More on the gutting of literature from the curriculum

We blogged earlier about how the latest educational reform program being pushed in the public schools would require that 70% of the reading in public schools be “informational” rather than literary.  Here is Alexandra Petri’s take on the issue:

New Common Core standards (which impact 46 out of 50 states) will require that, by graduation in 2014, 70 percent of books studied be nonfiction. Some suggested texts include “FedViews” by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, the EPA’s “Recommended Levels of Insulation,” and “Invasive Plant Inventory” by California’s Invasive Plant Council. . . .

I like reading. I love reading. I always have. I read recreationally still. I read on buses, in planes, while crossing streets. My entire apartment is covered in books. And now, through some strange concatenation of circumstances, I write for a living.

And it’s all because, as a child, my parents took the time to read me “Recommended Levels of Insulation.”

Oh, “Recommended Levels of Insulation.” That was always my favorite, although “Invasive Plant Inventory” was a close second. (What phrases in literature or life will ever top the rich resonance of that opening line? “The Inventory categorizes plants as High, Moderate, or Limited, reflecting the level of each species’ negative ecological impact in California.”) . . . .

“It is important to note that even Limited species are invasive and should be of concern to land managers,” I frequently tell myself, in moments of crisis. “Although the impact of each plant varies regionally, its rating represents cumulative impacts statewide.” How true that is, even today. Those words have brought me through moments of joy and moments of sorrow. They are graven on my heart. I bound them as a seal on my hand.

My dog-eared, beaten copy of “Recommended Levels of Insulation” still sits on my desk. I even got it autographed. Their delay in making a movie of this classic astounds me. That was where I first learned the magic of literature.

“Insulation level are specified by R-Value. R-Value is a measure of insulation’s ability to resist heat traveling through it.” What authority in that sentence!

And then came the table of insulation values. I shudder every time that table appears. It is one of the great villains in the history of the English language. Uriah Heep and Captain Ahab have absolutely nothing on it. In fact, I do not know who these people are. I have never read about them.”

Petri goes on like this for awhile, but then she drops the sarcasm:

This increased emphasis on nonfiction would not be a concern if the core worked the way it was supposed to, with teachers in other disciplines like math and science assigning the hard technical texts that went along with their subjects. But teachers worry that this will not happen. Principals seem to be having trouble comprehending the requirement themselves. Besides, the other teachers are too busy, well, teaching their subjects to inflict technical manuals on their students too, and  they may expect the English department to pick up the slack. And hence the great Purge of Literature.

These are good intentions, but it will be vital to make sure the execution is as good, or we will head down the road usually paved with good intentions. There, in the ninth circle, students who would otherwise have been tearing through Milton and Shakespeare with great excitement are forced to come home lugging manuals of Exotic Plants.

All in all, this is a great way to make the kids who like reading hate reading.

via The Common Core’s 70 percent nonfiction standards and the end of reading?.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Pete

    It’s somewhat comforting that Petri’s delightful satire may provide proof that art wells up from the human spirit and will never be successfully quarantined or even eliminated – despite organized and enthusiastic programs trying to do so. The image of the Chinese guy standing in front of the tank comes readily to mind.

  • Pete

    It’s somewhat comforting that Petri’s delightful satire may provide proof that art wells up from the human spirit and will never be successfully quarantined or even eliminated – despite organized and enthusiastic programs trying to do so. The image of the Chinese guy standing in front of the tank comes readily to mind.

  • Kathy

    In all fairness, I did have my homeschool sons read a book on the history of pi, very interesting story. We also liked a book about the physics of Star Trek and Joe Schwarcz science/chemistry books, and many other nonfiction books. However, good literature touches and moves the soul.

  • Kathy

    In all fairness, I did have my homeschool sons read a book on the history of pi, very interesting story. We also liked a book about the physics of Star Trek and Joe Schwarcz science/chemistry books, and many other nonfiction books. However, good literature touches and moves the soul.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    Very nice article, and quite true. We do have enough “instruction manuals.”

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    Very nice article, and quite true. We do have enough “instruction manuals.”

  • brianh

    Very “Brave New World”.

  • brianh

    Very “Brave New World”.

  • http://chriskrycho.com/ Chris Krycho

    Kathy, nonfiction is great. It’s just that it should be a both-and, and 70% is, well… not much literature. In my experience, schools have a hard enough time getting kids to see the delight in reading as it is; pushing them this way is only going to worsen that—though perhaps with the unintended side effect of making the literature that they do read that much more appealing by way of contrast.

  • http://chriskrycho.com/ Chris Krycho

    Kathy, nonfiction is great. It’s just that it should be a both-and, and 70% is, well… not much literature. In my experience, schools have a hard enough time getting kids to see the delight in reading as it is; pushing them this way is only going to worsen that—though perhaps with the unintended side effect of making the literature that they do read that much more appealing by way of contrast.

  • Tom Hering

    Literature should be removed from the schools altogether. But the subject shouldn’t be absent. There ought to be classes where children and teens are (A.) taught that literature is dangerous, (B.) given a multitude of good reasons why it’s bad for them, (C.) told they’re forbidden to bring literature to school, and (D.) are mocked if it’s discovered they read literature at home.

  • Tom Hering

    Literature should be removed from the schools altogether. But the subject shouldn’t be absent. There ought to be classes where children and teens are (A.) taught that literature is dangerous, (B.) given a multitude of good reasons why it’s bad for them, (C.) told they’re forbidden to bring literature to school, and (D.) are mocked if it’s discovered they read literature at home.

  • Lisa

    I think people are getting thrown off by the 70% figure. When Petri puts away her witty satire we truly get to the heart of the issue.Read those paragraphs again. Yes, our students need to read more fiction, but they also need to read more informational texts. Most of them do not go on to be English majors and need to have experience breaking down complex texts in all of the content areas.

    As an English teacher, I am perfectly happy with literature comprising 30% of my student’s school day. In reality, I only have them for an hour so it is actually less than 20%. I also appreciate the emphasis the standards place on rhetoric. It has been a joy teaching my students ( 7th and 8th graders) to argue and use the texts (both fiction and ancillary informational texts)to support their arguments.

    As to Petri’s claim that student’s in the ninth circle would be tearing through Milton and Shakespeare. Well, maybe some, but not most of them. That is my major gripe with the common core, the literature recommendations are not much different from any others I have seen in the last 30 years. As a teacher of ethnically diverse students, most of whom come from poverty, there is not much on the lists that grabs their attention. As the common core list is not a mandate, there is a wealth of great literature out there that they can engage them. On a good day, it might be Milton or it might be Toni Morrison.

  • Lisa

    I think people are getting thrown off by the 70% figure. When Petri puts away her witty satire we truly get to the heart of the issue.Read those paragraphs again. Yes, our students need to read more fiction, but they also need to read more informational texts. Most of them do not go on to be English majors and need to have experience breaking down complex texts in all of the content areas.

    As an English teacher, I am perfectly happy with literature comprising 30% of my student’s school day. In reality, I only have them for an hour so it is actually less than 20%. I also appreciate the emphasis the standards place on rhetoric. It has been a joy teaching my students ( 7th and 8th graders) to argue and use the texts (both fiction and ancillary informational texts)to support their arguments.

    As to Petri’s claim that student’s in the ninth circle would be tearing through Milton and Shakespeare. Well, maybe some, but not most of them. That is my major gripe with the common core, the literature recommendations are not much different from any others I have seen in the last 30 years. As a teacher of ethnically diverse students, most of whom come from poverty, there is not much on the lists that grabs their attention. As the common core list is not a mandate, there is a wealth of great literature out there that they can engage them. On a good day, it might be Milton or it might be Toni Morrison.

  • Stephen

    The non-fiction examples she cites seem silly, but I would say based on my experience that the great ideas of history are largely from non-fiction texts. Artists usually pick up on things in their age in order to turn them into art. They play off of the ideas present in their time, the ones that are discussed in non-fiction literature. Theology used to be the most important kind of literature there was – the very core of everything else. I could have this a little wrong, but isn’t the whole point of a return to classical education models like the trivium – logic, rhetoric, grammar – to be able to discuss ideas and concepts? Art can do that, but so can Aristotle. Maybe kids should read more theology/philosophy, economic theory, politics and technical writing. It sounds reasonable.

    Shooting from the hip here.

  • Stephen

    The non-fiction examples she cites seem silly, but I would say based on my experience that the great ideas of history are largely from non-fiction texts. Artists usually pick up on things in their age in order to turn them into art. They play off of the ideas present in their time, the ones that are discussed in non-fiction literature. Theology used to be the most important kind of literature there was – the very core of everything else. I could have this a little wrong, but isn’t the whole point of a return to classical education models like the trivium – logic, rhetoric, grammar – to be able to discuss ideas and concepts? Art can do that, but so can Aristotle. Maybe kids should read more theology/philosophy, economic theory, politics and technical writing. It sounds reasonable.

    Shooting from the hip here.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Are you enjoying the irony yet?

    Proponents of the new standards suggest that U.S. students are not capable of understanding complex nonfiction. They suggest that classes outside of English increase reading assignments in their subject areas, so that reading isn’t merely something one does in a literature class, but is a cross-disciplinary habit (as, indeed, most adults need to read and comprehend, no matter what their job is).

    In response, as Veith already noted, administrators — who (Irony Alert!) are not very good at understanding complex nonfiction — are apparently implementing these standards in a completely wrong-headed way.

    And, what’s more, whether intentionally or not (Irony Alert?), Alexandra Petri goes on to hammer home this notion that these standards actually require literature to be ripped out of English class in favor of insulation manuals (did you notice she didn’t find room to poke fun at one of the actual suggested non-fiction works, de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America — wonder why that is).

    And, to top it all off, we get a bunch of blog commenters, most of whom (yeah, I’m gonna call Irony Alert!) are also apparently not terribly good at reading nonfiction, who’ve somehow taken away from all this the ideas that Petri drove home with her sarcasm. All the while apparently appalled at the idea that anyone needs to encourage our students to read nonfiction.

    By all means, let’s not teach anyone how to read and analyze nonfiction. Because (Sarcasm Alert!) I can see no possible value in that!

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Are you enjoying the irony yet?

    Proponents of the new standards suggest that U.S. students are not capable of understanding complex nonfiction. They suggest that classes outside of English increase reading assignments in their subject areas, so that reading isn’t merely something one does in a literature class, but is a cross-disciplinary habit (as, indeed, most adults need to read and comprehend, no matter what their job is).

    In response, as Veith already noted, administrators — who (Irony Alert!) are not very good at understanding complex nonfiction — are apparently implementing these standards in a completely wrong-headed way.

    And, what’s more, whether intentionally or not (Irony Alert?), Alexandra Petri goes on to hammer home this notion that these standards actually require literature to be ripped out of English class in favor of insulation manuals (did you notice she didn’t find room to poke fun at one of the actual suggested non-fiction works, de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America — wonder why that is).

    And, to top it all off, we get a bunch of blog commenters, most of whom (yeah, I’m gonna call Irony Alert!) are also apparently not terribly good at reading nonfiction, who’ve somehow taken away from all this the ideas that Petri drove home with her sarcasm. All the while apparently appalled at the idea that anyone needs to encourage our students to read nonfiction.

    By all means, let’s not teach anyone how to read and analyze nonfiction. Because (Sarcasm Alert!) I can see no possible value in that!

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    (I added helpful literary hints in my comment @9, since it’s a work of nonfiction, and Americans don’t seem to be very good at analyzing those.)

    (Hamfisted Moral Alert!)

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    (I added helpful literary hints in my comment @9, since it’s a work of nonfiction, and Americans don’t seem to be very good at analyzing those.)

    (Hamfisted Moral Alert!)

  • Michael B.

    Sounds like a dumb rule.

    A lot of fiction depicts historical events and culture, even if the characters are fictional. Consider Oliver Twist. Sure it’s a fictional story, but it’s description of workhouses and the how the poor were treated by the English government isn’t far off. (Someone in another thread said they were reading A Tale of Two Cities, so I’ve got Charles Dickens on the mind.)

    And what about religious holy books? What if I were teaching a class on the history of the Arabian Peninsula in the last 1500 years, but my students weren’t allowed the read the Koran because it’s fiction?

  • Michael B.

    Sounds like a dumb rule.

    A lot of fiction depicts historical events and culture, even if the characters are fictional. Consider Oliver Twist. Sure it’s a fictional story, but it’s description of workhouses and the how the poor were treated by the English government isn’t far off. (Someone in another thread said they were reading A Tale of Two Cities, so I’ve got Charles Dickens on the mind.)

    And what about religious holy books? What if I were teaching a class on the history of the Arabian Peninsula in the last 1500 years, but my students weren’t allowed the read the Koran because it’s fiction?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com tODD

    Michael B. (@11):

    What if I were teaching a class on the history of the Arabian Peninsula in the last 1500 years, but my students weren’t allowed the read the Koran because it’s fiction?

    What are you talking about?!

    You’re teaching that class … in a high school (please remember the context here)? And who considers the Koran fiction? I consider it false, but not fiction. It’s like disagreeing with any other text that makes dubious historical claims (and there are many in the history section).

    Seriously, nothing in this rule would prohibit you from using the Koran in such a class, no matter how unlikely that example is. Maybe you need to take a course in understanding nonfiction?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com tODD

    Michael B. (@11):

    What if I were teaching a class on the history of the Arabian Peninsula in the last 1500 years, but my students weren’t allowed the read the Koran because it’s fiction?

    What are you talking about?!

    You’re teaching that class … in a high school (please remember the context here)? And who considers the Koran fiction? I consider it false, but not fiction. It’s like disagreeing with any other text that makes dubious historical claims (and there are many in the history section).

    Seriously, nothing in this rule would prohibit you from using the Koran in such a class, no matter how unlikely that example is. Maybe you need to take a course in understanding nonfiction?

  • Kathy

    I tend to agree with Michael B. @11…a lot of literature is historical. In watching homeschool history lectures, I have noted how often the college professors will point out literature books from that period. Great literature not only points out historical events, but also educates on the condition/mindset/issues that the people of that day were dealing with.

    As a home educator, I found that my kids liked elementary library-type science and geography books. Then, they gravitated more to good fiction; finally, they have turned toward non-fiction. Son #1, the physics guy, loves classic philosophy. Son #2, chemistry guy, gravitates to battles/history, along with science books. Of course, homeschooling is not a privilege that every child gets; so how professional educators help kids like all types of reading, without the parents encouragement/involvement is beyond me.

  • Kathy

    I tend to agree with Michael B. @11…a lot of literature is historical. In watching homeschool history lectures, I have noted how often the college professors will point out literature books from that period. Great literature not only points out historical events, but also educates on the condition/mindset/issues that the people of that day were dealing with.

    As a home educator, I found that my kids liked elementary library-type science and geography books. Then, they gravitated more to good fiction; finally, they have turned toward non-fiction. Son #1, the physics guy, loves classic philosophy. Son #2, chemistry guy, gravitates to battles/history, along with science books. Of course, homeschooling is not a privilege that every child gets; so how professional educators help kids like all types of reading, without the parents encouragement/involvement is beyond me.

  • Lisa

    @Kathy…actually your family scenario follows the common core quite well. In younger grades 50% of children’s reading should be fivtion and 50% informational texts. By the time they are seniors it should be 80-20 in favor of informational texts. Most of that 30% will take place in literature class. As I stated above, I only get my students for less than 20% of their day. The rest of their day should be learning in other content areas and that learning should include helping students learn strategies to break down weighty informational texts. Tne common core assumes that literacy skills are needed across the curriculum, not just in English class.

  • Lisa

    @Kathy…actually your family scenario follows the common core quite well. In younger grades 50% of children’s reading should be fivtion and 50% informational texts. By the time they are seniors it should be 80-20 in favor of informational texts. Most of that 30% will take place in literature class. As I stated above, I only get my students for less than 20% of their day. The rest of their day should be learning in other content areas and that learning should include helping students learn strategies to break down weighty informational texts. Tne common core assumes that literacy skills are needed across the curriculum, not just in English class.

  • Lisa

    @Michael…the common core is a set of standards that are required to be taught. Included wit the standards is an appendix with recommended readings. According to your scenario, you could include the Koran in your readings because in your professional opinion as an educator you believe it can help your students gain a clearer understanding of the material you want them to learn. There are no forced texts.

  • Lisa

    @Michael…the common core is a set of standards that are required to be taught. Included wit the standards is an appendix with recommended readings. According to your scenario, you could include the Koran in your readings because in your professional opinion as an educator you believe it can help your students gain a clearer understanding of the material you want them to learn. There are no forced texts.

  • Lisa

    Take a look at the common core standards at the following link:

    http://www.corestandards.org/the-standards

    A challenge:find something to truly disagre with. You can bet that as an English teacher that if my principal wants me to take fiction out of my classroom, I am going to take him straight back to these standards and make my case from the text(another important emphasis of the common core) that it is my job to include some informational texts along with the literature but it is the job of the other content teachers to make up the bulk of it.

  • Lisa

    Take a look at the common core standards at the following link:

    http://www.corestandards.org/the-standards

    A challenge:find something to truly disagre with. You can bet that as an English teacher that if my principal wants me to take fiction out of my classroom, I am going to take him straight back to these standards and make my case from the text(another important emphasis of the common core) that it is my job to include some informational texts along with the literature but it is the job of the other content teachers to make up the bulk of it.

  • Michael B.

    @Lisa and @Todd
    I need to familiarize myself with the standards, of which I’m completely unfamiliar. I meant my comments to say how imperative literature is for education.

    That’s also an interesting point about what we consider fiction and non-fiction. One thing that we do a really poor job of teaching students is “how do we know something is true”. When we look at a historical source, how do we eliminate bias and lies? Just for one example take a speech a historical figure might give. Today, the speech is transcribed perfectly, and then distributed by mass print and mass media. Any of us can go and read one of Obama’s speeches word-for-word.

    So do we ever have an account that is so inaccurate that we can call it fiction, even if the author does try to pass it off as true? Perhaps not. No matter what, the author is trying to get some point across.

  • Michael B.

    @Lisa and @Todd
    I need to familiarize myself with the standards, of which I’m completely unfamiliar. I meant my comments to say how imperative literature is for education.

    That’s also an interesting point about what we consider fiction and non-fiction. One thing that we do a really poor job of teaching students is “how do we know something is true”. When we look at a historical source, how do we eliminate bias and lies? Just for one example take a speech a historical figure might give. Today, the speech is transcribed perfectly, and then distributed by mass print and mass media. Any of us can go and read one of Obama’s speeches word-for-word.

    So do we ever have an account that is so inaccurate that we can call it fiction, even if the author does try to pass it off as true? Perhaps not. No matter what, the author is trying to get some point across.

  • Kathy

    I think the problem would be that most courses, except for English/Literature courses, use textbooks versus books about the subject. I have found that a lot of textbooks are not good sources of learning, unless they are heavily supplemented by teacher instruction. I don’t know why that it, but it just appears that way to me. So, to implement some type of non-fiction reading program would require some type of reworking of these classes.

  • Kathy

    I think the problem would be that most courses, except for English/Literature courses, use textbooks versus books about the subject. I have found that a lot of textbooks are not good sources of learning, unless they are heavily supplemented by teacher instruction. I don’t know why that it, but it just appears that way to me. So, to implement some type of non-fiction reading program would require some type of reworking of these classes.

  • Michael B.

    @Kathy

    “I have found that a lot of textbooks are not good sources of learning, unless they are heavily supplemented by teacher instruction”.

    An author was going to write a textbook, and he was warned by his colleagues that the hardest part will be deciding what parts to cut out. I wonder if the problem is trying to convert to much info in too small a text? (The opposite is true often in the publishing business. If you ever read a book and think it’s too wordy, it may be because publishers will often demand from the author that their book be a certain length, because you can’t charge the same amount for an 80 page book that you can a 300 page book.)

  • Michael B.

    @Kathy

    “I have found that a lot of textbooks are not good sources of learning, unless they are heavily supplemented by teacher instruction”.

    An author was going to write a textbook, and he was warned by his colleagues that the hardest part will be deciding what parts to cut out. I wonder if the problem is trying to convert to much info in too small a text? (The opposite is true often in the publishing business. If you ever read a book and think it’s too wordy, it may be because publishers will often demand from the author that their book be a certain length, because you can’t charge the same amount for an 80 page book that you can a 300 page book.)

  • Kathy

    @ Michael B.

    I was actually thinking of high school texts I’d seen…some history books would go from mostly one fact to another, with not a lot of explanation or implications. Books that I’ve used for high school history for homeschooling often discuss why something came about and the opinions and ramifications of that incident.

    Also, math texts and probably science texts, although I can’t think of examples, don’t often fully explain how a problem is solved. So, the student needs a teacher to smooth over the faults with the text.

    Are you writing high school or college texts? I understand what you’re saying about trying to make the texts so comprehensive that the book is either too long or you feel like you left something out.

    I like texts that are written by experts in their field and not by a textbook company. My oldest son, who is a physics grad student, is forever complaining about the lack of clarity and detail in his texts; he has ideas and plans for someday writing his own. Perhaps smaller texts should be written that cover just one semester of a subject and cover that subject well.

  • Kathy

    @ Michael B.

    I was actually thinking of high school texts I’d seen…some history books would go from mostly one fact to another, with not a lot of explanation or implications. Books that I’ve used for high school history for homeschooling often discuss why something came about and the opinions and ramifications of that incident.

    Also, math texts and probably science texts, although I can’t think of examples, don’t often fully explain how a problem is solved. So, the student needs a teacher to smooth over the faults with the text.

    Are you writing high school or college texts? I understand what you’re saying about trying to make the texts so comprehensive that the book is either too long or you feel like you left something out.

    I like texts that are written by experts in their field and not by a textbook company. My oldest son, who is a physics grad student, is forever complaining about the lack of clarity and detail in his texts; he has ideas and plans for someday writing his own. Perhaps smaller texts should be written that cover just one semester of a subject and cover that subject well.