by Diana Senechal
At age fourteen, I took interest in curriculum—specifically, Soviet curriculum. My family went to Moscow for a year, in 1978–79; my parents were on sabbatical, and my sister and I attended Soviet schools. Before our trip, I learned that students in the ninth grade read Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and other nineteenth-century Russian authors. That settled that: I was determined to enter the ninth grade (comparable to grade 10 or 11 in the U.S.). I wanted to read all of these literary works in the original; I knew it would take some effort, but that didn’t deter me. My wish came true; I was allowed to enter the ninth grade. I took to my responsibilities with fervor, participating eagerly, often clumsily, in class and poring over my reading at home. By spring I was reading Dostoevsky without a dictionary, carrying Crime and Punishment with me everywhere, living the phrases.
The literary works saved the curriculum from being dreadful. Despite the ideological slant of the textbooks, the curriculum tacitly acknowledged that the literature mattered in itself. This acknowledgment was hard won. Even in 1978, well after the Khrushchev Thaw, many works were still banned (including Doctor Zhivago), others hard to find, still others taught with narrow political interpretations—but the literature would not give into these limitations, nor would the readers. Many Russians and other Soviets read avidly, memorized poems, went to great ends to obtain books, published and distributed censored works through “samizdat,” and spent evenings arguing about favorite authors and works. (Yes, this stereotype has been exaggerated, but there is truth to it.) Literature was a serious matter for them, and the school curriculum reflected this.
In American education discussion, we generally treat literature as an afterthought. To insist on this or that work, many say, is to “impose” one’s values on others or to demand that all children learn in “lockstep.” People shy away from recommending a particular work; instead, they refer to “text complexity” or some other generic feature that the book should possess. While short of censorship, this amounts to something similar: a concession to the flat culture of “whatever.” The priorities shift: the point is not for students to read Irving, Melville, Poe, or Twain, but for them to locate a central idea, trace an argument from start to finish, or engage in paired and small-group conversation about a text—any text at all, so long as it meets certain criteria. The Common Core State Standards make a gesture toward literature, but the very fact that is a gesture shows how touchy the matter is. The greater gesture is toward “informational texts,” which are considered essential for “college and career readiness.”
In a manner very different from that of the Soviets, we have created our own regime of jargon: “college and career readiness,” “text complexity,” “reading strategies,” “scaffolding,” “targeted assessments,” “differentiation,” “value added,” and so forth. Yes, these terms have a meaning and serve a purpose. All the same, when we surround ourselves with them, we lose touch with the language that makes all of this worthwhile, such as the lines from Othello, “’Twill out, ’twill out! I peace? / No, I will speak as liberal as the north, / Let heaven and men and devils, let them all, / All, all, cry shame against me, yet I’ll speak.” Of course education discussion cannot subsist on Shakespeare alone; of course it needs some terminology. But without any discussion of the things worth learning, it’s hard to make any sense of “achievement” and “improvement” and other such words.
There are several related issues here. First is the importance of subject matter to education discussion. Be it physics, history, or literature, the subjects themselves illuminate what we do. Second is the matter of a specific curriculum. At some level, the curriculum must lay out a good portion of what students will learn (including the literary works they will read). Without such specificity, curriculum discussion becomes personalized (“I don’t find Shakespeare developmentally appropriate for my students, but I’m not telling you what to do.”) Without common ground within a school, it is difficult, if not impossible, to build on what one is doing. Third, there is the value of literature itself. Teachers may disagree about which works are important, but the importance is there. To make it all a matter of opinion is to trivialize it. It is preferable to fight for a beloved work than to remove specific works from the curriculum.
Is a national literature curriculum the solution? Probably not. But there are other ways to honor literature in the curricula and schools. A district or state curriculum could specify a few works and leave the rest to the discretion of teachers and schools. Or it could lay out a sequence of works and authors but allow for some substitutions. (Many high schools do this as a matter of course; elementary and middle schools could follow suit.) In any case, works of literature and literary nonfiction would be at the center, and skills would take their place around them. This would do more than prepare students for college and career; it would give them something to carry through their lives. It would give them a sense of language that goes beyond the usual. Students would learn to see past the jargon of the day, whatever it might be. They would become aware of aspects of life that push beyond assumptions, that don’t quite add up—in Frost’s words, “formulae that won’t formulate—that almost but don’t quite formulate.” They would learn, through repeated readings, that one’s initial understanding often isn’t the best—that it takes time for a work or concept or historical event to reveal its character. This awareness is no frill. It keeps the mind alive.
Diana Senechal has written for American Educator, Education Week, Educational Leadership, American Educational History Journal, and numerous blogs. She holds a Ph.D. in Slavic languages and literatures from Yale and taught for four years in New York City public schools. Her book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield Education in November.