By Walter Bowne
I fondly recall the brick-heavy, tissue-paper-thin pages of my Norton Anthologies of American and British literature. Even now, the smell is redolent of intimate seminars with scholars in open-windowed classrooms, white casements encased with dust with the scent of April lilacs. Professor Donahue would wipe the froth from his mouth as he gushed over Emily Dickinson’s erotic “Wild Night - Wild Nights.” My scribbled notes in the margins still remain.
His love of Dickinson’s atypical poem is one reason I use it with my high school juniors. But the liberal and conservative censors that drive textbook sales in the nation in such large states as California and Texas would never allow such sensuality to students.
Okay, so what’s my point?
Well, if we’re really serious as a nation to get students to read, we’re doing a lousy job in the classroom. If I relied on high school textbooks, students would only get a glimpse of heaven. Reading two G-rated “pro-America” short poems from Walt Whitman in a sanitized, Common Core textbook is akin to watching thirty seconds of an awesome football match. Is it any wonder our students cannot read? Or that students groan if a text is more than a few paragraphs? Imagine reading just a stanza from the Book of Job? Or one song of the Song of Solomon? How about a single “excerpted” chapter Grapes of Wrath - the one, you know, with the turtle and not the one where Rose of Sharon breast feeds a hungry man?
But the reading passages in classroom textbooks should mirror reading passages on standardized tests, right?
Our new textbooks, based on Common Core curriculum, actually contain less content than the old pre-CC textbooks. We are now standards based, not content based. The content no longer seems to matter. So many of my colleagues now rush to the copier to print out copies of now-deleted classics (most of which are now legally obtained for free, but please don’t tell the textbook companies this).
What do the textbooks contain? Various “Common Core” standard extension activities? Will these help students become better readers? Will they help them synthesize information? Process better analysis? Perhaps.
But what is lost when students no longer face the daunting and amazing challenge of reading a weighty text like The Federalists Papers or the whole of “Civil Disobedience”? What happens to a society where students and teachers no longer tackle texts like Moby Dick, Invisible Man, Silent Spring? I may seem an archaic Defender of the Canon, but these are the foundational texts of Western Civilization.
What is lost when the literature, the preservation of our culture, the poetry, the beauty, is replaced with supplemental standards? The text becomes dead, the teacher now a technician, the text no longer a divine bolt of electricity between professor and student.
An English teacher worth her or his salt does not need a textbook company dictating what students should read. With a Master's degree in English, I know from surveying my students what they want to read and what they may be able to tackle. I also suggest students to select their own texts.
WIth short attention spans anyway, the short essays and extracted texts do not show the complexity of a text, the depth of a text. Students do not see that an introduction may actually be longer than a paragraph. Students need to probe the outer reaches and the bottomless depths to understand life and their world. What is worth having rarely bubbles at the surface. It takes patience.
And so our SAT scores suffer. And so our teachers complain that students cannot sustain a narrative or cannot develop and defend an argument or cannot compose a research paper over two pages. And so the bureaucrats complain that Johnny can’t read as well as his or her Chinese counterpart? And so mounds of money are invested in textbooks that are aligned with Common Core and textbooks and tests to measure, measure, measure. And so the kids will rattle through the test in minutes, not caring that millions were spent to measure and collect cold data.
I wonder how we as a nation ever got to the moon. I wonder how we ever won the Great War. I wonder how we created some of the best music, the best literature, the best films in the world. Just how was The Greatest Generation educated anyway? And what age was Emerson when he entered Harvard?
Read and write. Employ effective models. Write and read and enjoy. Discuss. Make the classroom student-centered. And have a great teacher as the guide. Make learning fun and make worksheets worthless. It’s really that simple.
And no corporation needs to profit from public dollars.