By Cameron Pipkin
All right, I got you here with a provocative title, but before you gang up and jump me, let me explain.
An article I read recently in Education Week has me thinking about the new direction that English classes in America seem destined to take. The article claims that, “the Common Core State Standards in English/language arts demands…a rebalancing of fiction and non-fiction.” This makes sense. With standards that focus on skill and performance over making sure that students digest a list of great works of literature, ELA teachers are going to find themselves putting aside The Catcher in the Rye in favor of Freakonomics. I, for one, am all for this.
And I’m not saying that schools ought to cut all literature (in fact, under CCSS they won't)—just a good deal of it. If I had to choose between teaching reading and writing with lit or with informational texts, I’d go with the latter nearly every time. And I say that as an English major.
I formed this opinion as a college writing teacher, where it became painfully apparent to me that one of the biggest problems in the high school English classroom (among many) is a religious commitment to high literature.
So, here are three reasons that we ought to lay off on literature, at least in high school:
My boss has, though, asked me to read or write plenty of informational and persuasive texts. And I work as a writer. Imagine what engineers, electricians, graphic designers or cab drivers must be asked to do. In high school English, where the teachers are, to a great degree, preparing students to read and write throughout their professional lives, why are they training students on texts that only marginally reflect what is seen in the real world?
The Sound and the Fury is a deadly weapon in the hands of the wrong reader. At 16 years old, Faulkner’s masterpiece nearly killed my desire to ever pick up a book again. High literature is very difficult fare, and, I think, should be kept out of the hands of novice readers, which, unfortunately, most teenagers are.
As a teacher I learned that helping students identify and understand things like theme, motive, subtext, context, metaphor—the foundations of sophisticated reading—is much easier to do through informational texts. The New York Times, Time Magazine, non-fiction essays and books, editorial writing, etc., are typically much more straightforward and easier to dissect than literature.
Hard as she tried, my 11th grade English teacher could not convince me that I had anything in common with Tom Joad or Hamlet, or that I should care whether they lived or died. If I’d been a more sophisticated reader, I’d have recognized how right she was about the things I had in common with those characters, but by the 11th grade I’d been so turned off to books from being forced to read stuff I considered completely irrelevant, that I didn’t even take the time to listen to her.
Informational text, though, is more abundant, more explicit, and often more current. Do your kids love video games? Plenty has been written about that. Dating? Ditto. Informational reading doesn't have to mean science textbooks or the Constitution. There's plenty of non-fiction that communicates information in a rich, compelling way. It’s just a matter of finding the stuff.
What do you think? While there is endless merit in great literature, do you think it’s the best teaching tool? Are the Common Core Standards on the right track?