have never seen the need to require any creative writing longer than a sonnet and my k-college English teachers agreed with me that it should be optional.

    Isn’t the 50% non-fiction recommendation across all coursework? Most of the non-fiction would then come from classes other than English.

  2. dangermom says:

    Let me guess–he’s a creative writer, so it doesn’t occur to him that creative writing is not something that everyone can do. Expository writing is a life skill necessary for all sorts of situations and jobs; creative writing is optional. (That’s not to say that I think an 8-page paper is appropriate for 6th-graders–I tend to think that many small assignments are better than one big one at that age. That way they can practice the structure many times over on a small scale, and then easily move up to longer papers later.)

    I’m all for literature in schools, but non-fiction is also great stuff and important in a different way.

  3. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Contrary to popular belief, there actually isn’t that much of a difference between fiction and non-fiction.

    Fiction is just non-fiction commentary made about the human or social condition by way of an extended example.

    • J.D. Salinger says:

      You’re an idiot.

      • Michael E. Lopez says:

        Well,that settles it, then.

      • And you call everyone stupid on here all the time, but refuse to tell them WHY. And refuse to explain what was wrong with their statement, and how you would have phrased things, or analyzed things, or organized things, etc. differently.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      There actually isn’t that much of a difference between a male and a female human being. Don’t believe me? Compare either one to a chimpanzee, or a jellyfish.

      • Michael E. Lopez says:

        Come now, I didn’t make my case by saying that fiction and nonfiction were very similar to each other when you compared them to opera.

        I gave a very specific reason for my assertion: that the point of fiction is to learn something true about the human or social condition by watching an example in action.

        Nonfiction uses made up examples and allegory all of the time; memoirs and philosophical writings are filled with them. They just take place in the context of a conversation between the reader and the writer that sets them apart from the rest of the musing.

        In fiction, the example or allegory is the entirety of the conversation.

        But it’s the same thing going on in both cases, one is just being a little more coy and artistic in the way it’s getting at the point.

        If there is a significant, relevant, salient divide in written material that even approximates a fiction/non-fiction distinction, it is not the actual divide between fiction and non-fiction, but rather a divide between works in which the voice of the author is the voice of the work (or at least a part of it), and purely factual, clinical works where the voice of the author might as well not exist (i.e., encyclopedias, how-to-manuals, etc.).

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          Thanks for clearing that up. The point I was (ham-handedly) trying to make was that fiction is different from non-fiction in some ways and not different in others.

          I’m not sure “that the point of fiction is to learn something true about the human or social condition by watching an example in action.” At least not always. Sometimes the point is just to tell a story. People love stories.

          • Stacy in NJ says:

            Well, fiction might not require something true about the human condition, but LITERATURE (pronounced in a pretentious fake British accent) is supposed to do just that.

          • Michael E. Lopez says:

            That’s a really good point, and a nice distinction, Stacy.

            Although I meant something very, very broad when I said “the human or social condition.” I had sort of intended to include Fox in Sox and so forth.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      “Contrary to popular belief, there actually isn’t that much of a difference between fiction and non-fiction.”

      Yes, there is.

      It is very difficult to find fiction with vocabulary difficulty as hard as Scientific American articles (I’m using Dr. Hayes’ LEX as my metric for vocabulary difficulty … the short version is that rarer words score as harder). And the fiction that gets closest tends to be things like translations of the Iliad.

      The average sentence length (which is a pretty good proxy for grammatical complexity) tends to be higher in non-fiction as well. Again, you *can* find fiction that gets close to things like Wall Street Journal editorials, but it is *much* easy to find non-fiction that runs harder.

      Just as important is that non-fiction can and does cover *different* areas of vocabulary than fiction. An economics or philosophy non-fiction book will contain a lot of vocabulary that will be difficult to find in fiction.

  4. Given the somewhat mindnumbing predictability of Mom’s comments, it comes as no shock that she would find creative writing difficult.

    Expository writing is no more fundamental to professional life than the ability to write a narrative, which can be either fictional or not.

    I don’t know that I would worry, though. I very much doubt Common Core is going anywhere. They are crap, and the tests will be expensive. English teachers will be able to ignore them, just as everyone else will.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      “Expository writing is no more fundamental to professional life than the ability to write a narrative, which can be either fictional or not.”

      Just not correct. In a corporate environment, particularly at the management level, expository writing is necessary and done frequently.

      And, Cal, given how predictable you can be sometimes, taking shots at Mom is pretty ironic.

      • Don’t be silly. I am unsympathetic to both progressive and reform, and I’m not traditionalist either. You couldn’t predict my views if you tried.

        Just not correct. In a corporate environment, particularly at the management level, expository writing is necessary and done frequently.

        Wrong again. And I was in the corporate environment for a long time. If any manager had a boss who judged his writing, he’d go find a better job and laugh at the idiot who pretended his writing was important.

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          “And I was in the corporate environment for a long time.”

          Provide data or empirical evidence; your personal experience is worthless. Does that comment sounds familiar because it’s one of your tells?

          Half the folks who visit this board could recite your positions on any number of issues. Just because you don’t fit fully into one camp or another doesn’t mean you aren’t predictable.

          You are a silly, silly girl.

          • I have never said personal experience is worthless, but that it’s worthless as evidence. You made an assertion, unsupported.

            So I will challenge you to provide evidence that corporations promote based on writing ability. Without any such evidence–and there is none–my experience becomes relevant.

            By the way, you apparently think I have some sort of history with you when in fact, I don’t remember a thing you’ve ever posted or anything about you. Don’t delude yourself, toots. You think you know all about me, and I coiuld care less even who you are. Think about what that says about you.

          • Stacy in NJ says:

            No. You made an unsupported assertion. I disagreed with it.

            Your petty one-ups-manship is as predictable as your posts.

            It’s hard not to know a bit about you, Cal; you insert yourself into every post with such nasty persistency. Think about what that says about you.

          • Michael E. Lopez says:

            Let’s change gears slightly.

            Law firms care a great deal about your writing ability — it’s one of the primary things that firms are looking for.

            But come the end of the year, come the time to seek out promotions to partner… all that’s needed is a threshold minimum of competence. It’s a high threshold, but not nearly as high as the best writers in the profession.

            What matters then is your business acumen, your client relationships, and the degree to which your legal judgment is trusted.

            So Cal’s got a point, I think; even in an environment where writing is critical… it’s not really the deciding factor.

      • dangermom says:

        I’ve been insulted by Cal–does that mean I truly belong now? At least, I think he meant me–there are two Moms at the top of the comment list. And since I don’t often comment here, I’m not sure she hasn’t got me mixed up with someone else. However I shall take it in good faith that I’ve arrived as a real member of the Joanne Jacobs community.

  5. Roger Sweeny says:

    Graduation rates might rise if students didn’t need to struggle with algebra or Austen. Neither is essential for most jobs.

    Which brings up the heretical thought: why should 15 or 16 or 17 or 18 or 19 or 20 year olds have to take courses in them, then?

    If you are below 16 (or 17 or 18 in some states), you are legally required to do this. Above that age, employers may require it of potential employees (indirectly by requiring the possession of a college degree). Is that fair?

  6. I agree that literature is completely unnecessary. I mean 2,000 years of Western Civilization have taught us that, right?

  7. lightly seasoned says:

    Well, I introduced sentence diagramming to my freshmen today. I prefer to think of it as retro-cool-hipster grammar.

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    Once was assigned by my boss’s boss to write a request for an exception to a corporate requirement. Big dollars involved.
    I figured I needed to demonstrate the upside, the way to avoid the downside, and some research on what was happening in the field so as to manage both.
    Did so.
    Got a lot of attaboys for it, although the corporation decided to not grant the request.
    Since then, I’ve been in a sales field where expository work has been a daily requirement. Not all of it is new–I’ve been at it a long time–but some of it is and what isn’t new now was once.
    Even so, it’s amazing that people who are supposedly self-supporting can miss clear directions in a cover letter. But then there’s always the phone.
    So, I guess the question is how many people are in, will be in, my position, or who might someday need to expository something or other, and is it a useful function of K-12 to provide the capacity.
    One really important thing to remember when writing expositorily is that approximately 150% of the population suffers from Aspergers and metaphor is to be avoided.

  9. Cranberry says:

    Most sixth graders aren’t reading or writing literature. They may be writing fiction even when tackling a research paper. I’m not convinced that reading more nonfiction and writing more expository essays spell the end of creativity.

    The graphic novel could be wonderful, or ghastly. No way to tell from an op-ed. Do they devote multiple class periods to appreciating each other’s work? How many sentences do they have to write to fill 20 pages of graphic novel? 20? 40?

    What makes matters even worse for later grades is that students already read non-fiction almost exclusively in all their other courses, so if you take science, social studies, and math into account, only one-eighth of student reading will be literary. And that fraction is likely to shrink in the future.

    But if they’re reading on grade level (big IF), surely the volume of novels, short stories, and poetry assigned for English class will be as much or more than the texts assigned for science and history? One is allowed to assign homework, right?