Conservatives and progressives don’t agree on many things, but neither much like the Common Core. The English and math standards, announced in 2010, have been rejected not only by professional critics of education reform and teachers unions, but also by Rush Limbaugh, groups associated with the Koch brothers, and well as by contributors to this site.
Related: A Sorry Attack on the Common Core
Objections range from the process by which the standards were adopted to the emphasis on nebulous skills and to the shaky research on which some recommendations are based. But one criticism comes up again and again. According to many opponents, the Common Core swaps literary classics for “informational” texts. As Diane Ravitch put it in a recent interview, “I think one of the things that annoys me in the Common Core is that somehow nonfiction gets privileged over fiction, and I don’t understand that.”
It’s easy to sympathize with fears that Shakespeare will be replaced by trendy journalism. But the Common Core’s emphasis on non-fiction is a feature, not a bug. Current curricula expose students almost exclusively to novels, a limitation that leaves them unprepared for college, citizenship, and, yes, work. Austen, Bellow, and Conrad deserve their places on high-school reading lists—and would keep them under the Common Core. Yet students also need to read non-fiction that will challenge them to analyze define concepts, analyze arguments, or identify empirical evidence.
There is some basis for Ravitch’s complaint. The Common Core recommends that by Grade 12, students’ reading include 70% informational texts and just 30% literature. When read carefully, it’s clear that this distribution is supposed to be spread across the curriculum so that informational assignments in science and history would be balanced against literary reading in English. Even so, English classes would probably have to include more informational texts than they usually do now. (See Gracy Olmstead’s helpful discussion.)
Based on reactions since the standards were announced, you’d think that students were being asked to read stereo instructions or railroad timetables. Not so. The list of examples for use in 9th and 10th grade English classes includes Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech. Excerpts from Democracy in America are recommended for 12th-grade history students, who might also read Walden in English courses.
The value of these works needs no defense. What’s more, they’re precisely the kinds of books that students will be asked to read in colleg–at least, they’ll have to do it in my class. I’ve been teaching several of the sources on the Common Core list to freshmen for several years, and I’m certain that they reward careful reading at least as much as dated literary favorites such as Catcher in the Rye.
But most college students struggle when they take up these works for the first time, partly due to occasional archaic language and complex syntax. But technical obstacles are not the main problem. Rather, students have a hard time making sense of classic rhetoric and social analysis because they have little idea of what kind of texts these are, what they are attempting to do, or what critical standards to apply. Having read mostly fiction in high school, they’re at loss when confronted with arguments.
Many students have so little experience with expository or analytic texts that they reflexively describe all books as “novels.” Asked to reconstruct the argument, they sometimes offer to summarize the plot instead. When I taught a summer course in expository writing for advanced high schoolers, one student told me after a class on The Federalist that she had never been assigned any extensive readings without a story before. She wasn’t dumb or lazy—but she had almost no idea what to expect from college-level study.
This problem can’t be blamed on English courses alone. While English teachers rely on novels, many social studies classes revolve around dull textbooks that contain only snippets from original sources. The result is that monuments of the English language and Anglo-American thought that don’t fit easily into the division between literature and history fall through the cracks. As written, the Common Core helps address that problem both by rebalancing assignments toward non-fiction, and by encouraging the coordination of reading assignments across the curriculum.
In addition to classic non-fiction for reading, students need models for expository writing. In order to be helpful, these models need to be relatively recent. It’s important to read Emerson, but I wouldn’t encourage students to write like him.
The Common Core addresses this problem by recommending narrative history such as David McCullough’s 1776 and high quality journalism about science. Some critics have suggested that examples are politically biased. I don’t find this to be true, but the specific selections they could easily be replaced by other essays in politics and ideas—such as Andrew Ferguson’s amusing but skeptical article on the Common Core itself.
The suggestion that students read government documents such as a report by the San Francisco Fed has also been widely ridiculed. I can’t see why—provided that the report isn’t taken in isolation but used as an object for analysis, particularly in essay assignments. Because writing is treated often as an extension of literature, many students enter college with almost no experience writing anything that isn’t based on literary analysis or personal expression. It isn’t rocket science, and well-taught students learn quickly. But what’s wrong with starting early?
Of course, the value of the Common Core recommendations depends on their proper implementation. Mark Bauerlein has argued that the curriculum New York City developed to align with the Core standards avoids literary non-fiction in favor of light journalism and encyclopedia entries. According to Bauerlein, reliance on informational texts threatens to demote literature to second-class status—and to force English teachers to teach subjects and methods in which they have not been trained.
I think Bauerlein underestimates the importance of getting students to practice writing about non-literary topics using non-literary sources. If teachers aren’t prepared to help them do so, that is an argument for better training and support rather than giving up on the enterprise. But the best response to weak state and local curricula is not to oppose the core, but to hold it to its promises. Novels and poetry are crucial parts of a real education, but quality non-fiction deserves the larger place high-school curricula that it already holds in college.