Losing Our Stories, Losing the Regime

PlatoThe loss of great literature in the schools and its replacement with something that is manifestly not great—and is meant in fact to put an end to the very idea of greatness—is no academic matter. As Plato taught us long ago, whoever controls the stories, what today we call “the narrative,” of any society, will inevitably control the society. If we give up our stories, we lose our surest means of teaching young people what is truly good and true and beautiful; we lose the best way of teaching them how to be human. Should we give that up because self-appointed educational experts apparently don’t know how to talk about a great book when it is put in front of them?

Call me old-fashioned, but it seems to me that if you were having a statewide discussion about education you would have to talk about books. Moreover, if the subject you were discussing was what used to be called English (now known by the horrendous acronym ELA), the debate would be over Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Edgar Allan Poe and other worthy storytellers and poets whose stories should fill our imaginations and whose words should be etched in our hearts. You would have to offer some indication, some hint, as to what great books are about: love, hope, despair, heroism, victory, in short, human life.

Such a conversation has certainly not taken place over the last few weeks in Indiana, as “Technical Teams” and “Evaluation Teams” have rushed to copy and paste and slightly re-word the Common Core in order to produce the Hoosier state’s “new” college- and career-ready standards. Far from having a conversation about real learning, the only thing the educational establishment in charge of this charade has talked about is “the process” of coming up with new standards.

It has produced a document that would guide schools in the teaching of English yet omits the likes of Shakespeare or Austen or Poe. The reason is that those responsible for re-crafting English standards in Indiana do not really care about great literature; nor do they show much concern for the English language. They certainly have not recognized that the primary innovation of the Common Core English Standards has been to take great literature out of English classes and to replace it with a combination of largely forgettable and often biased “informational texts” and depressing post-modern schlock that no child should ever read.

So they haven’t fixed anything. The school children of Indiana remain vulnerable to the mind-numbing, soul-shrinking, imagination-stifling, story-killing mandates of the Common Core.

If the drafters of the new Indiana English standards had been serious about writing “Hoosier standards for Hoosier students”—better still, had they been truly committed to keeping Indiana’s children from being robbed of the great stories that are meant to train their minds and shape their souls—those standards-writers would have built a protective fence around the study of literature and the English language, clearly distinguishing Indiana’s content and the teaching practices from what is now going on in 44 other states in the nation. Sadly, they did nothing of the sort. Judging by the draft they have produced, the copy-and-pasters of the Indiana standards are willing accomplices in the theft of our literary and moral heritage perpetrated by the authors of the Common Core.

To build such a protective fence, the Indiana standards committee would have begun by avoiding such ridiculous language as the following, which describes the intended “learning outcome” for the study of literature:

Read a variety of literature within a range of complexity appropriate for grades 6-8. By the end of grade 7, students interact with texts proficiently and independently at the middle of the range and with scaffolding as needed for texts at the high end of the range.

Shorn of edu-speak and translated into common English, all this means is that “students should read books really well.” But it is worse than that. In echoing the Common Core, this standard and those that follow offer no indication of what “a variety of literature” will consist in. Indeed, the standards-writers make a virtue of washing their hands of all great literature by claiming that the standards are not a curriculum. We are left in the dark concerning what students will be reading.

Had they even made the rather obvious suggestion that “students should read complete works of great, classic literature” and then provided a couple of examples, we could have hoped our students would learn to read English and understand the human condition by cutting their teeth on the highest standards of language and thought. Yet the seemingly innocuous word variety, when combined with the word diverse that appears in the elementary standards, and then further filtered through the current agenda of the publishing industry and the testing companies, virtually guarantees that most of what the students will be reading will not be the classics. It will be exactly what the Common Core architects want it to be.

To the uninitiated, such charges may seem a stretch. But a little more investigation will bring new clues to light. Another Common Core code word that is copied-and-pasted by their Hoosier accomplices is complexity. How does one figure out these days how complex a text is and where it fits in these various ranges—which may or may not require scaffolding? The Indiana standards are silent on the issue.

The writers of progressive standards never allow the great writers themselves to be the standards. Never do they recommend, for example, that by the fifth or sixth grade students should be able to read Twain’s Tom Sawyer or by the seventh or eighth grade be able to tackle one of Shakespeare’s easier plays, such as The Tempest. Rather, the Common Core uses something called the Lexile Framework. This ridiculous model of text “complexity” significantly undervalues great literature written in straightforward, everyday language. So inaccurate is the Lexile Framework that it rates Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath at a second or third grade level. Considerable scaffolding would be needed by third-graders attempting to read Steinbeck.

Since the Indiana draft standards remain silent on the issue of how the complexity of texts will be judged, we must assume that the authors are either wholly ignorant of how the Common Core actually chooses readings or that they tacitly embrace that agenda.

That the copy-and-pasters are not attempting to make any great stand for literature can be easily seen in their following the Common Core when it comes to so-called “non-fiction texts.” Here only the name has changed; where the Common Core authors prefer the term “informational,” their Indiana accomplices use “non-fiction.” By non-fiction texts, the standards-makers do not mean great writing as found in the Declaration of Independence or great oratory as found in the Gettysburg Address or meaningful lives as found in the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. You would hardly need a separate set of standards for these works that were once studied in English classes as a matter of course.

If the standards-writers meant such great works to be studied, they would tell us. Rather, an informational or non-fiction text can be almost anything you want it to be: a government form students learn to fill out because the government is always looking after our safety; a blog post by a scientist helping out with the Mars landing; the frequent invocations to save the environment littered throughout the modern school curriculum; an article on the costs of health care published as Obamacare was being debated; vignettes by modern scholars painting the Founding Fathers as racist and sexist; or an article on the “evolution of the grocery bag”—all rather strange topics for an English class. Yet the Indiana standards-makers have their heads buried in the sand on this issue. They simply copy and paste the Common Core standards on informational texts, without offering any indication as to whether, by “non-fiction,” they mean Abraham Lincoln or grocery bags. The textbook industry will, of course, be delighted to make that choice for Hoosier students.

Had the Indiana standards-writers really meant to rescue these students from the Common Core, they could have done other things. They could have shot down the ratio of informational-to-literary texts found in the Common Core—that is 70-30 by the senior year, to the disadvantage of literature. They could have stemmed the tide that is eroding appreciation for classic works by inserting a line like the following: “While a few modern classics, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, should obviously make their way into the English curriculum, we would expect the preponderance of literature to have withstood the test of time.” Such a line, without dictating curriculum, would signal to schools that giving over one half of an American literature class to works written after 1914—including selections from such great writers as George Clooney—as happens in the Pearson/Prentice Hall literature textbooks, would not be considered a true standard in Indiana.

The Indiana standards-writers also could have been true to their word in not dictating instructional practices. In bold print we find the words, “The standards do not define how teachers should teach.” That is simply an outright, well, . . . falsehood. Requiring teachers to require students to “demonstrate knowledge and use of agreed-upon rules for discussions and identify and serve in roles for small group discussions or projects” is in fact dictating progressive teaching methods that date back to John Dewey. Requiring teachers to require students to “create engaging presentations that integrate multimedia components and visual displays to clarify information, strengthen claims and evidence, and add interest”—i.e. make Power Point presentations—is likewise dictating a teaching method. Requiring teachers to require students to “analyze the development of a theme or central idea over the course of a work of literature, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot”—this we all recognize as the same mechanical, intellectually bankrupt way of reading literature that most of us were bored to death by in school.

Far from being “Hoosier standards for Hoosier students,” which is what the Governor and the education establishment promised, the proposed Indiana standards follow the Common Core in sacrificing great literature to dubious informational texts, in failing to urge the reading of complete stories, in bowing down to the idol of technology which is rapidly turning teachers into glorified computer monitors and students into drones, in offering no reliable standard by which to judge good literature, and in mandating the same lifeless ways of reading literature that have failed to engage students for two generations.

Because the Indiana drafters have used the same language as the Common Core, when it comes time to adopt a curriculum and “resources” that are “aligned” with the Common Core, all the textbook publishers have to do is take off the Common Core logo and slap on an “Indiana College and Career Ready” logo.

Far from putting a fence around Indiana to promote the sensible teaching of English, the writers of standards have invited in the robbers and shown them where all the valuables are.

Terrence O. Moore, a professor of history at Hillsdale College and advisor to several classical charter schools, was a national evaluator of the new Indiana English standards. In that capacity, he wrote a 26,000-word critique which was largely ignored. He is the author of The Story-Killers: A Common-Sense Case Against the Common Core.

About the Author

Comments

  1. Kevin R. Hardwick says

    It seems to me that there are multiple purposes to modern education. It surely is reasonable to see education as soulcraft, as Professor Moore argues for above. And for that purpose, as scholars like Martha Nussbaum have argued, it matters that students read and digest great literature.

    But we would be foolish to ignore other ends. One vitally important purpose of public education, indeed its original primary justification for a good many years, is preparation for citizenship. Civic education and moral education are intertwined, but in the end distinct. It takes a different skill set to read and understand a scene from Macbeth, than an essay from the Federalist.

    But we would be even more foolish to ignore the purposes that most parents, not to mention tax payers, feel with some real urgency today, which is primarily economic. We want our students to be able to acquire and retain decent jobs. That means exposing them as students to the kind of stuff they will need to be able to read and understand as working adults.

    These purposes are to some important degree discordant. There are different ways of reading. The skills necessary to derive moral instruction from great literature are different from those needed to read a Supreme Court decision, and both are different from reading and learning the kinds of things that say an accountant, or a lawyer, or an IT professional, or a nurse or medical doctor, or a product manager, or a designer, or pick your profession, need to read and understand on a daily basis.

    There are strategies for reading and apprehending different genres of writing. Is it really so unreasonable to expose students to the different kinds of things that they will encounter as adults, and for which they will need to be proficient if they wish to be good citizens, or to retain employment?

    I am all for moral instruction. But not at the expense of exposure to other kinds of necessary texts.

  2. David Upham says

    Getting an education in critical thinking, close analysis of texts, and solid communication skills, is transferable to multiple jobs. The benefit of reading, discussing, and writing about good texts–texts that have stood the test of time–is that while students are learning these very valuable skills, they (1) spend their time reading something worthwhile even enriching, and (2) maybe even pleasing. Students will not learn to read and write well if what they read and aspire to write is some soul-less memorandum.

  3. David Upham says

    Letter from Felix Frankfurter on legal education (a partly-classically educated progressive):

    My Dear Paul:

    No one can be a truly competent lawyer unless he is a cultivated man. If I were you I would forget about any technical preparation for the law. The best way to prepare for the law is to be a well-read person. Thus alone can one acquire the capacity to use the English language on paper and in speech and with the habits of clear thinking which only a truly liberal education can give. No less important for a lawyer is the cultivation of the imaginative faculties by reading poetry, seeing great paintings, in the original or in easily available reproductions, and listening to great music. Stock your mind with the deposit of much good reading, and widen and deepen your feelings by experiencing vicariously as much as possible the wonderful mysteries of the universe, and forget about your future career.

    With good wishes,

    Sincerely yours,

    [signed] Felix Frankfurter

  4. gabe says

    Kevin, David:

    David is quite correct with respect to the transferability of great literature and the skills attendant upon the understanding of such literature. In retrospect, i wish we had read more during my early school years.
    Yet I have found that a command of the language (wanting as it is in my own case) is essential for any and all forms of endeavor and am much appreciative of the teachers who convinced my lazy butt to read and taught me how to enjoy good literature. The interesting thing is that having read some good lit, I later found it easier to read technical texts / essays. etc.

    And Kevin, remember, we went through this type of education and have apparently benefited from it.

    Moreover, I shudder to think of what type of “informational” texts will be proffered to our budding young minds. Can you say, government approved progressive themes?

    take care
    gabe

  5. Kevin R. Hardwick says

    My students at the university level have difficulty absorbing and mastering non-literary texts. They do just fine with novels, which can be read, and should be read, in a linear fashion. They know how to identify antagonists and protagonists, and can talk intelligently about the development of a plot. They are fairly sophisticated consumers of narratives.

    They struggle, on the other hand, with analytic texts. Some of these stand the test, in my view, of excellent writing. To dismiss, for example, the writing of James Madison or Thomas Jefferson as “soulless memorandum” is insulting, not to mention foolish. But my students can not easily read or understand, say, Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments,” which is hardly “soulless.” The skills necessary to read a novel like To Kill a Mockingbird are different from those necessary to read just about anything that Madison wrote. Which is a shame, since I believe there is considerable civic value in reading texts by guys like Madison or Lincoln, texts that I at least consider to have real merit, both for their content as well as for their form of expression.

    My students require help in learning how to read analytically. I do not think it is unreasonable or unrealistic to expect them to learn how to do that in middle school or high school.

  6. Kevin R. Hardwick says

    Gabe,

    What you write sounds good in theory. But it is, sadly, not true in practice. I am speaking from fifteen years teaching at James Madison University, where I teach a primary source based survey course in US history. The course uses as its core readings a two volume document collection, published by Hackett Press, titled Classics of American Political and Constitutional Thought. Take a look at its TOC to get an idea of the kinds of “soulless memorandums” I ask my students to read.

    The course only works if I spend considerable time and attention to teaching students how to read analytically. The process is very different from reading a novel, or a play. If I want my students to read and understand, say, Ronald Reagan’s 1964 RNC speech endorsing Barry Goldwater–which I consider to be a superb example of public speech, and very far indeed from “soulless”–I simply can not presume that the skills they learned in high school will transfer. My students appreciate the eloquence of Whitaker Chamber’s “letter to my children,” but can not easily or well analyze its meaning. I really don’t think it is an unreasonable expectation that they should be graduate from high school with the skills necessary to do that, but for better or worse they can not. They can read a novel, and read it with some facility. But they can not read well anything that requires analytical reading skill.

    • gabe says

      Kevin:”Thanks for the response and solid comments.
      First, let me say that I do not consider the writings of Mr Madison to be “soulless” – clearly that is not the case. I would agree that students (not just yours) today may have a rather more difficult time in understanding Mr Madison or Mr Reagan. This is apparent to all who have contact with these young people. However, it may have little if anything to do with their “reading” skills; it may have more to do with the utter lack of preparation for political discourse that afflicts young people today. I believe that this is the point of the above essay. Schools do not prepare today’s students with the basic historical facts and, yes, myths of the Founding such that at a later date they have some historical / philosophical basis upon which to judge and understand the meaning, intents and compromises that were made by historical figures. As i have indicated before, effective thought and communication requires significant life experience and a solid “factual basis” for its sustenance. My observation is that today’s students have been deprived of this by an educational establishment that promotes its deconstructive myths but also avoids basic historical facts. How can one then be expected to understand what Madison, Burke or Paine were espousing? I submit that it can not be easily accomplished.
      Second, my concern with “soulless” tracts is aimed more at the “politically correct” nonsense that one may expect to see issued by the educational bureaucracy that will no doubt include such titles as “Dead White Males” and their negative effect on income equality / liberty / (insert whatever) or some “scientifically proven” piece on the carbon cycle. Aside from the fact that the student is nopt intellectually [prepared for this type of writing, it may (and based upon my experience with young students) turn them off. Thus, you compound the issue of inexperience with an emotional withdrawal from the subject matter.

      We all seemed to do OK with the myths we were exposed to – and in time were able to sort out the factual from the mythical – and in so doing gained a fuller appreciation of the boundless beauty and genius of Western civilization. Perfect – no – but that is just a myth, isn’t it?

      take care
      gabe

      • Kevin R. Hardwick says

        Gabe,

        We have no real disagreement, at least about what is most important. We agree on the basic value of literary and civic texts. I suspect that we share the common goal that students should be able to read exposition of moderate complexity by the time they graduate from high school. We want students to be able to live civilized and fulfilling lives, to recognize the moral costs of their own choices, to be good citizens, and to have productive careers that, among other things, generate tax revenues sufficient to pay back the public costs of their own education. We want them, in Isaiah Berlin’s terms, to be equipped to exercise responsibly both negative and positive liberty.

        Where I think we part ways is in our assessment of the skills necessary to pull that off. To some degree this is an empirical matter, but its one I have struggled with for much of my career. The way you try to help a student get the most out of a Shakespeare play, or a novel, or a film, are all slightly different, but all share much more in common with each other than with exposition or civic argument.

        I take it to be obvious that at some level of generality, reading is reading is reading. But it nonetheless remains true that at least in my experience, my students have lots of practice and reasonable facility reading things like, for example, a Jane Austen novel, but far too many of them have difficulty reading and apprehending very basic exposition, like for example exam or essay prompts. In college that is no big deal–they just earn mediocre grades. But in the world of employment, that is a very big deal indeed. I would like to think that my students learn how to do this in high school.

  7. kldimond says

    As usual, I’ll take a whole ‘nother tack…

    Teachers are extremely valuable if they have real skill in conveying useful information or “technology.”

    This is most definitely not a given, and in fact, what seems to be a given is what Charlotte Iserbyt and John Taylor Gatto, separately, have said in critique of modern education: the methods don’t work, and in fact seem to be specifically designed to dis-educate.

    Beyond that, our culture is one that, if one is not careful, fosters a short (ehh.. microscopic) attention span and a near xenophobic dislike of other viewpoints, means of expression, etc. THis is what “multiculturalism” has given us. Oh joy.

    Common core? The above on steroids!

  8. says

    Thank you again Terrence Moore, son, sibling, husband, father, professor and warrior for the mind and souls of our nation; Not just the wee ones.
    After a century of Dewey and the progressive hoard, we are sorely left with a majority of citizens who are incapable of reading, parenting and of self -governing under God. Precisely the goals of Dewey et al. Half-educated, sensory driven, folks who love their comfort, are unable to inhibit, and initiate on their own merit. The body politik today are an intentional crises catalyzed by technology’s ready appetite to both gather data, spew forth data, and embed ideologies in a populace accustomed to the operant conditioning of public relations folks like Bernays and behaviorists like B.F.Skinner…yet now via digital teaching machines this external conditioning goes internal as the USB ports/ ethernet upload soma in a ubiquitous fashion via “education and media.”
    Time to pull the plug and and teach two generations at once the virtues, values and veneration upon which our nation was founded and the only Principles capable of controlling human nature. And that begins with the proven Stories and Histories that equip a people to look to The Highest Standard, not standardized mediocrity of servitude… in double time.

  9. Emma Momper says

    I want to send this on but I cant find the forward button. what am I missing?

    I notice that my grandchildren are now busy being poets, making up booklets, doing science projects which seem to be a lot of busy work when they should be learning how to think and read other’s great ideas from the past both from the bible and great boooks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>