Christian Radio Host: Secularists Pushing for Common Core Are ‘Starving Children’s Souls’

School districts in 45 states have committed to something called the “Common Core State Standards Initiative” — a national standardized curriculum that will revise what students learn in many courses. (A lot of my professional development days over the past couple of years have been devoted to explaining how the Geometry and Algebra classes I teach will change, and how that’ll help the kids, and how this will solve all the education problems *ever*… you get the idea.)

One of the big changes coming to the overall curriculum is that 50% of what students in elementary school read will be non-fiction — essays, books, speeches, articles, etc. — and that number will jump to 70% by the time they’re seniors. The idea behind it is that very few people will grow up and read The Scarlet Letter for work or fun — but they will probably read things like instruction manuals and magazine/newspaper articles and blog posts and the like. That’s not to say literature isn’t important, but the Common Core standards suggest that it may be overemphasized in our current system.

Anyway, that’s my understanding of it. We can debate whether that idea makes sense and there is certainly a lot of valid criticism against Common Core… but I hadn’t heard this complaint until now:

It’s all a plot by the secularists to starve children’s souls.

That’s what Christian radio host Julie Roys thinks:

the core’s objective concerning reading assignments is based on a distorted view of humanity.

Proponents of the new standards, say the emphasis on non-fiction is necessary to prepare students for the rigors of college and demands of the workplace. But, people are not just utilitarian machines that produce work. We’re relational beings with souls that long for deep connection and meaning. Classic works of literature provide that…

Of course, the human soul doesn’t exist to many secularists in education today. And sadly, as these educators get their way, it may cease to exist in our children too.

How cynical and paranoid can you get?

It’s true that classic works of literature allow us to examine our own lives in new contexts and raise issues worth discussing. But a lot of non-fiction can do that, too — you don’t have to escape into an imaginary world to raise important concerns or discover truths about modern society.

In high school, one of my English teachers read Tuesdays With Morrie with us every week. The content in that book opened the door to all sorts of incredible discussions in class. But that “window to the soul” is also opened every time I read Tom Junod or Andrew Solomon. None of that replaces fiction and no one is saying it should. In my blogging life, where I’m surrounded by non-fiction pieces all the time, I’m no less able to reflect on my own life or think of the “larger powers of the human soul” than I can with works of fiction.

So Roys is just wrong, plain and simple. No one — certainly not a cabal of evil “secularists” — is trying to remove emotion or introspection or a “human connection” from the classroom environment. Common Core is just attempting to make what students do in the classroom more relevant to their futures.

Again, we can debate how well it succeeds on that front. But Roys’ contribution to that debate is without any merit. Kids will be just fine if they have to read a piece out of the New Yorker in place of a short story.

I have an alternative theory, though. Maybe Roys is just upset we’re moving away from fiction in the classroom because it means there will be even less emphasis on the Bible. If kids learn to find truth in fact over truth from fiction, they may stop taking their pastors seriously.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Paljor

    I am a senior in high school and am reading “Night” by Elie Wiesel for school. It raises plenty of issues all on its own and was the saddest story I had ever read.

    • http://twitter.com/TychaBrahe TychaBrahe

      I’m thinking you can make similar claims about The Diary of a Young Girl, The Attic, Up From Slavery, West With the Night, On the Road, and Death Be Not Proud.

  • Smiles

    ” If kids learn to find truth in fact over truth from fiction, they may stop taking their pastors seriously.”

    I love the way you put this. How obvious, but often overlooked…

  • WallofSleep

    Ha! I just knew that reading that Windows XP technical manual back in the day was destroying my soul, but now I have proof!

    • http://twitter.com/RinnosukeETQW Jeff Simons

      You should see the ones for Windows 8

  • nkendall

    Honestly, taking all those creative works and tirelessly dissecting them and writing papers on them CRUSHED my love for reading. In High School I felt like I read one of two things:
    “Classics” that seemed so out of touch they were meaningless
    Teacher’s favorites which (as a young teen-aged boy) never really seemed to fall in line with what I wanted to read.

    And even in the few chances I got to read what i wanted I could never really enjoy them: we just over-analysed them and then wrote that STUPID DAMNED 5-paragraph reports (#1 Here is what I am about to tell you, #2-4 Here is what I am telling you, #5 Here is what I just told you). I hated it all. Absolutely hated it. But it made me take up writing; so it cannot all be bad. I really wish people had told me how to write a resume, or do my taxes, or proper cover letter techniques… but no… five paragraph papers on shit I didn’t care about and today have completely forgotten.

    Maybe this is just the rants of a cynical Engineer, but like it or not eventually people need to actually earn a wage and I feel like sometimes we put a bit too much emphasis on making sure everyone feels special and not enough on reminding them that not everyone gets to grow up and be a rock-star.

    • Laura D

      I was a liberal arts major in college and I feel much the same way about being forced to read some books and write 5 paragraph essays about them. To top it off, I remember very little about the books I read in high school. The worst was “summer reading” where I had to pick some books from a list of school approved books and then write reports on those. Over the summer. When I could have been reading something else!

    • Miss_Beara

      You know what is worse than writing multi page paper on literature? Having to read three 300+ page books during summer vacation and A Tale of Two Cities in two weeks during winter break in Freshman year of high school. I can’t believe I love reading as much as I do. Maybe because I don’t have to write 10 page papers and discuss the significance of a rainy day.

    • monyNH

      I’m fortunate enough to occasionally share space with our middle school reading teacher (we don’t call it English), and I love hearing him teach. First of all, he will sometimes spend a whole class reading aloud–which I don’t think we do enough of with older kids. Second, they engage in a lot of spirited discussion. He has an amazing way of teasing critical thinking out of his students (two of which are my own kids). He is the kind of teacher of literature I wanted to be before I decided I would really make a better librarian.

  • http://profiles.google.com/personman2 Danny Ferguson

    My state senator took the paranoia to another level by saying that the Common Core is a plot to take God out of schools. He’s a 2nd generation homeschooler who didn’t even know what the Common Core was until a month or two ago. Naturally, he sits on the state senate’s education committee.

    http://edemery.com/updates/addressing-student-outcomes-in-our-state/

    And a GOP state Rep has filed legislation to ban the Common Core from all Missouri schools: http://www.house.mo.gov/billtracking/bills131/biltxt/intro/HB0616I.htm

    • WallofSleep

      How dare these evil, commie, secularists prevent our school children from offering hecatombs to Apollo during recess. Put gods back in our schools!

    • Claude

      This Ed Emery guy is appalling! I wonder if I have ever read such a collection of non sequiturs.

  • Mario Strada

    I love literature and I equally love the sciences. For me the issue is how to strike a happy balance between things that help us grow as human beings and things that help us in our lives and careers.

    For instance, I find it ludicrous that basic skills like how to prepare your taxes, how credit works are not taught in schools (at least they were not to my now college graduate daughter). Those are skills that everyone can use and they would save a lot of grief to a lot of young people as they grow into maturity.

    Another travesty is how the arts and music are often eliminated in favor of more technical courses. Sure, science needs to be taught. No doubt about that, but art appreciation and especially music help opening up pathways in the brain that make even the most tone deaf scientist a more creative thinker.

    I have no idea what’s in “Common Core” (aside from a really ugly logo) but it sounds like a step in the right direction because as far as I can tell, it doesn’t intend to do away with literature, but focus on more relevant texts while still studying some literature.

    Also, if the chief complaint is some bullshit about “lost souls” it has to be better than what they propose.

  • The Other Weirdo

    I once read a Windows 95 booklet that came with the disk and it told me to reinstall the OS every 6 months to make it more reliable. Now I understand where the hole in my heart where God should be comes from.

  • Sue Blue

    Because, as every droolin’ knuckledraggin’ ‘Merkin knows, it’s the soul that really counts in this day of complex technology and social issues, not brains. Yep, that there soul is what’s gonna figger things out when the shit hits the fan and Jesus comes back! Jesus don’t care if you know pi to the fifth decimal place! He don’t care if you can solve the quadratic equation or figure out the waitress’s tip in your head! Knowin’ all ’bout evolution and climate change and stuff don’t matter none! It ain’t even on His radar screen! He don’t even care if you can spell your own name – as long as you know all about the ghost-thingy that lives somewhere inside your body that He’s comin’ to save! And who the heck cares if ‘Merka turns into a third-world nation – as long as it’s a Christian Nation! Yeah!

    • Muffs For Hope

      I have never seen a muff wig drool or even have knuckles, let alone drag them….

      Odd..

  • Andrew

    I disagree fundamentally with the idea that we should be cutting, rather than supplementing, the fiction and poetry provided in our earlier years. I do not deny that science and mathematics are deeply important and often overlooked. But at the same time, it was my love of literature and poetry, not my love of science, that brought me to my secular viewpoint.

    It was through books–Ray Bradbury’s short stories, Stoker and Shelley, Rousseau, Shirley Jackson–and through poetry–Philip Larkin, Michael Robbins, Anthony Hecht– that I saw, clearly, for the first time in my life, that truth, wisdom, and inspiration are not solely the realm of the divine, but that it belonged to the humanities. Literature, history, and philosophy are the study of what it means to be human; the Romantic period was an effort to grapple with the scale of the universe as we began to understand it through a scientific lens and cast away the fear and superstition of the Middle Ages; Modernism is our effort to examine our newfound role as masters of our own selves; Postmodernism is an attempt at finding meaning in the fact that none is prescribed in the way things are given to us.

    In place of the non-overlapping magisteria of natural and spiritual, we should find strength in the conversation between the sciences–what exists, whether we wish it did or not–and the humanities–our response to what exists. It seems that emphasizing science at the expense of literature will give us all of the raw data while letting the tools necessary to decide what to do with it rust in the shed.

    • http://twitter.com/TychaBrahe TychaBrahe

      I see what you’re saying, but honestly, I agree with nkendall that nothing, NOTHING, ruins a love of reading than analyzing it. Everyone reads in school, yet more than half of people do not read books for pleasure.

      My nephew is in second grade. He is required to read a certain number of hours per week, as verified by his parents. He is not told what to read. He reads things that interest him: books about dinosaurs and outer space and stories about pirates. He loves reading, and I hope that is never taken away from him.

      • Miss_Beara

        I didn’t necessarily mind analyzing literature but there is such thing as over analyzing. My English teachers would often spend 2 months on a single novel.

        • Buckley

          I think that’s part of the problem. When I taught History, I had to get to certain points by the end of the year. I wish I could have spent months on the Causes of the Civil War or the Cause of the American Revolution or the Civil Rights Movement, but I had to give them a broad swath of history and hope it stuck. I shared my classroom with an English teacher and as I would sit in the back of the classroom and grade I would hear her, week after week on the same book. She was a good teacher, but she probably could have had them read more and faster, but instead they went slow and most were board stiff.

      • http://twitter.com/InMyUnbelief TCC

        I can attest that requiring students to read for enjoyment (as paradoxical as that might sound) is a worthwhile idea. A colleague and I both incorporated a system that Kelly Gallagher set up to have students read outside of curricular materials, and I’ve seen some improvements in my students’ willingness to read even beyond what they’re required to do, which is sort of the point: to create lifelong readers. It’s something that more schools and teachers need to do, I think.

    • Tor

      My elementary school years (grades 1-8) were spent at a two-room rural school taught by a husband and wife. They were not so strong in math or science, but they excelled in teaching reading. Many of the students of that poor rural school have gone on to be scientists, engineers, architects, lawyers and doctors. I believe basic reading and comprehension are the gateway to every other discipline.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=802830332 Michael Robbins

      Don’t drag me into this, I’m not an atheist.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=802830332 Michael Robbins

        In fact, I’ve often denounced, in my critical writing, the narrow ontological poverty that defines today’s atheism. Anti-religious nuts are as bad as fundamentalists.

      • 3lemenope

        If you are an author, then you well know that the author has absolutely no control over how their art will affect those who consume it. You, personally, can write all the critical essays you like denouncing atheism and its ontological poverty–we need MORE SUBSTANCES, DAMN IT! That was the trouble all along!–and your work can still have the effect, unintended by you as it may be, of demonstrating to a reader that, as Andrew put it, “[...] that truth, wisdom, and inspiration are not solely the realm of the divine.”

    • http://www.facebook.com/karen.uncoolmom Cary Whitman

      I understand your concerns, but I don’t think the common core will have that much of an effect on a high school student’s exposure to literature. The common core will only effect the “regular” English classes, which, at most schools, never contained much literature anyway. The common core might actually force a little literature into some of those classes that had dropped it entirely. Most high school students get their exposure to literature by taking AP English or some kind of concurrent enrollment at a local college. The common core will have no effect on these classes, so students who want to take literature should still have the same access to it that they had before.

      • http://twitter.com/InMyUnbelief TCC

        The common core will only effect [sic] the “regular” English classes, which, at most schools, never contained much literature anyway.

        My experience has been quite the opposite: literature dominates high school English classes, and nonfiction, especially informational texts (which is what we’re talking about with the increase in “nonfiction”: non-narrative nonfiction), is more difficult to incorporate. This is true, from my experience, regardless of whether AP classes are offered.

      • http://twitter.com/InMyUnbelief TCC

        Also, it should be noted that Common Core is designed to increase informational text reading outside the English classroom – there are literacy standards designed for science, social science, business, and technical subjects (IIRC) as well, which is good since English teachers already have their hands full trying to teach literature, writing, language, and research (and that’s not an exhaustive list).

    • Kristen White

      I don’t think that’s likely. I’m an English teacher. This whole buzz over Common Core killing literature is really overblown. The high school standards say that 70% of a student’s entire weekly reading should be nonfiction. That basically means that their fiction reading in English class can still be 30% of everything they read. That includes science textbooks, history books and materials, everything. If an English teacher has to cut back on fiction, that really means that the other teachers aren’t pulling their weight and making kids read. What we were told (by our district English coordinator, who’s been working closely with the Common Core committee), is that their ideal for a high school English class is about 80% fiction, 20% nonfiction. That’s just about perfect for me. 200 pages of Scarlet Letter, 20 pages of supplemental nonfiction materials that either I provide or the students research.

  • Claude

    I support the Common Core initiative and thought it was designed to emphasize literacy and critical thinking across disciplines. Maybe that’s what’s behind the 70% stat. It’s not like the kids are overly steeped in literature or anything. The Bible is the source of so much culture that I think it should be studied more (as literature and history of religion) rather than less.

    Bart Ehrman said the main reason Christians are so credulous about the Bible is because pastors, for obvious reasons, do not pass on to their congregations what they learn in seminary about its historical development–in short, that the Biblical texts are unreliable as history. (By the way, I was raised Catholic, and we did not read the Bible. We got scripture filtered through the Church. It’s the sola scriptura Protestants who read the Bible!)

    • Tor

      If the Bible were to be taught as literature, its teachers would, ideally, be nonbelievers. I took a Bible as Literature class in college taught by a believing believer. It felt like Sunday School.

      • Claude

        Yes, there should be no theological education whatsoever in the public schools!

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=802830332 Michael Robbins

          Yes, because ignorance is such a terrific value for children to cultivate.

          • Claude

            I don’t know if you live in the United States, but there’s a constitutional prohibition in this country against the establishment of religion. Sorry, but theology K-12 must remain private.

            • Claude

              Sorry, establishment of religion by the state.

            • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=802830332 Michael Robbins

              Not only do I live here, but I know considerably more than you do about the educational system (since I have a PhD & am a college professor). And teaching theology is not at all prohibited as long as it is taught as literature or history, & not as religious truth. Duh.

              • Claude

                But that’s precisely what I said! Theology concerns religious truth, ergo it should not be taught in the schools. Religious literature and history of religion, yes, all good.

              • NG

                I hope you’re not claiming to be smarter than anyone else due to your job or degree. When my sister was going for her PhD, she said several people in her cohort were some of the dumbest people she’d ever met.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=802830332 Michael Robbins

        You appear not to have met many believers. Any educated believer is able to distinguish between aesthetics & dogma.

        • 3lemenope

          They may be capable, but the will to do so even while capable is often lacking.

        • Tor

          Guest. I think the problem is that I have met too many believers. I used to be one, myself.

  • Kengi

    Just out of curiosity, how many calories does a soul need per day before it begins to starve? If you starve a soul, does it become lighter? Smaller? Is a smaller, lighter soul easier to carry around? Can my soul become over-weight? Will I get a hernia if my soul becomes too heavy and I get up too fast? If my soul gets too hungry can’t is just eat some of my aura?

    • Tor

      If your soul gets too hungry, it starts eating other people’s auras. That’s the problem. ;-/

  • C Peterson

    I’m about as worried that secularists will starve my soul as I am that Christians will sever my dæmon.

    • monyNH

      Nice!

      On a side-note, if you liked the His Dark Materials trilogy, you may also enjoy The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making and its sequel (says this school librarian). :)

    • David McNerney

      Or murdering your midi-chlorians.

  • Randomfactor

    The core standards also allow use of the Bible. Maybe that’s what he’s upset with.

    Although I doubt it…Christian teachers in local public schools are jumping up and down with excitement about finally being able to use the Bible to bring the kids to Christianity. I wish I were kidding.

  • Machintelligence

    Why not split the difference and require that everyone read science fiction?

  • http://www.facebook.com/rrlane Ricardo Lane

    It’s a tempest in a teapot. Common Core will come and go like every other education initiative (Anyone remember OBE? Anyone? Anyone?). The only thing it will leave in its wake is countless thousands of wasted hours and frittered-away billions of dollars.

    • http://twitter.com/InMyUnbelief TCC

      I wish I could say that I were less cynical than this, but yeah, this is basically right.

  • Becky at AskAnAtheist.tv

    I am a teacher. We’d still be able to explore the world of fiction/literature/poetry/drama if non-language arts teachers stopped being aghast at the notion that teaching subject-specific literacy “isn’t their job” because they’re “not reading teachers.” Common Core could have accomplished this by stressing that part of science education be “how to read/write science” etc. A bio teacher that feels compelled to get through X amount of information (due to required tests, likely) isn’t going to rearrange their curriculum to teach “how to read science journalism” or text book comprehension skills.

    • http://twitter.com/InMyUnbelief TCC

      THIS. I hate so much how all of these expectations get dumped on ELA teachers, as though we should be teaching literacy for all the other subjects. I don’t know if that’ll change any time soon, but it should.

    • Buckley

      When I taught history, I taught the ability to read history and write history and how to judge sources. They weren’t just getting the basic facts, as some only teach. I tried to teach them to think for themselves. I loathed my colleagues who taught the book and tested the book in a series of fact multiple choices. Great, they know the facts from A to Z, but can they critically tell you “WHY” it happened? Probably not, and perhaps that’s why I am no longer a teacher.

  • TiltedHorizon

    Crap. I have wasted so many years studying technical references to stay current and relevant in a competitive industry, all so I could selfishly feed myself and my family at the expense of my starving soul. Man are my priorities all F’d up.

  • mandy

    I’m an editor for a nonfiction children’s publisher. NOW I know where my atheism came from!

  • eric

    Is that 50-70% of English course reading, or 50-70% of total school reading? Because if you are counting other courses, kids are probably already over the 50% mark and may be over the 70% mark (reading nonfiction). Biology texts, Chemistry texts, Math texts, History texts, Civics etc…. in these courses practically everything the kids read is nonfiction.

    I would argue that its perfectly reasonable for one class out of seven to be focused more on fiction and analysis of fictive writing. Keep the lit in English!

    • Kristen White

      It’s 50-70% of total reading. You’re right on. If a high school student is not meeting the guidelines, it probably has nothing to do with English class–it means the other classes aren’t assigning enough informative reading.

  • Sara Lin Wilde

    Allow me to throw in my librarian-trained two cents. One of the things I learned about kids’ reading habits while studying to be a children’s librarian was that, generally speaking, male readers tend to enjoy non-fiction more than fiction. So opening up the field to have students read non-fiction in class is likely to get boys more interested in their classes and the concept of reading in general, which in turn lets them access a broader range of ideas and develop their thoughts more effectively.

    All in all, yes – by the standards of many churches, that’s probably going to destroy their souls. You know the side effects of thinking!

  • The Literacy Ambassador

    Hey, Hermant. Thanks for speaking about this issue. In Alabama, we actually have a bill in front of our legislature to remove AL from the list of states who have adopted common core – ugh! I want to go to Montgomery and slap someone. No, seriously, I will add one additional comment. The standards do give a focus on informational text which has been neglected or least emphasized in the past BUT the standards also contain statements such as “The following standards offer a focus for instruction each year and help ensure that students gain adequate exposure to a range of texts and tasks.” so the idea that broad, rich, varied and frequent experiences with print produce the best readers (and thinkers) is an idea that leaves room for reading both fiction and nonfiction and each has its value.


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