Core ‘exemplars’ set off controversy

In Alabama and Ohio, there are calls to remove Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye from high school reading lists, even though it’s a Common Core “exemplar.” The book depicts a father raping his daughter.

In Arizona, the controversial exemplar is Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban, which includes an explicit sex scene.

cubanThe exemplars aren’t a national reading list, writes Fordham’s Checker Finn. Appendix B of the English standards includes “examples of fiction, non-fiction, poems etc. that show the sort of thing students should be able to read with understanding at various points in the K–12 sequence.”

A short excerpt from The Bluest Eye appears along with writing by Poe, Hawthorne, Faulkner, Melville, Bronte, Shakespeare, Keats, etc., writes Finn. It’s intended for 11th graders. “I find the excerpt complex, demanding, and a bit obscure, but not offensive.” Others think the book is “pornographic, unsuitable for school kids of any age.”

It’s up to school districts to decide what students should read, concludes Finn. Don’t like the exemplars on Appendix B? Choose other works. But don’t expect to avoid offending everyone.

. . .  as Diane Ravitch showed in The Language Police, when you scrub every library, every reading list, every textbook, and every test item clean of everything that could offend anybody for any reason, you end up with the boring pablum that dominates so much of today’s curriculum. One reason American kids don’t read much is because what remains for them to read is so dull.

Noah Berlatsky has been writing textbooks and exams for two decades, he writes in The Atlantic. He’s forced to cater to a “nebulous, ill-defined fear of offending anyone.”

Obviously, when freelance writing or finding test passages for kids of whatever age, I know my work will be rejected if I mention evolution. But I’m also not allowed to mention snakes, or violent storms, or cancer, or racial discrimination, or magic. Authority figures, including teachers and Woodrow Wilson, can never be questioned. Pop culture can’t be mentioned. Living people can’t be mentioned. Death can’t be mentioned.

The Revisionaries, a 2012 documentary just released on DVD, shows how right-wing ideologues on the Texas State Board of Education pushed through changes in the standards. It’s “riveting and infuriating,” writes Berlatsky. But it ignores the fact that “idiotic, anti-intellectual regulation of content is not restricted to the far right.” The language police — he cites Ravitch too — insist on “bland colorless paste.”

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  1. Thinly Veiled Anonymity says:

    Oh no.
    Teenagers might read about sex!
    Someone. Call. Us. Up. The. Police.

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    I think you missed the point. Point is, it’s not just teenagers, it’s done by edict of The State, irrespective of what the parents want, and it’s probably lousy writing.
    Let them do it on their own time, their own money, and duck their parents if they think they have to.

  3. “One reason American kids don’t read much is because what remains for them to read is so dull.”

    Hah, hah. You know, it’s possible to become a well-read, well-educated person without reading explicit rape scenes. If the Common Core has aspirations to be a national curriculum–and I think we can all agree it does–it has to give up the joy of shocking the bourgeoisie.

    If you search for “Bluest Eye” “rape scene,” or “Dreaming in Cuban” “rape scene,” you will pull up the sections from the books which reasonable people have found objectionable for high school use. They are not the excerpts printed in Appendix B. Funny, that.

    It is good policy for any teacher to read the books he/she assigns in class, before assigning them.

    • Let’s not forget the rape scenes found in Greek mythology, Shakespeare, Cervantes,Thomas Hardy, and the bible.

      • “explicit” scenes

        I’d wager other groups would object to the Bible, Torah, Paradise Lost, Pilgrim’s Progress, Death Comes for the Archbishop, and The Prophet (just to cite a few.) aThe best literature is full of sex, people behaving badly, tragedy and death. That doesn’t mean that _any_ work covering such topics is suitable for a public high school literature class–especially as the time alloted for non-fiction material has been _halved_ under Common Core guidelines.

        Such work could be included on reading lists for individual students to choose for further study. Is the inclusion of any one work of such importance that it’s worth putting the entire project in jeopardy, when there are hundreds of other worthy works which could take its place?

        • The rape scenes found in Shakespeare and the bible are much more extreme than those in the works you object to. They include gang rape, murder, dismemberment, and incest.

          For what it’s worth, the works that you so dislike are not required by the Common Core. They are simply given as examples of high quality literature at the appropriate level of difficulty.

          • I don’t think any high school teaches Titus Andronicus as a part of the established curriculum; it isn’t thought to be Shakespeare’s best work. It’s hard to teach the Bible in public schools because it’s a religious work.

            You’re purposely not getting my point. If you want standards the entire country can accept, they should be standards the entire country will find acceptable. The same people protesting the books named in the opinion piece would not show up were the works Oedipus, Electra, or Tess of the D’Urbervilles (and the list of classic works which touch on upsetting topics could be much longer.)

            To assert that the books on the list are “simply examples” is naive. It’s like saying, “well, they’re only suggestions.” When the whole thing is backed up by tests upon which teachers’ and schools’ futures rest (as they already do), of course any list endorsed by the Common Core will be the first list the teachers turn to.

  4. The search for texts that offend absolutely no one inevitably leads to a bland and dumbed down curriculum. While I might concede that reading “The Bluest Eye” is not essential to being an educated person (though it is an excellent piece of literature), an individual who has not read of Oedipus and Electra cannot truly be termed well-educated. Continually caving in to those who would ban great works of literature, will lead us to become a profoundly ignorant society. If we did something similar in science, we would not teach about evolution.

    • No. The logical implication of your statement would be, “only offensive curricula are not dumbed down.” Adding 50 Shades of Grey to the list would offend many people, but it wouldn’t improve the curriculum. Adding American Psycho might improve the curriculum, but would the cost of the battles with parents be worth its addition?

      The canon is very useful, because even if a parent objects, most people will find that person’s objection baseless. For example, the perennial attempts to remove Mark Twain from the curriculum usually end in defeat, as Twain’s place in the canon has been established.

      Joyce has been controversial, but by this time, assigning Ulysses wouldn’t lead parents to storm a school board meeting. Sadly, many high school students don’t read well enough to tackle Ulysses, so I suspect it isn’t assigned.

      Randolph County’s short-lived ban of The Invisible Man was reversed in the face of national incomprehension.

      Many books do tackle delicate topics; the more complex the language, the less likely the moral monitors are to ferret out what’s going on in the text. In 50 years we will know which books written in our time will land on the “100 best novels” lists printed in 2060.

      It may have escaped your notice, but many school systems and publishers tread warily around the subject of evolution. I don’t think they should, but they do.

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      Great works of literature are hardly read by adults. In addition, they’re written for adults in langages approaching the archaic.
      I helped a Nepali kid through the Odyssey last year. We had some vocab problems, of course, but we also had to explain what would probably be alien to a kid born and raised here; the Greek pantheon, the Trojan War, such of the Greek pov as we think we understand it, holes in axes, sailing the Med, the virtue of making sure you get your guys home, etc.
      Ditto Romeo and Juliet. Once I explained the opening scene was a bunch of butthead adolescents ramping each other up for a fight, he got that. Seen it before. Him in the camp in Nepal and me growing up. Thing is, I’d probably have to explain that to a kid born and raised here.
      All of that would be useful to know, but grinding through great works at that pace would take forever. We got “To Kill a Mockingbird” the flick, and showed it to him and his sister, complete with popcorn. Took three hours to explain it. Modern kid, maybe two and a half. What we think of as common knowledge is not for them.
      Do you think “County Paris” would be known to a kid born and raised here? Have to explain “count”, “county”, what that meant socially and financially–guy’s a good catch–and the Shakespeare view of Renaissance version of feudalism written at least in part to satisfy or be familiar to the groundlings of the time.
      My son asked what the book “Neptune’s Inferno” was about. “Naval battle of Guadalcanal.” “What’s that?” And he’s well-educated according to late twentieth-century standards.
      When I was in school–hate to say that–we got the shorter Bulfinch before we got into the shenanigans of the divines. The reverse is…backwards. Also disorganized.
      Other than being officially apponted Great Works, the value of reading a Great Work has to be demonstrated, other than getting your Great Work box checked.
      Grossing out the parents or the kids ought to have a compelling reason other than the frisson of the thing. “frisson” is, I think, French fo “cheap thrils”.

      Going around with an author about books for boys, I suggested, among other things, Curwood, Heinlein’s juvies up through Starship Troopers, Kjelgaard, and Drake’s RCN series.
      See, the other thing is, one way or another, you have to keep the kid turning the pages.

      • If your son does not know about the battle of Guadalcanal, he is not well-educated by any standard.

        • Richard Aubrey says:

          He went to a top-class pub HS, and got a good GPA at a good, large university.
          I know his friends–they’re all about mid-thirties–and his sister, a twin, is equally well-educated in history. What they know of history between them would, to riff on an old radio comic, fit in a gnat’s navel with room for two artichokes and an agent’s heart.
          Nope, he’s up to pub school scratch. Bright kids, all of them, in other ways.
          For one history class, he had to put a model together. Being frugal, he got one on sale. Was an LCVP. Private Ryan not having then been saved, I had to explain it to him. He did an aircraft carrier for his sister. They knew about those, Top Gun being a favorite. But real history…. Nope. And both were in NHS.
          There may be other standards, but I said public HS standards.
          With these lacunae, how are they going to read a Great Work? Might as well be Nepali.

          • I get the feeling that your son is actually as smart as a whip. He would probably snicker at my deplorable ignorance when it comes to modern tech. I break out in nervous hives when people start talking about terabytes. We all have lacunae.

        • Michael E. Lopez says:

          Almost any statement of the form “If he doesn’t know x….” or “If he hasn’t read x…” “… then he isn’t well-educated” is likely false.

          People have holes in their knowledge. Things that they haven’t read. Things they haven’t run across. The most brilliant people I know have deep gaps in their knowledge of cinema, history, literature, and even mathematics.

          I’ve never read Electra (though I have read Oedipus and I do know about Guadalcanal). I dare any of you to say that I’m not well-educated.

          I haven’t read Ulysses, either. Or Moby Dick. or Vanity Fair. Or Far from the Madding Crowd.

          But I have read The Well of Loneliness, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, the Mayor of Casterbridge (loved that book!), the *entire* Musketeer series and Anna Karenina.

          There’s no one benchmark, no one test of a “good education” (except perhaps basic arithmetic and Dr. Seuss?). It’s a percentage game: if you’re well-educated, you have x or more percent of the canon read, x more percent of history at your command.

          Set x wherever you want, but understand that it’s probably less than 60.

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    Michael, I hope I’m right attempting to speak for Ray when I say I think he’s referring to those things which everybody damn’ well ought to know. Even if you need Velcro closers on your shoes, you should know Guadalcanal. I agree, but in despair. Should doesn’t come close to does.
    Various wars have cost the family so I didn’t talk much about milhistory, figuring we’d take a break. But you shouldn’t have to hear it from family to know about the ‘canal, the Bulge, Gettysburg, Chosin, etc.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      I just can’t agree with you that the things you list are things that “Everyone ought to know.” *MAYBE* I’ll give you Gettysburg, just because we’ve practically made a sacrament out of it. But it’s easy not to know about Guadalcanal or Chosin. Battle of the Bulge is a dicier prospect.

      That’s not to say that 60-80% of educated people won’t know about the Battle of the Bulge — at least enough to say “World War 2” as a knee jerk response if not much else.

      But up until about five years ago, that was all I could have said to “Chosin.” I’d look at you blankly and say, “Korea?” I didn’t read about that in any depth until my early thirties.

      It’s not as if I wasn’t educated.

      Also — this brings up something that I didn’t mention above: What counts as “educated” for someone who is in their middle age or late age is VERY different than what counts as educated for someone in their twenties, let alone an adolescent.

      I’ve learned a TON of stuff in the last ten years. (I’m 38.) A lot of it I sort of look back and say, “I can’t believe I didn’t learn that in high school,” but the fact is that i just didn’t. I was learning other things.

      To bring this all back to the point of the post, though: The Bluest Eye is good literature. I personally wouldn’t teach it, because I’m not personally a fan. (Dreaming in Cuban is a narcissistic authorial indulgence, though, and is probably to be avoided as a school text.) You read this, you read that…. what’s important is that you’re reading stuff — good stuff.

      If you want to be a really educated person, you won’t stop. And if you don’t read Huck Finn in high school… well, you’ll get to it eventually.

      Or you won’t. Maybe you’ll cure cancer instead.

      Who the hell knows? There’s too much out there to be known now. All you can do is nibble at the edges.

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        Can’t know everything, but there are some things which, as a citizen, you damned well ought to. Not just a matter of knowing more and more of an endless body of knowledge.
        But, in another sense, I use that as an example of how little my thirty-something friends know about history. Agreed, it’s tough to recall what I knew at age eighteen, except that, born to a WW II vet, there’s a canon we all knew.
        Talking to a couple of history teachers at a faculty party–my wife was a HS teacher–about whether the Sov splitting of Poland in 1939 with the Germans was taught. They thought the question was funny. (Of course not.) We knew, in HS, although, to be honest, I can’t recall how.
        I was in a play in HS, lead in Arms and The Man, and ever since, I can’t watch a play, including at Stratford in Ontario, and get into it. Nice bit of business. Good acting. Now that performers are miced, I don’t have vocal projection to judge. Since I’m trying to write fiction, the same happens when I read fiction.
        Perhaps other people have different experiences.
        So I suppose I don’t “get” some of the anointed Great Works the way others do.
        I liked much more thinking about the Iliad after looking up prevailing winds, agriculture, and archaeology. Troy controlled access to the Black Sea and I expect the Greeks had had enough of fees or extortion or piracy, or figured Troy was pretty fat. And Homer put together a bunch of six-hundred year old war stories without attribution. Much more interesting.
        Still, it isn’t just a military canon my thirty-something friends don’t know. It’s practically everything–I exaggerate slightly.