Sunday, May 20, 2012

A Minor Musing About Attacks On Teaching Literature

Diane Ravitch asks why David Coleman dislikes fiction.  She admits that she doesn't know why Coleman, "a member of the writing team for the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts/Literacy," would speak disparagingly about literature or why the Common Core Standards will reduce the amount of literature that high school students will read.

Perhaps Coleman agrees with Joel Stein who suggests that too many adults read young adult novels. Perhaps he worries that young girls will become depressed if they  read too much dystopian fiction.  He may agree with Tim Parks who asserts that readers don't need the intensification of self that novels provide.  He may have had an English teacher who made him angry by asking him to find too many symbols.

Because he peppers his little essay with the phrase "college and career," I suspect, however, that he agrees with Thomas Jefferson who infamously claims,
“A great obstacle to good education is the inordinate passion prevalent for novels, and the time lost in that reading which should be instructively employed. When this poison infects the mind, it destroys its tone and revolts it against wholesome reading. Reason and fact, plain and unadorned, are rejected. Nothing can engage attention unless dressed in all the figments of fancy, and nothing so bedecked comes amiss. The result is a bloated imagination, sickly judgment, and disgust towards all the real businesses of life."
This objection has several flaws.  First, those who suggest that elementary and secondary education exists only to prepare students for a career come perilously close to asserting that students exist only to do the work of their employers, so they do not exist as end to themselves.  One does not have to be Kant to understand the moral risk of seeing human beings primarily as means to profit others.

Second, focus on what Jefferson calls "all the real business of life" or being college and career ready in Coleman's case leads to missing the gorilla because one is too focused on watching the bouncing ball. For those unfamiliar with the experiment, this YouTube video illustrates the problem. In this case, the bouncing ball serves as a metaphor for test scores.

Finally, a comment on Ravitch's post reminds all of us that fiction is a necessary tool in any effort to speak truth to power:

“…A good writer is the watch-dog of society. His job is to satirize its silliness, to attack its injustices, to stigmatize its faults. And this is the reason that in America neither society or government is very fond of writers.”
~ John Steinbeck
One hopes Coleman is merely too focused on test scores.  That mistake is forgivable; believing that human beings should be treated as a means to end or attempting to limit efforts to expose injustice is not.


Anonymous said...

Ravitch's question is stupid: Coleman didn't say that he didn't like fiction, he just said that students need to read more difficult non-fiction. (And yes, he said that writing personal essays isn't as useful as writing about some real academic subject.)

LK said...

I'll stand by my post. For the most part, Coleman's opinion about fiction is irrelevant; implementing Common Core will result in less fiction taught in English classes.

School administrators look at standards that say "reading" and immediately tell English departments to teach to the test. That means English classes will now cover the Federalist papers and other founding documents. Something will have to go, and that will be fiction.

As for personal essays, I coach debate. In my warped worldview, everything is persuasive and demands a claim, data, and warrant.

Anonymous said...

If you read Coleman's comment on Ravitch's blog, the point isn't to make ELA classes study non-fiction, but to have them keep doing fiction while ADDING difficult non-fiction in OTHER classes.

Why shouldn't kids read non-fiction for history class? for science class?

LK said...

I'm not disagreeing with your last sentence. They should. I recommend Brian Greene's work to my science geek students. I recommend The Devil in the White City to everyone.

I'm simply saying that administrators will hold English departments responsible for reading standards and force them to change the curriculum and eliminate fiction.

Whether Coleman intends that consequence is immaterial, it will happen in South Dakota. If it doesn't where you're from, I'm happy for the English Departments there. I suspect,however, they will see the amount of fiction they can teach reduced as well.

LK said...

By the way, I do appreciate Coleman's apology for not responding to those who publicly attacked fiction