In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)
Or, to put it another way,
It's only words,
and words are all I have
to take your heart away. (Bee Gees 1968)
Words are important. Without words, our communication would be infantile. Without words, we'd be just another species of primate. Without words, we'd have no stories to tell. So it's no wonder that since anyone can remember, we've taught our children in school to read, write, and listen to words. We have invented other ways to communicate, for sure, that we also teach in school -- music, painting, dance, architecture -- but none as universal and comprehensive as words.
And we don't teach words for their own sake, except perhaps in the least effective schools. We teach words so that our students can learn stories. Words are important because they tell stories, stories that form the common cores of our cultures and civilizations. And so literature -- reading fiction and fact, following the story, and understanding its meaning -- have always been part of education.
When my grandchildren listen to me read The Tale of Peter Rabbit or The Three Little Pigs, they hear words. But more importantly they take in the story. We talk about what happens in the story, about how dangerous it is in the garden or with the wolf at the door, whether it's right or wrong to steal the lettuces or boil the wolf who jumped down the chimney. The words, and the story itself, are means to an end.
When students study with their English teachers Macbeth or To Kill a Mockingbird, they certainly learn new words, and new ways of putting them together. But more importantly they learn new stories, stories that deal with danger, hubris, greed, ambition, justice. The words, and the stories themselves, are means to an end.
Because in order to serve as an intelligent citizen, a student needs to understand these important ideas. In order to be interesting to himself and others, he needs to be able to think and talk about these ideas. In order to be ready for college and career, he needs to know how to wrestle with these ideas. And one of the best ways to do this is through literature.
The folks who have over two centuries planned the curriculum in American schools know this. They took it as their responsibility to develop these ideas in our youth, and they chose literature accordingly. Many people are involved in the decision of which stories to use to develop these ideas: teachers, principals, local school boards. They've been doing this since the turn of the last century, when we began providing public high school education. The works they choose change over time (see the appended table of the Top Ten from 1907, 1964, and 1990), but throughout the last century the choices all share certain characteristics:
- consisting of about half fiction, one-fourth drama and poetry, one fourth non-fiction.
- designed to get students to work with a common core of key ideas, from ambition to joy to pride to zeal, that speak to the mind, soul, and spirit.
- serving as exemplars of the literary arts.
We teach these kinds of stories because they serve the needs of young people in their intellectual and moral growth. We teach them because a citizenry not familiar with the ideas in these stories is not an adequate repository of democracy. We teach them because they are beautifully written or magnificently played.
The Proposed Standards
So, how does this play out in the proposed Common Core Standards for Literature in high school?
Not at all. In the proposal, there's no mention of any of the things we have just discussed. None. You can read the standards here.
Instead, we get standards like these:
Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.
Analyze how an author's choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.
The standards propose a technocratic analytic approach to literature, and make no mention of its traditional purposes. In fact my first impression of these items was that they were designed to be measured by a computer. This is where the technology comes in.
Technology and the Proposed Standards
The kind of narrow analytical skills that the standards propose are all of a type that is easily measured by the multiple choice tests that the psychometricians at McGraw-Hill and Pearson find easy to produce and sell. And of a type that can easily be taught by a computer program. My young nephew, the software engineer, could easily construct an app to teach and test these proposed standards.
But neither he nor I nor all the best English teachers in the country working together could design a computer program that teaches the kind of literature that our students and our democracy need. Or test in a single simple machine-scored cyber sitting whether or not the students have learned it.
Technology can for sure contribute to the learning of literature, by putting a wide library into the pocket of every student, by enabling infinite cross-referencing, by bringing other arts to reflect and coordinate with the written word, or by providing new channels for students to talk and write to each other and their teachers about the ideas in the works they read. But it cannot perform the most important teaching tasks of the language arts.
The proposed standards relegate literature to a limited role of textual analysis that leaves out the most important parts and purposes.
Where's the story?
It's gone. These standards propose a very different purpose for literature in our schools, one devoid of mind, soul, or spirit. Or truth or justice or beauty.
(To be honest, the standards do mention stories, but only once, in a standard that is written in a style which if I had submitted to my 11th-grade English teacher would have deserved a D-:
RL.11-12.10. By the end of grade 11, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 11-CCR text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.
What would Strunk or White say about that sentence?)
The power of the story is replaced by the mechanics of a narrow subset of textual analysis techniques. The words are there, but the meaning has been left behind. The proposed standards embrace a narrow literary technology and avoid the essential ideas.
King James' Words
He didn't write the English bible that bears his name, but let us practice some etymological textual analysis with its words. In the beginning was the word came to the sixteenth-century authors through the Latin In principio erat verbum that the Church had translated from John's original Εν αρχη ην ο Λογος. In John's time, the word λüγος (logos) was used to denote not a word of text per se, but something more like our words reason or discourse or expectation, and it is from those roots that λüγος forms the root of our modern English word logic.
So it's not the mere words that matter, but the reason and ideas behind them. Or as the Bee Gees sang it,
This world has lost its glory;
Let's start a brand new story.
And bring mind, soul, and spirit back to literature and into our standards. And put technology in its proper place.
What do we read in secondary school?
Here are the ten most-assigned books from surveys of secondary schools and English teachers conducted in 1907, 1964, and 1990.
Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Silas Marner, Milton's Miser Poems, Burke's Speech on Conciliation, The Vision of Sir Launfal, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Ivanhoe, Macaulay's Addison, The deCoverley Papers.
Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Silas Marner, Our Town, Great Expectations, Hamlet, A Tale of Two Cities, Red Badge of Courage, The Scarlet Letter, The Odyssey
To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, Macbeth, The Scarlet Letter, Romeo and Juliet, Of Mice and Men, Lord of the Flies, A Separate Peace.
Why do we read these books and plays and poems?