For all the dire economic news and reports of political dysfunction, the most disturbing story of the past week was about the decision to replace literature with bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo in the nation’s schools.
Something called the Common Core State Standards in English, which has been embraced by 46 states, requires that 50 percent of all the required reading in elementary schools and 70 percent in high schools be non-fiction. Suggestions for the new assignments include Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” an excellent and surprising recommendation, but also such dry governmental fare as the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s “FedViews” and the General Service Administration’s “Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management.” The educrats responsible for the diktat insist that it’s no big deal, except to the extent it will better prepare the youngster to take their rightful places in society, but we are not reassured.
Any federal “one-size-fits-all” plan for education is destined to fail. What’s needed in a rural Kansas classroom might not be suited to the children in a crumbling inner-city school back east, and within either group the educational needs and capabilities of the individual students will vary even more widely. Each of the 46 states that have signed on to the new standards would do better to allow their school districts to decide what’s best for their charges, and the districts should leave the matter to every school, where the principals should in turn leave the matter to the discretion of the teachers whenever possible. If at any point in this process anyone concludes that the teachers aren’t capable of making the best decisions, they should reconsider their hiring standard for teachers.
There are several things about this particular plan, though, that are especially galling. It’s partly a very personal distaste, as literature afforded us the few enjoyable and genuinely enlightening moments of our desultory schooling, but it’s also an affront to our political, cultural, and educational sensibilities.
How very frightening, for instance, is the assumption that all functioning citizens of the brave new world of the American future will be required to slog through the turgid and deliberately incomprehensible prose of bureaucratic regulations. This assumption is likely correct, alas, but all the more reason that young people should instead be reading Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” to be properly forewarned about the sterile society they’re about to inherit. Perhaps the point of the new standards is to shield the children from such subversive material. Without sufficient regulation some old-fashioned English teacher in flyover country might expose his students to Walt Whitman’s admonition to “Resist much, obey little,” and there’s no telling where that might lead.
Neither do we care for the inevitable cultural effects of this plan. The communication skills of the young people we encounter today are barely sufficient for “tweets” and text messages, and further evidence of the country’s increasing illiteracy abound. We note from the Washington Post’s account of the controversy that the man who played a key role in foisting the new standards on the country was unable to get through a speech at the New York State Education Building without resorting to an expletive that the more genteel editors of the paper felt obliged to delete. Holding up the jargon-laden soporifics of the General Services Administration as a model of well-written English will not better the situation at all.
In addition to teaching people to coherently and more elegantly express a thought, literature from sources other than the Government Printing Office also helps people formulate an idea. Those seeking any insight into human behavior, man’s relationship with God, the history of civilizations, or anything else that might be useful to a sentient being as he avails himself of whatever’s left of his freedom would do better to check with Mark Twain, Robertson Davies, Joseph Conrad, or a number of other dead white men than the GSA. Great literature fires the imagination and prompts one to ponder all the possibilities, which is precisely why it has lost favor with the generations raised on our empty-headed pop culture, but the country should expect its schools to remedy such cultural dysfunctions rather than acquiesce to them.
The proponents of these new standards will no doubt argue that anyone who can master the complexities of executive orders and bureaucratic reports should then be able to cope with mere literature, but deciphering the archaic language of William Shakespeare is more challenging and yields a better understanding of a vast world far more complex than anything dealt with by the Bureau of Weights of Measures.
Great literature is also a link to the past, with all its accumulated wisdom and warnings, and one wonders if the new standards are meant to create a break from that past and allow those who would impose their one-size-fits-all solutions on a new and more meticulously planned society. This distinct possibility is perhaps the most troubling aspect of the plan. Economic and political problems come and go, but when a culture goes it’s gone.
— Bud Norman