Secular Right | Reality & Reason



Civilizational collapse, part 642: Studying the bus schedule in English class–for credit!

Is soullessness a job requirement for “education reformers?”  I have never seen evidence to the contrary.  The latest travesty to roll out of the ER factory is the so-called “Common Core” state standards initiative, a voluntary set of learning goals for K-12 education developed by the “National Governors Association Center for Best Practices” and the “Council of Chief State School Officers ,” organizations whose very names start mountainsides of red flags a-waving. 

I have no objection to a national curriculum, unlike some conservatives, so long as it demanded that students master the greatest monuments of imagination and analytic thought that human beings have produced, without concern about widening the achievement gap or failing to bolster students’ self-esteem.   Predictably, these Common Core standards seem instead to favor the acquisition of “skills sets” and “modes of learning,” all the while encouraging vacuous group learning.  But these latest standards add a truly terrifying, heartbreaking detail that I have not seen before in the vast intellectual and cultural wasteland that is progressive pedagogy.   The English standards actually require that literature in English classes be gradually supplanted by informational materials, according to the New York Times:

While English classes will still include healthy amounts of fiction, the standards say that students should be reading more nonfiction texts as they get older, to prepare them for the kinds of material they will read in college and careers. In the fourth grade, students should be reading about the same amount from “literary” and “informational” texts, according to the standards; in the eighth grade, 45 percent should be literary and 55 percent informational, and by 12th grade, the split should be 30/70.

If ever there were proof needed that education professionals lack the slightest instinct for beauty or the Eros of learning, this is it.  The idea that a school literature class should squander its precious opportunity to immerse students in the grandeur of imaginative language in favor of, say, a debate on whether global warming is man-made or natural is simply breath-taking in its idiocy.  Students will have all of life to encounter “informational” prose, alas; they have little choice.  Few of them, however, will seek out literature on their own, or know what to look for.  Such guidance should be the unavoidable responsibility of teachers, who are fearless in declaring: This is a great book– whether Wind in the Willows, Winnie-the-Pooh, The Yearling, or Huck Finn –you must read it because your life will be poorer without it.  (E.D. Hirsch is almost alone in having the guts to name names in his core knowledge curriculum.) 

Moreover, as much as I do not believe that education in the classics needs to justify itself in terms of vocational skills, the implicit claim here that mastering Melville’s mind-bending language and majestic vision, say, does not develop useful mental skills shows utter ignorance of the richness of literature. 

It’s hard to say if this Common Core movement will actually catch on; scarily, conservative education theorist Chester Finn appears from the New York Times article to give it his imprimatur.   If this notion of a virtually literature-less English class becomes popular (and you can bet that there are plenty of ed-school grads cheering on the concept), we will have further betrayed our loving duty towards the geniuses of the past and impoverished our culture.


  • Susan · April 30, 2011 at 5:24 pm

    It will probably catch on in many public schools, particularly those in less affluent communities with a less educated populace. Private schools, to which many of these innovators send their own kids, will go on requiring four years of English LITERATURE as a minimum standard for graduation.

  • MIchael · April 30, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    MacDonald is normally a very sensible commentator, but she like many other people who reach a certain age have a strong tendency to over-romanticize their youthful encounter with literature. Literature is great fun, and can be a very meaningful experience–but neither I nor anyone else really knows what ‘meaningful’ means in this context; I suspect we mean something like ‘really enjoyable, but so enjoyable that we can’t just mean fun, so it must be important.’ But she is fooling herself if she thinks that she or anyone else ever really changed her basic moral outlook on the world because of a novel. Sure, novels are great, and a life without literature is all the poorer for it…but so is a life without mountain climbing, or winning a sports tournament, or sailing the ocean, or traveling to distant countries, yet we don’t bemoan the fact that schools aren’t equipping each student with these experiences. It might help to remember that the notion that literature is an essential part of an thorough education is a queer result of fin-de-siecle wistfulness and romanticism (when ‘English’ first became a respectable field of study), not some timeless truth that a shallow and bureaucratic culture has forgotten.

  • John · April 30, 2011 at 8:59 pm

    I’m with Michael. The reason why high schoolers still often have to take four years of literature is more a reflection of historical inertia than the importance of knowing literature in the modern world. Literature is a fun hobby for a lot of people, but so is a lot of other stuff not taught in schools. Yes, students should be exposed to it, and it can be a useful window on human nature. But four years? I’d rather the students be studying economics, physics, psychology, philosophy, chemistry…

    Of course, the educrats are probably behind this mainly to make school easier, not because they actually want to teach the subjects listed above.

  • Susan · April 30, 2011 at 11:54 pm

    Well, that’s the point, John. Or one of the points. People who think it’s easier to teach “informational” reading than, say, the poetry of Yeats, aren’t going to be teaching rigorous courses in any of the subjects you listed.

  • Matt · May 1, 2011 at 3:17 am

    I really have to agree with Ms. Mac Donald on this one. I probably wouldn’t have sought out literature on my own without being pushed toward it by English teachers, just as many people would not enrich their lives with visual art or music if they weren’t mandatory classes in school. Some of my favorite novels are among the “required reading” we usually see in literature curriculum, and I might not otherwise have cared about their existence.

    Informational texts should be assigned in classes about their respective subjects. They should not be a replacement for studying language as an art medium in itself.

  • Kevin S. · May 1, 2011 at 8:14 am

    Nonfiction texts can cover a lot of ground. How do we know they’re reading simple documents like bus schedules and not extended essays on deep topics?



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