Shakespeare or Stein?

Instead of reading Shakespeare, students of the future will analyze the writing of Joel Stein, writes Joel Stein in Time. It makes him nervous. Common Core State Standards will shift reading lists to non-fiction, Stein writes. By reading analytical essays, they’ll learn to write analytical essays — instead of journal entries about their feelings.

Stein reads Faulkner or Joyce to improve his writing. CCSS urges students to dip into FedViews by the Federal Reserve of San Francisco.” Which is not quite the same.

Fiction also teaches you how to tell a story, which is how we express and remember nearly everything. If you can’t tell a story, you will never, ever get people to wire you the funds you need to pay the fees to get your Nigerian inheritance out of the bank.

Education isn’t just training for work, Stein writes. “It’s training to communicate throughout our lives.”

If we didn’t all experience Hamlet’s soliloquy, we’d have to explain soul-tortured indecisiveness by saying things like “Dude, you are like Ben Bernanke in early 2012 weighing inflation vs. growth in Quantitative Easing 3.”

Teaching language through nonfiction is like teaching history by playing Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” or teaching science by giving someone an unmarked test tube full of sludge and having him figure out if the white powder he distilled is salt or sugar by making Steven Baumgarten taste it, which is how I learned science and how Steven Baumgarten learned to be more careful about picking people to work with.

That’s “something he could have learned by reading Othello,” Stein concludes.

About Joanne


  1. Everhopeful says:

    I would love to read this, but it’s behind a subscription wall.

  2. This is a misreading of the Common Core literacy standards which has English teachers up in arms all over the country. Yes, the standards create new expectations for how much non-fiction students should be reading, and yes, there is a decided tilt towards rich, complex informational texts as students get older, so that it is the majority of what they read by the time they are high school seniors. But this is an interdisciplinary, school-wide expectation, not a demand solely on English teachers. This is why there are new literacy standards specifically for science and social studies teachers–to make clear to them the role they must play and the responsibility they must start to take in the overall picture of literacy for a student. English teachers should certainly be incorporating more literary non-fiction in their curriculum, but they are not being asked or expected to dump Shakespeare or stop teaching poetry.

    • The problem, Andrew, is that schools have never emphasized the standards of reading and writing in anything but English. And with no expectations of state and national social studies tests, there is little hope these content area teachers will actually accept their “new” responsibility.

  3. GEORGE LARSON says:

    “Teaching language through nonfiction is like …”

    Don’t most infants learn language from listening to the adults around them. Were these adults reading fiction to their infants?

    • Given that I read on average two books to my 3 year old daughter every day… yes, fiction is an important part of language development. The written word is an important part of language development… its development preceded significant advances in cultures that developed it. And fiction does a better job of teaching it than nonfiction, with its emphasis on continuity, themes, and variety of text.

  4. Andrew–in that case, common core has just dramatically dumped an entire new section of requirements onto science and history. I doubt they’ve cut much from the fact base the teachers are expected to teach. Besides, unless science and history teachers’ students are tested on reading specific to that area, the English teachers are the ones that will be judged on the students’ reading ability.

    • Cal: you are correct…and it’s going to be a mess.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        “Cal: you are correct…and it’s going to be a mess.”

        Or science and history teachers will assign a few short texts to be read and written on, they will perfunctorally grade the assignments, and hardly count them in term grades. Students will spend the time and energy consistent with that grade value.

  5. Ridiculous. There may be new people that students will be studying 500 years from now, but the classics before them (Shakespeare, Twain, et. al.) will still be on the list.