The Inclusive, Capacious, Diverse, Relevant . . . and Misleading California Reading List

by Guest Blogger
April 8th, 2013

By Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is a professor in the Department of English at Emory University and the author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future; Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30.


Last month, the California Department of Education issued Recommended Literature: Pre-Kindergarten Through Grade Twelve, an updated reading list of books for teachers of English, science, and social studies to use in their classrooms. The press release states that the list will “help students meet the new Common Core State Standards,” which were adopted by the State of California on August 10, 2010. To produce the list, the Department of Education convened teachers, librarians, administrators, curriculum experts, and college professors who deliberated and crafted the final tally, which Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson declared “a vital resource for students, teachers and parents.”

Sadly, the result falls well short of that description. Worse, this reading list actually works against Common Core and the expectations that inform them. The document

  • Explicitly violates the spirit and letter of the standards;
  • Does not foster college readiness of high school graduates;
  • Does not ensure that students are exposed to our literary heritage.

Why? For two simple reasons: the list is too long and too indiscriminate. It contains 7,800 titles—2,500 for grades 9 – 12 alone—and it sets dozens of classics among thousands of contemporary, topical titles without distinction. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is followed by Macho, a 1991 tale of an illegal immigrant who becomes a field worker. Little Women makes the list, but the description of it says nothing about its historical status. Every work gets the same treatment, a one-sentence statement of content. The field is overwhelmingly wide and it has only one level, ranking Leaves of GrassHuck Finn, etc. equal to pop culture publications. It has no core, and it ensures that students across California will have un-common reading exposures.

Common Core demands the opposite. One unambiguous standard reads, “Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature,” requiring that English classes foreground Ben Franklin’sAutobiography, Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery, Emily Dickinson’s poetry, etc. The California list does include such classics, but they are buried in a pile of recent works that have yet to face the test of time. When I clicked on one part of the Grade 9 – 12 list, I counted only three American staples among the 100 works provided. With no other guidance, Recommended Literature effectively says, “This is as good as that,” a flattening that contradicts Common Core’s emphasis on foundational texts. At face value, it implies that a year reading Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in HeavenThe Breaking Point (cliques in a private school), and The Lost Symbol (sequel to The Da Vinci Code) is just as preparatory as a year of The IliadThe Odyssey, and The Aeneid.

The Department’s all-equal approach also undermines college readiness. When students enter college, their professors assume that they possess some cultural literacy, that is, a little knowledge about the Renaissance, the Civil War, ancient mythology, and the American novel from Hawthorne to Ellison. When professors in U.S. history, sociology, or political science mention the American ideal of self-reliance, those who have read Franklin, Emerson, Thoreau, and Washington have a decided advantage over those who haven’t. A high school English teacher who skips those seminal works may feel that contemporary titles speak to the students more immediately, but he or she disadvantages them at the next level (and possibly throughout their lives). Many contemporary works are superb, of course, but they do not provide the background learning that goes with Gulliver’s TravelsJane Eyre, and 1984. And few of them, too, contain the exquisite sentences of Gatsby, the piercing metaphors of Blake, the characters of Flannery O’Connor . . .

In the American setting, great works from the Puritans to the Beat Generation form an essential stream of our national identity, a lineage as crucial as the lineage of the American presidency. How much of our understanding of the Depression comes from The Grapes of Wrath, of the American South circa 1930 from William Faulkner, of old New England from Hawthorne? Without them, students lose a vital connection to their country. In adding so much contemporary literature, the CDE claims a more culturally relevant curriculum, but the relevance it offers amounts to a thin and haphazard version of the culture they inhabit.

Recommended Literature needs another component, one that ranks works by their literary-historical standing. Californians want the CDE to exercise some judgment, to distinguish the superb from the merely interesting, the foundational from the topical, the timeless classics from the temporarily relevant. Common Core does so, and in producing this gargantuan grab-bag of works, this list without a core, CDE has misaligned with the standards it adopted three years ago.



  1. I couldn’t agree more. I am a new teacher, and one of my “mentor” teachers read the Hunger Games aloud in class every day. One part of the problem is that public school teachers are rarely intellectuals. They themselves have no knowledge of or interest in seminal texts. Too many people are working to reform the public school system when all available energy should be going toward introducing alternatives (competition) to it. My city in Oregon won’t approve charter schools and there are no private alternatives except Catholic schools. I think Common Core is just more false hope. We don’t have good enough teachers to implement the standards. We need better teachers who are life-long learners and inspired intellectuals. They are out there (me for one) but the system is essentially closed. Many teachers got into the system years ago when teaching was an easy profession to gain entry into. They weren’t particularly drawn to it, but it offered summers off and job security. The wrong type of people were attracted to teaching, and now we are stuck with millions of burned-out teachers who are just waiting to start drawing huge pensions. It would be hard to imagine a more decadent, ineffectual system.

    Comment by Jim — April 8, 2013 @ 1:03 pm

  2. Kudos to Mark Bauerlein for calling out the idiotic California education department for its “all things for all people” reading list and for pointing out that this violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the Common Core. As I have written elsewhere,Common Core won’t live up to its promise unless serious education reformers do what Bauerlein just did. That is, they should monitor the curriculum adoptions at the state and district levels to make sure that they really do lead to a grade by grade, content rich curriculum.

    Many of the Common Core Standards’ most strident critics have cynically used the California reading list to indict the standards as a whole. In fact this regrettable episode actually disproves one of the critics’ main arguments — that Common Core represents an illegal move by the federal government to take control of education away from the states. It demonstrates that the states have not lost their educational independence because of Common Core. It also shows that scuttling Common Core and leaving decisions on the content of standards solely in the hands of the states could well result in even more stupidity.

    Comment by Sol Stern — April 8, 2013 @ 7:50 pm

  3. This weekend at the California Teachers’ Association State Council meeting, I had a chance to talk briefly with Tom Adams, the Director of Curriculum Frameworks and Instructional Materials at the California Department of Education (I wish I had read this blog post first). I asked him if he had read E.D. Hirsch. He said he had and that he knew Hirsch had endorsed the Common Core. I asked if Hirsch had made any impact on him. I forget what he said –not a definite “yes”. I told him about the worry some of us have that the implementation is going in a direction that Hirsch would hate –that the focus will be on skills-drills rather than building of core knowledge, and that the latter is the only way to truly build reading and writing competency. To his credit, he did seem to grasp Hirsch’s central thesis, and pointed to the vocab development strand of the Common Core standards –apparently language there encourages wide-reading in subject areas to build up vocab. He also talked about having once taught “To Kill a Mockingbird” and finding he had to explain that prejudice in the South was more than just individuals’ racism, but a whole system of institutionalized segregation. He saw there that background knowledge was crucial. But what I fear he thinks is the solution to kids’ knowledge gaps is “scaffolding” texts on an as-needed basis (he used this term several times over the evening; I’m not entirely sure what he means by it). He criticized Coleman’s early calls for an end to scaffolding. He was looking exhausted. It was late, so I thanked him for answering my question and shook his hand.

    I heard a lot from various state officials and other education leaders about Common Core over the weekend –too much to summarize here. In brief: I’m worried. I may try to post more later.

    Comment by Ponderosa — April 8, 2013 @ 9:22 pm

  4. With respect to implementing the Common Core; it seems that we have a knowledge gap within our schools, districts, and state departments of education. I have found that most, not all, of those involved in education rarely read any research or anything of any real value. This leads to a culture where almost anything goes, and pedagogy and curriculm are deemed “research based” when in fact they are far from it.

    Many districts take these practices hook, line, and sinker because they lack the fundamental knowledge to make these critical judgements. Which reminds me of Dan Willingham’s latest book, but, once again, hardly any in education have read it.

    This is analogous to the football coach who watches Bill Belichick and copies every part of the Patriot’s offense, only his offense doesn’t work because he lacks the fundamental know-how of how to run the offense. The Common Core is a good game plan, but it will take an excellent curriculum, guided by knowledgeable educators, to make it work well.

    Comment by KP — April 9, 2013 @ 1:19 pm

  5. I wholeheartedly agree with the thrust of this posting. But I wonder how many English professors assume that incoming students have cultural literacy in the areas that Mr. Bauerlein cites. And even more disturbing, how many professors denigrate such cultural literacy as “white male”, “right-wing”, not inclusive, etc.?

    Here’s an example of this thinking that impacts my own kids’ K-12 Core Knowledge/classical charter school – ERA. Last summer, I spoke with the Upper School dean (she deals with high school curricula)about the possibility of ERA students earning dual high school/college credits for the ERA’s Humanities courses. Minnesota has a dual credit program called College in the Schools (CIS) that is sponsored by a few institutions, the most prominent being the University of Minnesota.

    The ERA courses combine history and literature, and classes are taught mostly by means of Socratic seminars. My 9th grade son has already read in full The Iliad and The Odyssey (Fagles translation), as well as selections from Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Marcus Aurelius, et al (9th grade is Greek and Roman year). Students have to write a lot during all four high school years, as well as participate during class discussions. Many alumni have reported how much better prepared they were for college than their college peers, a sentiment echoed by many of these students’ professors.

    So far, so good. And when the ERA dean showed the grade 9-12 reading list to the CIS professors at the University of Minnesota, and explained how classes were taught, the initial reaction was favorable: the Humanities courses were being taught at a college level. But then the other shoe dropped – the University of Minnesota wouldn’t grant CIS credit because the authors included in the ERA courses were insufficiently “diverse”, i.e. not enough authors who were female, gay, or “of color.”

    The CIS professors have their own list of titles that are effectively required. As you might expect, the authors are diverse in skin pigmentation, reproductive biology, and sexual orientation – but not in political or cultural beliefs (see link below for this reading list).

    Where in academia is this clear goal of ideological indoctrination in the humanities any different? And when most English professors – who “educate” our K-12 teachers – clearly don’t believe that literary works should be ranked by their literary-historical standing, what chance do our high schools have of providing first-rate education in literature?

    Comment by John Webster — April 9, 2013 @ 1:38 pm

  6. I recently read Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart, while I think there is a lot to criticize in his causal analysis, I was struck by his description of the divide. Especially since I have children going to the schools he describes in the super zip codes. In DC, many parents figure out how to pay $25,000 or more a year to make sure their kids are at schools that do hit the classics. They are decision makers and don’t appear to believe they have a stake in the education debate.

    In the public schools outside of the most rarefied neighborhoods, schools are in such a triage mode that most cannot and do not even contemplate any type of a core classics text due to the very wide range of skills by the kids in their classes. You can have middle school classes with kids reading anywhere from second grade to college. Teachers are evaluated on matrix that assume every kid in that class will understand all the points trying to be communicated, which is just obvious that they won’t given the stratification. Teachers are even more hampered coming out of ed programs that are more political agendas than actually teaching the skills and knowledge a teacher will need. In this conflicted of an atmosphere it is unlikely that any list will be anything but a scatterplot of agendas. Frankly, if Core Knowledge wants to succeed it needs to reach teachers and empower them. They have the direct link to kids, they have the greatest roll to play and maybe the most to benefit.

    Comment by DC Parent — April 9, 2013 @ 1:40 pm

  7. John, your point about middle schoolers having a wide variety of skills is spot on and not an exaggeration. We have a policy formulated in the Capital of Oregon by educators and bureaucrats called “inclusion.” I don’t know if other school districts have adopted it. It is going to soon replace “mainstreaming.” Mainstreaming is when we put kids who are special ed. or far below grade level into a regular classroom. The teacher is still supposed to teach grade level material, and the kids below grade level often have a special teacher accompany them in these classes to take notes for them. In my experience, the kids who are below grade level are there in physical presence only. It is unfair and bordering on cruel to expect them to be able to keep up with the rest of the class. The special ed. teacher ends up doing their work for them including taking their tests for them (this is expensive as well). Well this wasn’t good (fair?) enough so now we have inclusion coming. I was taught in a graduate teaching program just a few months back that we are now supposed to design our lesson plans around the special ed. students in the class. They are not just mainstreamed into the class, but are the center of focus for designing lessons. I had already had some student teaching experience and I asked how this was possible and the answer was brief: Universal Design for Learning or UDL. I didn’t even to bother to look up UDL (I am sure I did some reading on it in my program) because anyone with an ounce of common sense knows its ridiculous. So, while I think highly of Mr. Hirsch’s work, I think the system is flawed in fundamental ways that his recommendations don’t address. These more fundamental flaws will, I think, fatally undermine the adoption of Common Core Standards. But, of course, every school district is different, and maybe Common Core will be a benefit to some school districts that are not in as bad a shape as the ones in Oregon. By the way my local schools including the high school gets a 10 out of 10 on so no one even thinks there is problem here. They are a little nonplussed, however, when their kids graduate and can’t write a decent essay.

    Comment by Jim — April 9, 2013 @ 3:04 pm

  8. California’s reading list may well ensconce control of education in the hands of the states, but this will only come back to haunt them, or I should say, California’s students.

    Perhaps, after they get a few years of feedback from the new CC assessments, proving their list misguided, will they then amend their ways and come to grips with a more appropriate anthology.

    The problem, those years of school could be lost for all those students. As Sol stated above – stupidity.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — April 10, 2013 @ 9:52 pm

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