Reading list is diverse, inclusive and useless

California’s new recommended reading list of books for English, science and socials studies teachers is so inclusive and “relevant” that it’s useless writes Mark Bauerlein on Core Knowledge Blog.

Recommended Literature: Pre-Kindergarten Through Grade Twelve will help students meet Common Core Standards, claims the state education department. Bauerlein disagrees.

. . . the list is too long and too indiscriminate. It contains 7,800 titles—2,500 for grades 9 – 12 alone—and it sets dozens of classics among thousands of contemporary, topical titles without distinction. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is followed by Macho, a 1991 tale of an illegal immigrant who becomes a field worker. Little Women makes the list, but the description of it says nothing about its historical status. Every work gets the same treatment, a one-sentence statement of content. The field is overwhelmingly wide and it has only one level, ranking Leaves of GrassHuck Finn, etc. equal to pop culture publications.

Common Core Standards call for students to “demonstrate knowledge” of the ‘foundational works of American literature,” such as Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery and Emily Dickinson’s poetry, Bauerlein writes. The California list buries the classics in a pile of pop lit.  The Iliad is on the list. So is Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven and a sequel to The Da Vinci Code

Students who’ve read trendy modern books won’t be prepared for college, Bauerlein writes.

When professors in U.S. history, sociology, or political science mention the American ideal of self-reliance, those who have read Franklin, Emerson, Thoreau, and Washington have a decided advantage over those who haven’t. . . . Many contemporary works are superb, of course, but they do not provide the background learning that goes with Gulliver’s Travels, Jane Eyre, and 1984. And few of them, too, contain the exquisite sentences of Gatsby, the piercing metaphors of Blake, the characters of Flannery O’Connor . . .

. . . How much of our understanding of the Depression comes from The Grapes of Wrath, of the American South circa 1930 from William Faulkner, of old New England from Hawthorne?

“A more culturally relevant curriculum” gives students ” a thin and haphazard version of the culture they inhabit,” Bauerlein concludes.

Huck Finn and the bias biddies

While new Common Core State Standards call for students to read classic literature, tests will avoid “emotionally charged language,” race, sex, religion or anything that anyone might find offensive, writes Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory, in How to Keep All of Huck Finn in the Classroom.

The standards say students should to read “classic myths and stories from around the world, foundational U.S. documents, seminal works of American literature, and the writings of Shakespeare.”

To measure them, tests will have to include passages from “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin,” Henry Thoreau’s “Walden,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” and Emily Dickinson’s verse.

However, test aligned to the new standards must heed “bias and sensitivity guidelines” that rule out “race and sex imbalances, stereotypes and pretty much anything that might upset or disserve any particular group of students.”

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, for instance, is writing questions “free of offensive, demeaning or emotionally-charged language” and “reflective of a balance of authors by gender, race, and ethnicity,” Bauerlein writes. There will be no “religious references” either.

But in trying to make the experience of every test-taker free of conflict, in removing virtually all racial, sexual or religious elements from the readings, test developers can’t properly assess Common Core’s literary-historical mandates. A full sample of the classics would upset the balance demanded of bias review — too many white men — and many canonical works display scenes charged with racism and sexism.

Think of all the central episodes that wouldn’t survive — Shylock’s speech, Hester Prynne emerging from her cell brandishing a sparkling golden “A,” Douglass fighting back against the sadistic slave-breaker Mr. Covey, and hundreds more. If reading tests genuinely addressed the classics, bias and sensitivity reviewers would denounce them outright.

In addition to a sanitized, bias- and content-free test of reading skills, developers should add “a test on literary-historical knowledge, including open questions that make students draw on Twain, Shakespeare, ancient myths, Edith Wharton and so on.”

The literary-history exam would be an essay test, raising a theme, style, genre or other topic and asking students to draw copiously from literary history, for instance, asking students to address the theme of individualism in six foundational works of American literature.

The essay test would see “how much knowledge students have of the best works of American civilization, a special duty of public schooling necessary to the formation of responsible, independent and informed citizens,” Bauerlein concludes.

But there’s already push back against too much time spent taking tests. Why not dump the silly sensitivity guidelines?

Struggling to teach science

American Educator’s new issue includes: An Evolving Controversy, subtitled The Struggle to Teach Science in Science Classes on biology teachers under pressure to teach religious alternatives to evolution; World-Class Ambitions, Weak Standards on the 2012 state science standards, and Knowing Ourselves, How the Classics Strengthen Schools and Society.

It’s great to read Great Books

The Great Books really are great– and relevant for today’s kids — writes teacher Jessica Lahey on Core Knowledge Blog.

It is important that we ask students to read great works of literature because, when we hand them Dickens or Shakespeare, we offer students so much more than a good story. We give them the opportunity to step beyond the safe boundary of the known world and journey into the uncharted territory of challenging vocabulary, unpredictable plot, and shifting perspectives. I’m with Virginia Woolf on this one, “Literature is no one’s private ground. Literature is common ground; let us trespass freely and fearlessly and find our own way for ourselves.”

. . . great works of literature require more than simple retrieval and regurgitation of others’ ideas; they demand feats of intellectual bravery, patience, and trust.

Great books contain more than challenging vocabulary and syntax. Great books contain novel ideas, universal themes, vivid sensory experiences and complex literary construction absent from commonplace works of literature. Great books teach great lessons. When students learn to ask more of the books they read, they learn to ask more of themselves.

That the classics are difficult to read is a bug, not a feature, Lahey argues. Is this realistic?

College ‘beach books’ are new, easy

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a 2010 book on a black cancer victim whose cells were used for medical research, is by far the most popular book assigned to new college students as “common summer reading,” concludes a survey by the National Association of Scholars.

Almost 90 percent of college chose books published since the start of 2000; only two selected books published before 1972. Only two books — one by Mark Twain and one by Aldous Huxley — could be considered classics.

It’s not just political correctness, says Peter Wood, president of NAS. “Colleges have lowered their expectations of what college students are capable of understanding.”

A classical education

A graduate of the very demanding Classical High School in Providence, Rhode Island, Stanley Fish reviews three books that call for a return to teaching classics and the humanities.

Leigh Bortin, a homeschooling advocate, author of  The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education, calls for using “classical skills to study classical content.”

By classical skills she means imitation, memorization, drill, recitation and above all grammar, not grammar as the study of the formal structure of sentences (although that is part of it), but grammar as the study of the formal structure of anything: “Every occupation, field of study or concept has a vocabulary that the student must acquire like a foreign language . . . . A basketball player practicing the fundamentals could be considered a grammarian . . . as he repeatedly drills the basic skills, of passing dribbling, and shooting.” . . .

“Classical content” identifies just what the subjects to be classically studied are. They are the subjects informed and structured by “the ideas that make us human” — math, science, language, history, economics and literature, each of which, Bortins insists, can be mastered by the rigorous application of the skills of the classical Trivium, grammar, the study of basic forms, logic, the skill of abstracting from particulars and rhetoric, the ability to “speak and write persuasively and eloquently about any topic while integrating allusions and examples from one field of study to explain a point in another.”

Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha Nussbaum, a philosopher, classicist, ethicist and law professor, attacks the stress on applied skills and the denigration of the humanities as “useless frills.”

Finally, there’s Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education.

 Ravitch’s recommendations are simple, commonsensical and entirely consonant with the views of Bortins and Nussbaum. Begin with “a well conceived, coherent, sequential curriculum,” and then “adjust other parts of the education system to support the goals of learning.” This will produce a “foundation of knowledge and skills that grows stronger each year.” Forget about the latest fad and quick-fix, and buckle down to the time-honored, traditional “study and practice of the liberal arts and sciences: history, literature, geography, the sciences, civics mathematics, the arts and foreign languages.”

In short, get knowledgeable and well-trained teachers, equip them with a carefully calibrated curriculum and a syllabus filled with challenging texts and materials, and put them in a room with students who are told where they are going and how they are going to get there.

A classical education worked for Fish. Would it work for all students?

In a similar vein, David Brooks urges college students to study liberal arts so they can “befriend The Big Shaggy” (the id?).

Humanities professors are worried about their place in the university:  When only the accountanting majors and the engineers are getting job offers, whither queer theory?

Change vs. classics

Teaching civic engagement and appreciation of racial and ethnic diversity is a high priority for college professors, concludes a new UCLA report, The American College Teacher.

While 57.8 percent of  professors want to encourage students to be “agents of social change,” only 34.7 percent said teaching the classics is very important,  notes Chronicle of Higher Education:

Sylvia Hurtado, a professor of education at UCLA who directs the research institute, said the gap between those who value teaching Western civilization and those who value teaching students to be social activists reflects a shift in emphasis from the abstract to the practical. “The notion of a liberal education as a set of essential intellectual skills is in transition,” she says. “It’s also about social and personal responsibility, thinking about one’s role in society, and creating change.”

In transition? Or just going to hell?  I suspect the agents of change in the world will be people who’ve developed their intellectual skills.

Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, says he believes faculty members should teach the classics. “I teach American literature all the time, that’s what I do,” says Mr. Nelson, who is a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

But he says that to many professors, teaching the classics has become part of a “conservative agenda” that they don’t want to be part of. Conservative critics of academe, he says, “have poisoned the well for these subjects because they’ve gotten politicized and become symbols of a reaction against the progressive academy.”

Change vs. the classics is a false dichotomy, points out Erin O’Connor at Critical Mass.

The classics are works about social change, in one way or another. That’s true of Greek tragedy, of Chaucer, of Shakespeare, of Milton, of Defoe, of enlightenment philosophers, of romantic poets, of Victorian novelists, of modernist writers. Some register upheaval in their form, some in their content, some do both. Some try to provoke change, some try to register and reflect on it, some try to resist it. But great literature is always hooked into the great tensions of its time — even as it is also hooked into a longer tradition.

Intellectuals should decide what to teach based on reason, not emotion, O’Connor argues.

In other words: If professors can’t teach Antigone (loyalty to family and religion vs. patriotism) for fear of making a conservative smile, that’s just stupid. And stupid is not supposed to be the strong suit of academia.

In the Obama era, whither Finn and Finch?

Now that Barack Obama is president, novels that use “the N-word,” such as Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men should be dumped from high school reading lists, argues an English teacher in Washington state.

He’d encourage students to read these classics, but wouldn’t assign them, writes John Foley.

Those books are old, and we’re ready for new.

Huck Finn is too slow for modern readers and uses challenging Southern dialect, writes Foley.  Mockingbird is “dated” because Atticus Finch, tells his daughter not to use the N-word because it’s “common.”  Foley doesn’t mention the “N-word” in Of Mice and Men, but there is a black ranch hand so it’s probably in there.  Foley thinks a book set in the Depression won’t resonate with today’s teens, though World War II is timely.

As replacements, he suggests David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars (prejudice against Japanese-Americans during World War II),  Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato (Vietnam War) and Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.

Like Huck, “Dove” involves an epic journey of discovery and loss and addresses an important social issue — the terrible treatment of women in the Old West. That issue does not rank as high as slavery on our national list of shame, but it definitely makes the list.

This seems awfully reductive to me: The three classics aren’t just social issue books. And I’d classify Snow Falling on Cedars as OK but not great. I haven’t read the other two: Frankly, Lonesome Dove was too long — and I’m a McMurtry fan.

Via The Daily Grind.

Update: “I don’t see kids reading,” says McMurtry, who owns a used and rare book store in his home town of Archer City, Texas.

John Foley responds to the criticism, adding that he’d also remove Gatsby from the reading list because the spoiled characters piss him off.  I think they’re supposed to.