The University of Minnesota has a program of dual enrollment in which high schools create courses that match selected UM first-year courses in content and rigor and students earn UM credits. It’s called College in the Schools, and it offers 22 courses in the humanities and social sciences such as Calculus I, Intermediate French, and Introduction to Psychology. They emphasize basic content, for instance, the description of the course in Political Science stating, “Introduction to politics and government in the United States. Constitutional origins and development, major institutions, parties, interest groups, elections, participation, public opinion.”
There is one clear exception to the introductory, “first-year” nature of the listing. It is “English Literature (ENGL 1001W–Introduction to Literature: Poetry, Drama, Narrative).” The heading sounds like a general entry-point into college-level work in a discipline, and so does the brief summary that follows: “Basic techniques for analyzing/understanding literature. Readings of novels, short stories, poems, plays.” In fact, though, the course has a whole other purpose.
The reading list contains 86 titles, nearly all of them contemporary works frankly multicultural in nature and addressing themes of race, gender, sexuality, and homophobia. It includes three novels by Toni Morrison and two by Amy Tan, but none by Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, James, Crane, Wharton, Fitzgerald, or Cather. Faulkner has one entry, and so does Kate Chopin, Hemingway, Hurston, and Ellison, but that’s about it for American classics. Apart from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, classic British literature is completely absent. The first “sample syllabus” inserts Hamlet among 24 possible readings but adds the remark, “while not part of the CIS curriculum, we may explore it.” For drama, the list has no ancient or British playwrights and no Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, or Arthur Miller, but Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and August Wilson’s Fences are there. As for poetry, June Jordan’s Kissing God Goodbye and Billy Collins’ Picnic Lightning, but not Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens, Frost, Eliot, Millay, Langston Hughes, Elizabeth Bishop, or Sylvia Plath.
The reading list and social themes produce something else than an Introduction to Literature class. The learning outcomes aim at certain interests and dispositions, as one can see from the “Inclusivity Statement” from the second sample syllabus, which declares: “Racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ageism and other forms of bigotry are inherent in our culture.” The first sample syllabus assumes such sins may happen when it warns, “While ‘contested space’, i.e. debate and intellectual challenge, are academically necessary and encouraged, it is inappropriate to promote racism, sexism, homophobia, class-ism, ageism, or any other forms of bigotry in this classroom.” The course adds a literary theory component as well, which presents to students, among other things, “Marxist, feminist, postcolonial and LGBT criticism.”
How to respond to such a tendentious curriculum? I wrote an op-ed in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune last week objecting to the course because of the flaws listed above. My conclusion recommended that UM widen the reading list, allowing schools that favor a classic literature curriculum to win college credits for their students. But two days later, the director of College in the Schools answered my call with an op-ed of her own which dismissed all the criticisms. It was filled with misleading statements:
- The author says that “CIS students read books from the late 19th century and 20th century,” but out of 86 titles, only three come before 1900, one short story and two novels from 1899.
- The author says that I object to the course because it “does not focus on the authors he believes students should read.” Note the dishonest adjustment of my recommendation from “widening the reading list” to “making students read other things.” This turns me into the restrictive voice, not the CIS leaders.
- The author says that I accuse CIS of attempting to foster a “negative social critique of American society,” but I wasn’t the one who wrote the “America is inherently racist and sexist” statement, or the one who chose so many books that do, indeed, allege rampant evil -isms in American society.
There is more to say, but the bigger problem remains. The University of Minnesota is using the strong enticement of college credit to inject a social ideology into high schools, one that passes under the false advertising of introductory literary study. When that project was exposed and a constructive correction was urged, UM administrators responded with denial.