BY BRUCE DEITRICK PRICE
One of the more controversial recommendations in the new Common Core standards is that high school seniors concentrate on non-fiction in their reading assignments.
Literature is disdained. Just as bad, the recommended non-fiction is the worst sort of non-fiction, being bureaucratic and regulatory in nature. For example, our Education Establishment wants seniors to wander forlornly in the EPA’s “Recommended Levels of Insulation.”
Such prose is devoid of passion, cleverness, or talent. Furthermore it’s not something that students need to know at this point in their lives. Furthermore, these regulations change every few years. So why would you ask teenagers to waste two seconds on something so trivial and ephemeral?
Alexandra Petri, a columnist for the Washington Post, tries to mock this odd attempt at making schools as dull as possible. Her recent column is titled “A great way to make the kids who like reading hate reading.”
Poor Petri! She was an English major, loves books, and is clearly a romantic. It is time she knows the truth: mockery has never influenced the cult now in control of our schools. These people are immune to criticism, particularly if accompanied by laughter.
Over the years, there has been a proud parade of books intended to mock the high officials of American public education. Consider such titles as: “Quackery in the Public Schools” (1951), “Educational Wastelands — the retreat from learning in our public schools” (1953); “So Little for the Mind” (1953); “Why Johnny Can’t Read” (1955); “Retreat From Learning” (1955); “Programmed Illiteracy in Our Schools” (1970); “The New Illiterates — and how to keep your child from becoming one” (1973); Ed School Follies” (1991); “Dumbing Down Our Kids–why American children feel good about themselves but can’t read, write, or add” (1995); “A Conspiracy of Ignorance” (1999); and “The Education Enigma–what happened to American education” (2009). All excellent books.
Did these officials change in any way? It’s a safe bet they wouldn’t deign to notice such uppity books. Graduate schools of education provide a bubble life, cozy and well paid. Why would anyone leave? Why not remain there forever, above the rabble, concocting ever more airy curricula?
We can imagine them chortling in their faculty lounges. “Here’s an idea the public won’t see coming. We’ll say that teenagers should read more non-fiction. No, not anything interesting, like the Smithsonian Magazine or New Yorker. No, we will make them read the worst prose we can find. We’ll make the argument that in the future, children will have to comprehend and analyze that sort of dry, dull verbiage.”
Yes, perhaps a few will, some day in the distant future. But why would you want to bore, today, a whole class of already bored students?
The logic is weak. You can learn to analyze language and life through fiction. Additionally, you are being acquainted with the great works of our civilization, and as well with the techniques used by good writers. Studying bad non-fiction will teach you nothing but bad habits.
But you don’t fully appreciate the inanity of Common Core Curriculum until you stop to think: wait a minute, aren’t kids now reading history, science, chemistry, biology, politics, current events, the usual school subjects? All that material is non-fiction. Indeed it’s the perfect kind of non-fiction. Kids should know biology so they read non-fiction to learn biology. What a concept. Schools have been using this approach for thousands of years. It’s used today in the best universities. Nobody ever thought to say that history and science are not non-fiction and are not preparing children to read factual reports. That is their purpose.
No, you need a clique of humorless technocrats to come up with such irrelevant solutions.
As for Petri’s “a great way to make the kids who like reading hate reading,” that is a perfect description for all official reading curricula since 1931, when Look-say was forced into the schools. Today, first-graders are still forced to memorize so-called sight-words, now called “high-frequency words.” A few years of that cripples fluency. Our schools are full of 11th graders swearing, “I hate reading.” Truth is, they were never properly taught.
Indeed, the great flaw in Common Core Curriculum is that it does not address the failed curricula now used in elementary schools. Reform is required. Reading should be taught with phonics. Arithmetic should be taught with step-by-step approaches such as Singapore Math or Saxon Math.
The fact that people are discussing one extreme idea, an emphasis on non-fiction, supports the cynical belief that this idea’s true function may be to take the public’s eye off the horrific underlying problems.
The often-repeated news that 45 states have bought into Common Core Curriculum should not be understood to mean that this is automatically a good development. The federal government handed out grants (i.e., your money) to buy participation in Race to the Top. (We’re hearing the same theme in proposals for voting reform.)
Bottom line: if the government has to bribe states to accept a new proposal, this is fair warning the proposal is flawed.
Alexandra Petri, trying to be gracious, says “the core has good intentions.” What is the evidence for that? Critics argue that CCC is a federal power grab and, once implmented, will be impossible to escape or remedy.
The Moral Liberal Education Editor, Bruce Deitrick Price, is an author and education reformer, founded Improve-Education.org in 2005. He has 300 education articles, videos, and book reviews on the web.
Get your copy of Bruce Deitrick Price’s latest book:The Education Enigma: What Happened To American Education