“OK Dead White Guys, You Can Come Out Now”

by Robert Pondiscio
October 5th, 2012

With the advent of Common Core State Standards, English class may be safe once more for Dead White Males.  In an op-ed in the New York Daily News, Mark Bauerlein points out CCSS’s requirement that students should be able to “demonstrate knowledge of 18th-, 19th- and early-20th-century foundational works of American literature.”

“A praiseworthy aim,” writes Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University and author of The Dumbest Generation. “It goes right along with reading the Declaration of Independence, studying the civil rights movement and, ultimately, becoming an informed citizen.”  But to the gatekeepers of high school English, he notes America’s literary tradition “is not a treasure. It’s a threat.”

“The rich but flawed history of our literature, which stretches back not just to the Puritans, but to ‘Beowulf,’ has been chipped away by identity anxieties. We’re told that female, black and brown students must encounter inspiring female, black and brown characters and authors — or else they won’t realize that they can become successful adults.”

“This is the role-model premise, and it applies a quota system whereby the representation of authors must mirror the population in race and gender,” writes Bauerlein.  “With the advent of Common Core standards, we finally have the chance to break their hold,” he concludes.

“English teachers now have a solid defense against identity quotas in the classroom. The states that have adopted Common Core, including New York, have to observe the standards, and so the high school English classroom will thus preserve Hawthorne, Irving, Melville, Whitman and other authors who don’t match the PC mentality.

The “demonstrate knowledge” requirement in CCSS is an interesting turn of phrase and one I hadn’t thought much about until reading Mark’s piece.  While I expect debates about the canon will always be with us, it seems reasonable to suggest that an educated high school graduate can and should be made familiar with a wide array of classics while still reading “Beloved” in English class. As with so many mad pendulum swings in education, it needn’t be an either or proposition.

One can look at literature in two ways.  Given the depth and breadth of our literary traditions, few of us will live long enough to do more than scratch the surface.  But there is still great value in familiarity with works that are cultural touchstones, and to which allusions are common in our language and discourse.  For example, I will reluctantly confess that I have never read Moby Dick, but I’m familiar with the plot of the novel and I get the references associated with it, and you probably do too:  Captain Ahab.  The white whale. “Call me Ishmael.”  That nautical logo on the cup of coffee you ordered from Starbucks this morning?  Not a coincidence.

Did I just “demonstrate knowledge of 18th-, 19th- and early-20th-century foundational works of American literature?”  Am I at, above, or approaching the standard?  Surely, there’s clearly value in both depth and breadth.  Indeed, one of the best pieces I’ve read on the value of cultural literacy was written by Bauerlein himself.

I’d be delighted if CCSS didn’t start yet another war over the canon.  But I’m naive like that sometimes.


  1. But if you take your “cultural literacy demonstrate knowledge of” argument to its logical end, high school English becomes a tour through the collected works of Spark Notes.

    Comment by Rachel — October 5, 2012 @ 1:44 pm

  2. Rachel! I’m surprised at you! Was I not clear that kids benefit from BOTH depth and breadth?

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — October 5, 2012 @ 1:48 pm

  3. If you have not yet read Moby Dick, you can now hear Moby Dick via the BBC

    Moby Dick is chock-a-block with allusions to Shakespeare and the poetic sections of the Bible, so people should read those, too. Also Typee and Billy Budd.

    Typee might surprise some of the conservatives here:

    It may be asserted without fear of contradictions that in all the cases of outrages committed by Polynesians, Europeans have at some time or other been the aggressors, and that the cruel and bloodthirsty disposition of some of the islanders is mainly to be ascribed to the influence of such examples. (The) he voluptuous Indian, with every desire supplied, whom Providence has bountifully provided with all the sources of pure and natural enjoyment, and from whom are removed so many of the ills and pains of life–what has he to desire at the hands of Civilization? Will he be the happier? Let the once smiling and populous Hawaiian islands, with their now diseased, starving, and dying natives, answer the question. The missionaries may seek to disguise the matter as they will, but the facts are incontrovertible. CH 4

    Comment by Harold — October 5, 2012 @ 2:10 pm

  4. Robert — My worry is that since “breadth” tends to be easier than “depth,” breadth tends to win when time is tight…

    Comment by Rachel — October 6, 2012 @ 3:20 am

  5. And I know there’s a tendency to feel that dead white guys have been pushed aside too much. And I know its a long time since I was in high school. But the only book I can remember reading by a female author in jr. high and high school was Ethan Frome (and maybe Wuthering Heights?).

    And my daughter’s high school curriculum (in a pretty ordinary CA district) isn’t exactly lacking in dead white guys — Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Emerson, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Golding, Weisel, Salinger, In fact, in one class not only were all the books written by men, virtually all the characters in the books were male (and white).

    I don’t really have a problem with the “canonical” authors (though I really think Lord of the Flies could be retired) — but I think the idea that somehow these authors have been banished from high schools in the last 30 years is a strawman.

    And I do worry that once you start thinking about a canon, the pressure is to add authors without subtracting any, and you start risking the tour through Spark Notes.

    Comment by Rachel — October 6, 2012 @ 4:12 am

  6. I wanted to read Bauerlein’s article, but it took much too long to load (I often experience that with NY Daily News articles). I tried several times and tried reloading, but to no avail. I will try later.

    But from what I gather, he makes an important point. That leads me to something else: I can make no sense of Jamie Gass’ repeated assertion that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn isn’t in the standards. No particular work is in the standards, but American foundational literature is.

    The text exemplars are not required works; they’re just examples. If something isn’t in the exemplars, that doesn’t mean it isn’t in the standards.

    I am sympathetic to certain critiques of the CCSS. I agree with many that Massachusetts (and Indiana and other states with strong standards) should have been allowed to keep their standards without forsaking federal funding. I agree with Sandra Stotsky and others that the standards–or at least many interpretations of the standards–underemphasize literature (beyond Shakespeare and American literature). But I do not understand the claim that there’s no room now for Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — October 6, 2012 @ 7:52 am

  7. It’s kind of astounding that anybody who knows anything about Journalism would cite the New York Daily News as a resource on academic diversity, let alone integrity. Nor that anyone would be surprised that the News supports the revival of “dead white guys,” since those are the guys who staff their editors’ lounge.

    Comment by Joe Beckmann — October 6, 2012 @ 12:03 pm

  8. Take another look, Joe. It’s an op-ed by Mark Bauerlein *in* the NY Daily News. Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory, and a first-rate scholar.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — October 6, 2012 @ 12:21 pm

  9. This debate shows exactly why we need our teachers to be well-educated in the breadth themselves: so they (we) can judge AND argue for our judgments. To use only canonical literature simply because it is canonical is as foolhardy — and common, I fear — as it is to eschew all canonical literature because it is neither new nor representative of some particular demographic. It is important for a faculty to be able to have the argument pro and con among themselves; competency in that regard foreshadows an ability to design a curriculum for our students in which the teaching of ANY of this makes sense within a thoughtful arc.

    A year of literature has plenty of space for both “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and at LEAST one novel and some poetry and short stories by African-Americans, with plenty of room left over for a wide variety of other powerful, resonant works, many of which should be canonical. “Huck”-or-”Beloved” is a false dilemma.

    As someone who has had to teach both “Billy Budd” and “Silas Marner” (and, having done so, would hesitate to do so again), I love to evaluate and re-evaluate, calibrate and re-calibrate. I have two sections this year who read well below grade level, but I cannot in good conscience teach a class called “American Lit” for them without having them read enough of “Huck Finn” to understand its plot, humor, style, themes, and controversial position in the dialogue on race in America.

    Comment by Carl Rosin — October 6, 2012 @ 9:57 pm

  10. Carl you sound like a thoughtful literature teacher who understands the purpose of literature class. Unfortunatly I can recall my high school English class where the only standard was to read American authors. I bought in a cheap, poorly written but somwhat steamy romance novel by an American author (according to the author bio. in the back of the book). I asked if I could read it for my classroom work. The teacher replied, “Of course, as long as it was written by an American author.” Keep in mind I was not a struggling reader but a student who was reading well above grade level. Fortunatly for me, my mother found out what I was reading for English class and I ended up reading Mark Twain instead. From what I have seen in far too many classrooms not much has changed. Many teachers still believe that it is very important for children to self select their books and that as long as they are reading it doesn’t matter what they are reading.

    Comment by Mary S. — October 7, 2012 @ 3:11 am

  11. There are two viewpoints that never seem to die, unfortunately; “As long as they are reading, it doesn’t matter what they’re reading” and “Those kids (the high-IQ)) will do fine, anyway.” (so we don’t/shouldn’t provide any special work/program for them)

    Comment by momof4 — October 7, 2012 @ 9:46 am

  12. @Mary #10: For choice reading, outside of the curriculum, I have no problem with that teacher’s philosophy — I allow something very similar myself. If that IS the curriculum, however, I’d call it evidence (not necessarily proof, but evidence) that the school is guilty of educational malpractice. I’m happy that you seem to have overcome it!

    @momof4 #11: Both malpractice! Malpractice, malpractice, malpractice!

    (That said, I’d like to add what I suggested to Mary: momof4′s first undead-viewpoint ["As long as..."] strikes me as perfectly valid BUT ONLY TO THE EXTENT that it applies to outside choice-reading. Let them choose what they choose, to supplement what the school chooses; in some situations, choice is a lifeline for a kid. Choice evolves into better choice over time, given maturity and patience. My experience tells me that the apotheosis of choice for its own sake, unfortunately, is more likely to evolve into degradation of evaluation toward a sickly relativism.)

    Comment by Carl Rosin — October 7, 2012 @ 10:18 am

  13. Too bad Bauerlein regularly beats up on straw arguments; it’s often hard to tell when his culture-war points are legitimate.

    For a different perspective on canons that’s more historically accurate, see Lawrence Levine’s “The Opening of the American Mind” — and I wrote earlier this year about the difference between the ed psychologists’ “prior knowledge” literature and the question of canon.

    Comment by Sherman Dorn — October 7, 2012 @ 11:13 am

  14. Since the blog stripped out the URL of my entry on canons, I’ve put it in the website link above

    Comment by Sherman Dorn — October 7, 2012 @ 11:13 am

  15. Bauerlein writes “We’re told that female, black and brown students must encounter inspiring female, black and brown characters and authors — or else they won’t realize that they can become successful adults.

    This is the role-model premise, and it applies a quota system whereby the representation of authors must mirror the population in race and gender.”

    Read more: http://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/back-dead-white-males-article-1.1175215#ixzz28eToPUBC

    I remember getting into a fight with a friends of mine, a community college English teacher, who defended teaching Mary Shelley but not the poet Shelley, Mary’s husband to her students. I felt that this was short-changing the students and giving them a false picture.

    If it were me, I would have assigned those community college students a good dose of English poetry, including P.B. Shelley.

    So, in one sense I sympathize with Bauerlein here. It is a narrow idea of a role model that is based on sex or physical appearance. On the other hand, I used to have book by Mortimer Adler about the so-called Western Canon, that had an appended list of “Great Books of Western Literature”, stretching from Homer to the present, which included only four works by women in all of literary history. Two by Jane Austen (Emma and Pride and Prejudice), and one each by George Elliot and Virginia Woolf (this last very reluctantly). This same list included “all works by Cicero” (but no Horace) and “all the works of Dickens” (including presumably his newspaper articles and juvenalia). Also included, for some reason, were the works of Etienne Gilson (a once-fashionable French theologian who wrote reams of stuff). Such a list as Adler was clearly tendentious. In fact it is arrogant for any on person to attempt to lay down the “great books” for all time.

    It cannot be denied that the “great books” was deliberately anti-feminist. I remember all too well when men would say and write in “serious” magazines: “Women can’t write,” “women can’t paint”and even “Jews can’t write”, or compose music [!!] and African Americans have no art, and so on. The generation that had to put up with people like Adler and worse felt a need to right a great wrong.

    The only honest way to make up a curriculum, in my opinion, is to allow the teachers to make up their own, based on their own expertise and following historical guidelines, just as the committee of ten recommended in the late nineteenth century. The study of the Bible ought to include comparative material, such as the Egyptian Book of the Dead and Gilgamesh (as was done in my daughter’s Waldorf school — not to mention some of the classics of Buddhism and other Asian epic and religious texts, which they also studied. Nor should world dance and folk music be left out.

    Also the teaching of Latin and modern languages should never have been abandoned. There is merit in being able to read even a page of an author in the original language.

    Comment by Harold — October 7, 2012 @ 6:18 pm

  16. With respect to Sherman Dorn (whom I genuinely respect, with disagreement at times), I don’t think Bauerlein is using a strawman here. I have taught at schools that emphasized matching the curriculum to the students’ own experiences. The idea of “great literature” was somewhat taboo. Now I teach at a school with a happy medium–where both the canon (loosely defined) and the culturally “accessible” texts come into play. No, they need not be mutually exclusive, but sometimes they are treated as such.

    Many interesting comments in this thread. Thanks to Harold, Carl, et al.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — October 7, 2012 @ 11:05 pm

  17. Dead white males appears to hold true in all early America.

    I used a history book (Great Names) to supplement my social studies curriculum every year. It had biographies of twenty seven “more noteworthy” Americans who helped to shape US history, from Columbus to Eisenhower. Most noteworthy were the omissions of women, Blacks, and Jewish contributors, save Florence Nightingale, Booker T. Washington, and Hyman Solomon.

    Every year I would ask the class the rhetorical question, how could it possibly be that in our entire history such short shrift could be paid to these cohorts. At the conclusion to the discussion (yes, we had some whole group discussions in my class) they were reminded of “the way we were” for the first three centuries of our history. You could tell by the expressions on their faces, it left them with much to consider.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — October 8, 2012 @ 6:34 am

  18. Thanks, Diana Senechal and Sherman Dorn, I am putting the Levine book on order.

    Comment by Harold — October 8, 2012 @ 7:32 am

  19. [...] Via Core Knowledge Blog. [...]

    Pingback by Welcome back, dead white males — Joanne Jacobs — October 8, 2012 @ 11:51 am

  20. There’s always Howard Zinn’s A People’s History. BTW, dead white male authors continued to be taught across all schools where I have worked regardless of CCSS.

    Comment by Mary Ann Reilly — October 8, 2012 @ 10:19 pm

  21. Mary Ann,

    Dead white authors and contributors to the first three centuries of our history remain prominent because they were the only ones allowed to take part in the process. Minorities of all colors/creeds/sex were effectively foreclosed from entering any semblance of significance.

    Women were confined to the home and child rearing until 1920; Blacks were only apportioned three fifths personage for two centuries, the brutality of Jim Crow and Reconstruction until the Civil Rights movement during the middle of the last century. Pretty tough paradigms to address, never mind eventually overcome. And their struggles continue now, well into the twenty-first century.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — October 9, 2012 @ 7:08 am

  22. [...] Posts Toy Canon Demographics Isn’t Destiny. Vocabulary is Destiny. “OK Dead White Guys, You Can Come Out Now” It’s Not You, It’s Me. I Think You’re an Idiot. E.D. Hirsch on Paul Tough’s How [...]

    Pingback by Toy Canon « The Core Knowledge Blog — October 10, 2012 @ 3:20 pm

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