Posts Tagged Classic literature

Common Core Badly Disrespects Literature

Published by — If educators are not cultivators of the culture, who’s left?


Last week I had kind words for the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  Building intelligence through building knowledge is a far better approach to educating kids than the current obsession with covering vast amounts of content.  In last week’s column, CCSS expert Kate Gerson fleshed out some of the Standards’ strengths.

That said, however, the huge landscape of CCSS resembles the complexity of a human personality — fundamentally good, but not without fault.  We can appreciate the sinner while rejecting the sins.  The CCSS have been criticized for many flaws, which in most cases is due, I think, to misunderstanding what the Standards actually say.

But there is no misunderstanding their aggressive devaluing of the role of literature in teaching English.  Dr. Sandra Stotsky is probably the most vocal critic, here discussing the reduction of reading literature to no more than 50% in English classes.

Many others have also cried foul on this issue, and rightly so.  Great literature — poetry, drama, philosophy and seminal religious texts like the Bible — have been the foundation for educating the “learned” since time immemorial.  If the goal is to help students feel comfortable analyzing and understanding complexity, what better way than cultural classics?  But no longer.

In literature’s place — and doesn’t this say it all? — goes “informational text.”

Can’t the academics hear themselves?  I’m reminded of Richard Mitchell’s lament The Graves of Academe, a laugh-out-loud meditation on the deadly language academics often use that kills communication.  We know what non-fiction is, and we know great writers, journalists and biographers can tell a factual narrative as a riveting story.  My kids loved reading The Hot Zone in science class, and in Physics, QED was so impressive to them, Richard Feynman became a much-quoted hero.  But according to the CCSS these books could be read in English class and held in higher esteem than mere stories such as, say, King Lear.

And what, pray, seems to be the problem?  Of course, kids don’t like classical literature unless they’ve gotten enough background to appreciate it.  But shouldn’t education prepare them to see through the eyes of the culture that created Tom Sawyer, for example?  Understanding other times and cultures trains students’ empathy, among other things, even if we don’t identify with or approve of the non-modern values.  Private schools certainly guide students through a wealth of great literature, but they can teach what they like and don’t battle political correctness.  If public education is about training the workforce, who needs Jane Austen?

I think that what’s at issue is that “informational texts” confine themselves to scientifically verifiable truths that are intrinsically a-cultural.  Like philosophy and religion, fiction by its nature has no hard information about the objective world.  It is culture-bound.  Historical fiction may use historical facts to set the stage, but is not responsible for being correct in every detail.  But that reduces its value for the CCSS.  Facts must anchor what students should know and be able to do.

To me the scientifically verifiable truth is essential, to be sure, but the truth of fiction is often deeper.

Prior to “the media,” human entertainment was sitting around at night after a long, hard day and talking, telling stories, gossiping.  Sometimes stories took on a life of their own, growing from favorite anecdotes about people we actually know, to honored tales about one’s ancestors, to the Olympian scale of gods, goddesses, and God.  These stories were the transport mechanism of great wisdom that the elders of a culture related and preserved from their generation to another.  The stories evolved and changed, along with the culture itself.  Embedded in such stories were lessons critical to that culture’s values.  Lear and Oedipus both allow their giant egos — Aristotle called it “hubris” — to blind them to a truth they were unwilling to face.  I have seen little hard data emanating from research on ego blinded to truth, but that doesn’t make the lesson less valuable.

As a Rhode Island resident, I wish our students got a firm grounding in The Emperor’s New Clothes so they could be far more discerning of their leader’s so-called facts.

But no one dares claim the authority to say what ancient wisdom should be received by contemporary students.  Instead, the CCSS displaces the remnants of Western Civilization, adjusted as it has been in recent years with the riches of James Baldwin, among others, to make way for inarguable facts.

Charles Dickens lamented this very issue in his aptly-named novel about education: Hard Times.  Louisa, the schoolmaster’s daughter, nearly comes to ruin having no instruction in the truth of fiction, specifically the nature of love.  Instead, her father taught “Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.  Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.” You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

We’ve been down this road.  If educators are not cultivators of the culture, who’s left?


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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It’s Building Kids’ Vocabulary, Stupid.

Published by — You’ll know kids mastered a subject if they have the vocabulary to talk about it intelligently.

In the tedium of tests, testing, test scores, and so-called accountability, the point of education is lost.  Tests are not the point.  Learning is.  Testing is merely the read on the dipstick into a kid’s tank of knowledge.  Tests assess How Much learning has taken place.

E.D. Hirsch is an education thinker I greatly admire, largely because he’s comfortable with specifics about what actual knowledge is.  He’s so specific — very refreshing among squabbling education reformers — that he assembled teams of experts to create the Core Knowledge Curriculum.

The simple idea embedded in Hirsch’s large canon of writings is this:  knowing more words makes a kid smarter.  How?  Consider his 2006 example that has haunted me since I first ran across it:

Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run.

As a confident reader, I can tell you what every one of those words means.  But as a sports idiot, I read the sentence without comprehension.  Which is to say I can’t really read it.  Any baseball nut can tell you exactly what the sentence means because their understanding of the sport provides the context that give baseball meanings to “sacrifice,” “knock” and “run.”

Reading comprehension is all about understanding the context.

Hirsch unpacks the above sentence by describing a bit about the landscape of baseball to help, say, a British reader understand how those words might be bent to mean what they do.  Frankly, I learned details about America’s favorite pastime that I never knew before.  (Sports bore me to death.  Sorry.)

Likewise, if I knew nothing about the Egyptians, on a test I might think the “mummies” were the moms.  If the above sentence appeared in a reading comprehension test, I would have failed.

The SAT and even the GRE tests are essentially vocabulary tests.  Whatever subjects you know well, you know by the vocabulary used to discuss them.  If you don’t know what “binomial probability” means, then surely you haven’t a clue as to how to do the related math.

Build new contexts; build vocabulary. 

Not surprisingly, the Core Curriculum leans heavily on classic literature and actual history, geography, and civics — as opposed to hard-to-define social studies.  Designed for students pre-K through 8th grade, the Curriculum systematically teaches the sort of knowledge that was far more common in my day.  Yes, modern works have been woven in, and in interesting ways.  But the spine is, well, good old Western Civilization built out to be more inclusive and contemporary, but not dumbed-down.  Rigorous literature and primary historical sources have chewy syntax and unfamiliar words.  Challenging language requires more effort, but the payoff is that with teacher guidance, children enter new worlds that expand their horizons.  Each new context, like baseball, has words or word-meanings all its own.

Contrast classical literature with the vapid, politically-correct writings found in the Basal readers developed by textbook companies whose goal is to market their wares.  Textbook companies have long lists of rules that govern what goes into their sanitized texts, rules designed to reduce offense to easily-offended public School Committees.  One rule is to avoid everything written before 1970 — too many white male protagonists and authors, among many other sins.  (For infuriating details on corporate educational publishers and why public school kids read such dreck, read Diane Ravitch’s painful but brilliant book, The Language Police.)

Classics are inevitably offensive because their values come out of other times, places and cultures.  But it is precisely by taking a child into those other contexts that broaden their horizons and their historical, cultural and linguistic foundations.

Instead of actually reading broadly, kids learn “reading skills.”

Hirsch says, “The idea that reading skill is largely a set of general-purpose maneuvers that can be applied to any and all texts is one of the main barriers to our students’ achievement in reading. It is true that students benefit from learning and practicing reading comprehension skills, but a key point has gotten lost: More training in these skills is not necessarily better.”

Today’s new teachers have been taught to waste a lot of time on explicitly teaching the sorts of skills readers naturally pick up.  Students have lessons in “reading strategies,” like predicting, summarizing, questioning, clarifying and identifying the main idea.  By all means give the kids the vocabulary for what they are doing when they discuss Charlotte’s Web.  Name “summarizing” when that’s what they’re doing.  But Charlotte’s world is vastly more important and interesting — the farm, the critters, and the agricultural cycle that would normally turn Wilbur into food.  Help kids build vocabulary for all of it, the book and their approach to it.

We’ve grown so crazed with assessments that we’ve forgotten what on earth it is we’re trying to measure.  By all means measure.  I love data.  Measure words.  You’ll know kids mastered a subject if they have the vocabulary to talk about it intelligently.  If we immerse students in real contexts that expand knowledge and build vocabulary, kids will have a shot at an education.

And, God help us, they’ll get better test scores.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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