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.