Top Scholars, Great Reads

by Guest Blogger
February 6th, 2014

It’s been a tremendous few weeks for those who love to read about building knowledge. Here are three great resources that are worth studying.

I. Knowledge at the Core: Don Hirsch, Core Knowledge, and the Future of the Common Core

This slim volume from the Fordham Institute has an agenda-setting introduction by Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli, then several terrific essays:

  • “Me, My Sons, and E. D. Hirsch” by Sol Stern
  • “Complex Texts Require Complex Knowledge: Will the New English Standards Get the Content Curriculum They Need?” by Ruth Wattenberg
  • “There Are No Shortcuts: Mending the Rift between Content Knowledge and Deeper Learning” by Robert Pondiscio
  • “Building Teacher Enthusiasm for Core Knowledge” by the Farkas Duffett Research Group

Even better, there are three must-reads by Hirsch: “Sustaining the American Experiment,” “Romancing the Child,” and “Why I’m For the Common Core.”

II. Nate Silver and E. D. Hirsch

Daisy Christodoulou, author of Seven Myths about Education (which will be published in the US in March), writes great blog posts all the time, but this one stands out. Christodoulou has a critical message for data-driven education reformers: “We can’t just predict using statistics alone. We need a theory.” She continues:

Without this theoretical understanding, we are more likely to conduct meaningless tests, mistake correlation for causation and confuse statistical significance with causal significance. This is something that E. D. Hirsch has written an absolutely brilliant article about…. Hirsch notes that we do have a strong theory from cognitive science about how pupils learn. We can use this theory to guide our teaching…. Here is his list of reliable general principles (in the article he discusses each at length).

• Prior knowledge as a prerequisite to effective learning.
• Meaningfulness.
• The right mix of generalization and example.
• Attention determines learning.
• Rehearsal (repetition) is usually necessary for retention.
• Automaticity (through rehearsal) is essential to higher skills.
• Implicit instruction of beginners is usually less effective.

It seems to me this is an excellent and easily accessible summary of what we know from cognitive science. If we used these as a basis for devising RCTs [randomized controlled trials] and as a starting point for discussing the findings we get from them, I think we would be doing well.

III. Why We All Have a Stake in the Common Core Standards

This brief essay by Mark Bauerlein drives home a key point for critics of the Common Core standards to consider: Most students are not well prepared for college. The standards alone won’t guarantee that more students are college ready, but they do nudge schools in the right direction. Writing for a higher education audience, Bauerlein argues:

When ACT, one of the best-known judges of college readiness, examined why so many first-year students end up in remedial courses and perform poorly, it identified one factor above all others: “Performance on complex texts is the clearest differentiator in reading between students who are likely to be ready for college and those who are not.” Students three months out of high school enroll in freshman composition, a survey of U.S. history, and Econ 101 eager and hopeful, only to find that they can’t comprehend a Supreme Court opinion, 100-year-old oration, contemporary poem, and other texts.

Those pages prove too much for half of them (according to ACT), and colleges have insufficient resources to help…. To comprehend the texts they will face in college, students need general knowledge about science, math, history, civics, geography, arts and literature, religion, and technology….

Willy Loman, satire, and the poetry of King James stand proudly beside Gettysburg, separation of powers, and photosynthesis in the procession of cardinal things. The only adjustment English teachers need make is to add more literary nonfiction, which may include letters by Emily Dickinson, essays by Richard Rodriguez, chapters from Up From Slavery, and other unsurprising titles. Common Core readily admits them if they impart verbal facility and background knowledge that serve students well at the next level.

Critics of Common Core rightly worry, however, that curricula currently in development interpret “informational text” too nonliterarily and disregard cultural literacy. A troubling example comes from the National Council of Teachers of English, in a self-proclaimed guide to the standards. It declares, “the CCSS focus is on skills, strategies, and habits that will enable students to adapt to the rhetorical demands of their future learning and contributions.”

The authors mention “prior knowledge that gives context to the complexities of further reading,” but the “context texts” they recommend include film excerpts, blogs, radio shows, podcasts, and graphic novels, options often nonliterary and minimally fruitful for cultural literacy. Indeed, the choice of materials is secondary: “How the texts are used to scaffold the reading experience takes precedence over which texts are chosen.”

The burden, then, lies with college teachers to ensure that “which texts” does take precedence, specifically, that new informational texts in high school pay off in freshman year. They must be compellingly literary and rich in historical, social, psychological, or moral content. “Do not spend precious hours on media and topics that will not build familiarity that will be rewarded at the next level,” we must insist. Select informational texts that augment the knowledge base and enhance literary understanding.


Strategies for Third Graders, Theories for Graduate Students

by Guest Blogger
December 16th, 2013

By Mark Bauerlein

The over-reliance on reading comprehension strategies in primary and secondary education has been a consistent theme at Core Knowledge for several years, but nevertheless people may not realize that reading strategies have a remarkable counterpart in higher education.  You may assume that schools of education are the issue, and certainly they favor “strategies” approaches to reading instruction.  But I have in mind another institution, the teaching of interpretation in graduate and undergraduate literature courses.  The seminar transpires far from the 3rd-grade classroom, to be sure, but one particular development in literary studies over the last half-century parallels closely the focus on strategies, and its future may prove a lesson in the effectiveness of the latter.

The development is this: roughly, during the second half of the 20th century, literary studies transferred focus from literary-historical knowledge to what we might call “performance facility.”  While most teachers in 1950 aimed to instill in students disciplinary content—languages, philology, bibliography, rhetoric, and poetic tradition from Beowulf to T. S. Eliot (or another national lineage)—teachers in 1990 aimed to plant the capacity to perform an astute interpretation of manifold texts.  The former tied his tools to literary-historical truth—textual criticism of a Shakespeare play required technical editing skills, but they proceeded in light of Shakespeare’s biography, the linguistics of Early Modern English, the record of Shakespeare editions, etc.  The latter tied her tools to concepts and strategies—interpretation of a Shakespeare play presumed a critical approach (New Critical, feminist, psychoanalytical, etc.) that she could wield without knowing very much about the writer and the historical context of the play.  It was more important to understand, for instance, Freud’s concept of repression or the New Critic’s key concepts the “intentional fallacy” and the “heresy of paraphrase” than it was the physical structure of the Globe theater or the make-up of London audiences.  You didn’t need that knowledge to write an essay about Hamlet.  All you needed were the critical concepts.  A student of the former ended up knowledgeable, one of the latter capable (and perhaps knowledgeable, or perhaps not).  The one knows, the other performs.

The reasons for the performative turn include trends in enrollments, research productivity, the job market, the importation of European ideas and practices, and multiculturalism, but whatever their mixture at different times and places, they produced a different ideal.  Once it triumphed, the model literary student didn’t stand forth because he knew Elizabethan society and the Shakespeare corpus fact by fact and word by word.  She stood out because she could wield interpretative concepts dazzlingly and flexibly, consistent first with the grounds of the concepts, not with the literature and its context.  Yes, to understand the phonetics of Shakespearean English was impressive, but by 1990 it seemed a plodding endeavor when set alongside the ability to produce a clever feminist interpretation of Macbeth.

(Macbeth and witches courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

I saw the trend first-hand in the 1980s, when some of my fellow graduate students formulated dissertations on the interpretation model.  They chose one work as their topic, Heart of Darkness, for instance, and wrote six chapters on it, one a Neo-Aristotelian reading, one a psychological reading, a deconstructionist, a reader-response, and a colonialist reading, each one a distinct, unrelated performance.  To do so, they didn’t need much historical knowledge about late-19th-century Africa, Conrad’s life, the 19th-century British novel, European politics, or the ivory trade, merely some ideas from each critical approach and the novella itself.  Their efforts nicely tallied job skills in those years, too, the ability to handle different theories and practices usually counting for more than literary-historical knowledge. Those of us in graduate school and coming to maturity in the 1980s learned a clear lesson about the discipline: the center had shifted from the tradition and its contexts to interpretation and its varieties.

The trend drifted down into undergraduate classes as well.  Youths who took English classes in the 80s and 90s encountered sparkling interpretations by Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Harold Bloom, Edward Said, Stanley Fish, Clifford Geertz, Shoshana Felman, and others that were admired not so much for the knowledge they imparted as the interpretative brilliance they displayed.  Articles and books followed the same method, skirting literary-historical backgrounds but enacting an adept application of theory.  Their proliferation resulted in a new epistemology for the field.  Much of the theory behind popular schools of interpretation explicitly denounced objective knowledge as an Enlightenment myth, a presumption of neutrality, a denial of interests and politics.  The success of that critique explains why, for instance, survey courses in English literature steadily dropped out as requirements for the major.

Similarly, one can attribute the absence of content in English language arts standards to performative goals.  After all, the emphasis on interpretive skills means that the texts interpreted needn’t be prescribed.  An expert interpreter can manage a 16th-century lyric as well as yesterday’s op-ed, right?  Anyone who insists on literary-historical knowledge clings to an exploded notion.  For people who embraced performance, the idea of a reading list isn’t just old-fashioned—it’s impertinent.

You can easily see how comprehension strategies complement this mode of interpretation.  Of course, the English graduate student possesses some literary-historical knowledge, while the typical 8th grader does not, but in their respective classrooms, what they learn has a common feature.  Both of them are taught to comprehend by applying abstract procedures to a text, for the one, “identify the main idea,” and for the other, “identify buried patriarchal norms” (to take one example).  Both classrooms emphasize the acts of the reader more than the content of the words read, putatively granting interpreters a mastery and liberation.  Know-how prevails over know-about.  Interpretation and comprehension abstract from the reading process discrete steps and ask students to practice them over and over.  (Many books in the 80s offered primer-like instructions in a deconstructive reading, a Freudian reading, etc.)  They also claim to be more advanced and au courant than old-fashioned exercises in memorization and general knowledge.  How much more 21st-century does a meta-cognitive exercise seem than knowing Pope’s versification?

The fate of interpretative performance in recent years, however, should give strategies enthusiasts pause.  Readers of this blog may have followed ongoing discussions in national periodicals of the deteriorating condition of the humanities in higher education. (See here and here and here.) Numerous reports, op-eds, essays, and books have noted that foreign language departments have closed, research funding has shrunk, sales of humanities monographs have slid into the low-hundreds, leisure literary reading among teens has plummeted, and humanities coursework has diminished in general education requirements.  Today, all of the humanities fields (including history) collect only one-eighth of four-year degrees.  Over the same period during which knowledge about literary history was displaced by application of interpretive strategies, literary study slipped from center stage of higher education to the wings.  Undergraduates just aren’t into it anymore.

Given the performative turn, can you blame them?  If you were a 19-year-old signing up for next semester’s classes, which would attract you: one, learning about Achilles and Hector clashing on the plain, one a surly killing animal, the other a noble family man and virtuous warrior; or two, practicing theoretical readings of The Iliad?  The first underscores the content and context of the epic, the second the concepts and procedures theorists have devised to analyze it.  The second excites only professional interpreters of literature; a horde of laypersons love Homer, few of them love postcolonialism.

This is the steady truth that the performative turn in higher education forgot.  People love the humanities because of the content of them, not because of the interpretation of them.  They want to read about Satan spying on Eve in the Garden in Paradise Lost; Gray’s solemn lines in “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”; Ben Franklin arriving in Philadelphia broke and hungry; the anguish of Conrad’s Kurtz . . .  The act of interpreting them pleases them less than the act of reading them.

The same may be said for “strategies” instruction in K-12.  What could be more tedious and uninspiring than efforts such as “Students are taught to generate their own questions” and “Students are taught to become aware of what they do not understand”?  These metacognitive strategies turn the reading experience into a stilted, halting activity, making the content students must learn a boring rehearsal.  Let us teach students those capacities, yes, but not in so labored and ponderous and lengthy a manner.  Scale reading comprehension strategies down to lesser occasions, and abandon the validation that seems to come from upper-crust interpretation theory.  Interpretative performance has had a half-century in higher education, and comprehensions strategies the same in K-12.  Neither one has lived up to the promise and it’s time to explode their presumption of supremacy.


Boredom in Class

by Guest Blogger
September 19th, 2013

By Mark Bauerlein

Last month in Education Week, I penned a commentary on relevance in the curriculum with survey data on high school dropouts. The trend is clear: ask recent dropouts why they left school and they set boredom at the top of the list. One 2006 study found that 47 percent of them claimed that school was boring and 69 percent said that school didn’t motivate or excite them. For those students, it wasn’t the difficulty of the work that drove them away. It was the tediousness.

A standard answer to the disengagement problem is that we need a more relevant curriculum. After all, people note, how can an African American junior in Chicago relate to a poem about an 18th-century English country churchyard at night? Added to that, the surveys show that teachers all too often stick to the most uninspiring teaching method, the lecture format, which the students  find deadening (so they say). Let’s have more contemporary novels and fewer classics, more topical themes and fewer historical contexts, and let’s incorporate more collaborative and self-direct learning, fewer podium presentations.

What will really help this young woman graduate from college? (Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.)

It sounds commonsensical, to be sure. Boredom can ruin academic achievement, even for bright students. Materials closer to their actual lives will surely raise their interest, we assume, and consequently their scores, too. Besides, if we wish to train students for the real world in 2013, why force-feed them texts and facts from long ago and far away? Sixteen-year-olds wonder how studying a group of hard-core Christians who landed on Cape Cod 400 years ago will help them get a job, understand the health care debate, become adept with digital tools, and win friends and influence people. And, in fact, lots of 40-year-olds ask that question as well.

Before joining the call for relevance in the curriculum, let’s put boredom and relevance in the light of what is, perhaps, the overriding factor in secondary curricular reform today: college readiness. College readiness has become the standard by which a high school education is measured, the foundation, for instance, of Common Core standards in math and English (as well as literacy in science, technical subjects, and social studies). Formerly, educators aimed to ensure access to college for all high school graduates, setting college admission at the end of the secondary school mission. But having witnessed hundreds of thousands of high school graduates enter college, be forced to take remedial classes, and drop out before they finish their first year, educators have shifted their focus to college retention. Now, they believe, it isn’t enough to get students into college—we have to keep them there until they earn a degree.

So, curriculum and standards experts work backwards, determining what students learn in high school by that which will serve them well in college, what they will learn in middle school by that they will need in high school, and so on. The Common Core initiative followed this pattern, and so the standards and accompanying materials rightly called for a curriculum rich in the content presumed in the next grade levels, including exemplary informational texts that will accumulate year-to-year in the mind of a student and prepare him or her for college history, science, English and civics.

Increasingly, however, people are realizing that college retention depends not only on cognitive skills and academic knowledge, but also on a set of “soft skills.” They include persistence, time management, self-motivation, and other attributes of independence and organization. Now that they have left home and high school, first-year college students no longer have parents to monitor their hours and teachers who see them every weekday and check their homework. The guidance and command of the home have ended, and the teachers they have in college see them only a few hours a week and often never connect names with faces.

Here is where the boredom factor enters and can prove damaging. In high school, when students get bored, parents and teachers notice and urge, push, motivate, and assist them past it so that the work gets done. They seek out relevance-inducing adjustments to let students know, “Listen, this material is important to you, and we can make it interesting,” and far too often they proceed to drop that nineteenth-century novel and choose a popular contemporary one, hoping to plant a novel-reading habit that someday will extend to finer and older works.

But when students get bored in college, professors aren’t so reactive and flexible. If a student tunes out in class and submits C-level, work, the teacher may invite the student to office hours for a chat about the next paper or test, but that’s about it. If the student never shows up, well, life goes on. Parents aren’t around, either, so what is a student accustomed to being coddled and entertained to do?

Another soft skill becomes crucial: working through boredom on your own. It’s a disposition that has little to do with intelligence or knowledge, more a matter of stamina than intellect. If the U.S. history textbook bores you to death, it says, you still must get through 20 pages in the next hour. Biology 101 may have no relevance to your career plans or personal tastes, but you still have to complete it to fulfill a General Education requirement. Many first-year students don’t easily absorb such blank and impersonal facts of college—especially when their home and high school environments catered more to their personal interests than their actual needs—but they are binding and they call for a different attitude. The more you can ignore your ennui, the easier it will be to pass the course. The less you judge the course on personal grounds, the less likely will you recoil from it and consider dropping out of college. (You might even learn something that sparks genuine curiosity.)

Perhaps we should add “coping-with-boredom” to the list of college-readiness indicators, and K – 12 pedagogy should temper the quick and easy tactic of relevance. Yes, teachers should select materials true to the learning goals of the subject and also likely to interest the students. But they should also recognize that some materials that students must learn can’t be avoided or compromised, even though students will find them oh-so-dull. Boredom is bound to happen, and instead of trying to escape it by changing course contents, teachers should try to neutralize it by changing student expectations. It is possible that teachers may go too far in presenting an exciting, relevant curriculum, unintentionally giving students the message that their boredom is a justifiable condition that somebody else must remedy. Better for them to absorb a different lesson: boredom, in itself, is no reason to stop working.


Mission Impossible: Teaching for Justice without the Canon

by Guest Blogger
May 7th, 2013

In my last post, I noted that teacher educators who put shaping future teachers into social-justice activists above shaping them into effective instructors are, in my opinion, terribly misguided. I strongly agree with diminishing society’s inequities—and I think effective instructors, by narrowing the achievement gap, are doing just that.

One thing I did not mention is that the most effective instructors narrow the achievement gap in two essential ways: they build students’ knowledge and character (both of which contribute to achievement). Talk of character passes in and out of policy circles. Whether it’s shock at more teenage girls joining gangs or buzz about a book like Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, leaders tend to use character as an easy clap line without putting much thought into its cultivation.

But there are effective teachers who think about it every day. More importantly, they strengthen it every day.

Take, for example, Jessica Lahey, whose school emphasizes prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice: “In my middle school Latin and English classes, we explore the concept of temperance through discussions of Achilles’ impulsive rages, King Ozymandias’ petulant demand that we ‘Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair,’ Macbeth’s bloody, ‘vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself and falls on the other.’ ”

With a rigorous academic program, effective instructors accomplish academic and character goals simultaneously. Assignments that are challenging and thought provoking develop students’ academic knowledge and skills—and also draw them into humanity’s centuries-long debate about what defines a worthy life.

For those of us lucky enough to have a liberal arts education, this makes perfect sense. But many people with advanced degrees never had the benefit of being educated for freedom. They may not be stuck in the cave, but they aren’t enjoying the sunshine either.

I was reminded of this a couple of times over the past few days. The first reminder came with Mark Bauerlein’s excellent commentary, “What does University of Minnesota have against classics?” Bauerlein writes:

Given that only 39 percent of Minnesota eighth-graders score “proficient” in reading, … we might assume that the University of Minnesota would applaud high school English classes that assign great literary works of the last 500 years.

What could be better for students to read than “Macbeth,” “Don Quixote,” “Paradise Lost,” and “Frankenstein,” or the works of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Wilde, Willa Cather, Camus, Orwell, and Toni Morrison?

Yet sadly, when a high school offered such a syllabus to the University of Minnesota’s College in the Schools program, it was turned down…. CIS provides a reading list of 86 titles, syllabi outlining assignments and policies, and professional development for high school teachers.

The texts that were rejected are some of the most brilliant, demanding and profound writings in history. But they aren’t on the reading list. The list signals a narrow conception of what 17-year-olds should study. The oldest works are Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 story “The Yellow Wallpaper” and two 1899 novels, Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” and Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Apart from a few midcentury texts, the rest of the list is entirely contemporary….

The motives behind this restrictive corpus are indicated by the sample syllabi. One announces the goal of the course in terms common to multiculturalist instruction: “students will understand diverse experiences, languages,”…. The other syllabus declares: “Racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ageism and other forms of bigotry are inherent in our culture.”…

The point here is not to censure the course for its contemporary, multiculturalist focus…. Instead, what matters is the active exclusion of the great tradition from Chaucer to Austen to Joyce — from the Puritans to Frederick Douglass to Edith Wharton.

Like Bauerlein, I am very concerned about the works being excluded. I am not concerned with constructing a course that uses literature to help students value diversity and challenge bigotry; that is fundamental work in the humanities. But I think that by excluding time-tested works, these courses limit their ability to accomplish their goals.

History offers us a great variety of cultures. Can one seriously engage in multicultural studies without reading broadly across time and space to find that cultures around the world in the past and present have produced works of lasting beauty? Can one really grasp racism, sexism, etc. by looking at them only in the current context?

Let’s hope that the University of Minnesota will reconsider.

Now, onto my other reminder of how many of us are not being educated for freedom. This reminder, happily, came in the form of a blog post by a retired English professor who would create a spectacular course for high school students. A course that would not only beat back bigotry and be worthy of college credit, it would foster virtue.

Spoiler alert—here’s the ending: “Life doesn’t just happen. We make it happen, for good or bad. We do it best when we learn pietas, or character, with its legacy of decency and discipline fostering empowerment and destiny.”

How would this professor teach character? Through great literature:

I’ve read a lot of books across the years, not surprising I suppose for someone who’s invested more than forty-years in academia. Of those many books, there are a chosen few I’d take with me into island exile. Let me list them. I’d add some poets, too, but not right now:

David Copperfield
The Varieties of Religious Experience
On Liberty.
Mill’s Autobiography
The Odyssey
To Have or To Be
How to Find Freedom in an Unfree World
The Aeneid

I fashioned this list in less than a minute, since each of the items triggers easily recalled memories of excited discovery, awe, and insight.  David Copperfield, for example, I read in eighth grade. From the very beginning I loved it, identifying with David, whose childhood, in good measure, mirrored my own as well as that of Dickens.

Walden, with its eloquence, gave sanctuary not only in wilderness, but in its verbal tranquility.

And there’s John Stuart Mill, that proverbial “saint of rationalism,” two of his books here. On Liberty taught me to hold out against censorship for the rest of my days; how to discern between just and unjust laws; the importance of protecting minority voices in a democratic society.

His Autobiography demonstrated a first rate humanity, a life of balanced thought and feeling, a passion for social justice. There isn’t any person I’d like to imitate more.

I could go on about the remaining works, too, as each of them has constituted a grace upon my life–a favoring of wisdom and influence….

When I studied in Europe on two occasions, England and France, I came upon an important word, character, something I find rarely talked about in America.  Europeans would often talk of someone’s character, encompassing integrity markers like dependability, perseverance, equanimity, fairness, empathy, all adding up to a fundamental decency. It’s what Vergil advocated. It’s what Mill is all about. It’s what I’d like, when all things are said and done, people to say of me: “I like his character.” I think it’s what you want too.

It is what I want. And I thank all the effective instructors in my life who put challenging, thought-provoking, freedom-giving works like these in my hands. Teachers who assign works like these set students on a path of finding what matters most—and provide the academic knowledge and skills needed to lead others down the same path.

Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said (quoting Theodore Parker): “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

How did King, and Parker, know that? Not by restricting their studies to relatively recent works. Not by schooling more concerned with social justice than with effective instruction. Their deep historical and literary knowledge revealed that humanity was capable of wickedness and beauty—and that inch by inch, the circle of those exposed to beauty is growing.


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.


“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.

“Diversity of Preparation”

by Robert Pondiscio
September 2nd, 2010

At the Chronicle of Higher Education, Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein takes up a piece E.D. Hirsch, Jr. and I wrote in the American Prospect a few months back titled “There’s No Such Thing as a Reading Test.”  The essay explained why, contrary to popular belief, reading is not an all-purpose, transferable skill, and argued for a domain-specific approach to reading instruction and assessment.

But a commenter on Bauerlein’s Brainstorm blog wants to know why the professor is taking up the issue at all.  The piece, after all, was in an issue of the Prospect concerned with getting kids to read by third grade.  What does this have to do with higher education?  Everything, Bauerlein responds.

Just look at the numbers of freshmen who end up in remedial reading courses. And, as I argued awhile back, according to ACT, the biggest college readiness problem in reading is, precisely, inability to comprehend “complex texts.” The point of the post is to argue that reading comprehension doesn’t improve simply by practicing the “skill” again and again. Readers need to build domain knowledge in order to handle texts at the higher levels.

Right.  And that doesn’t happen overnight, nor can it be remediated at the college level. 

Ed reformers take note: if you’re not concerned with building domain knowledge in students, increasing graduation rates is only doing half the work (and the easy half at that).  If kids aren’t prepared to succeed in college–and the evidence cited by Bauerlein suggests they’re not–then what have we really accomplished?

Walt Gardner, in an unrelated post over at EdWeek,  considers President Obama’s recent declaration that “by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world” and sees a divide between “Determinists” and “Romanticists.” Determinists like Charles Murray hold that “only a small minority of high school graduates possesses the intelligence to succeed in college.”  Romanticists like Arne Duncan believe far more students should go to college.  “Which side in the debate is right? The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Success in college is not solely the result of intelligence or aptitude. Perseverance and dedication play a powerful role that is not fully appreciated,” Garner concludes.

Right again.  But surely preparation is an even more powerful determinant of college success or failure.  “The chief problem in American education,” notes Hirsch, “is not diversity of income, race, and ethnicity but diversity of preparation.”

If we continue to insist on treating reading as a formal skill, while dismissing the importance of the slow, steady buildup of domain-knowledge, we are not adequately preparing kids to succeed in college–a phenomenon most vividly appreciated by Bauerlein and his colleagues who work with the finished products (and only the “successful” ones!) of our K-12 education system. 

If we’re setting kids up to fail in college, what have we really gained?  Gardner puts it well:  ”Let’s hope that the record percentage of female and male high school graduates now enrolled in college get their money’s worth.  A mind is a terrible thing to waste, but let’s not forget either that debt is a terrible thing to carry.”

Education Conservatives and Political Liberals

by Robert Pondiscio
April 28th, 2010

Education conservatives and political liberals are — or at least ought to be — natural allies, writes Mark Bauerlein at the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Brainstorm blog. 

“Education conservatives believe that liberal education should be centered on a core body of knowledge. In the humanities and “softer” social-science fields, all students should study a set of books, ideas, artworks, theories, events, and personages more or less stable over time. Those items are chosen on a variety of grounds: aesthetic excellence, historical impact, intellectual brilliance, ethical positions, etc. They may contradict one another and represent vastly different people and places and outlooks. The important thing is that the learning of them produces a thoughtful, informed, and responsible intelligence.

Education conservatives catch a lot of flack from both the left and the right however “one ideology does jibe nicely with education conservatism,” Bauerlein notes, ”political liberalism.”  This is a point that’s at the heart of E.D. Hirsch’s work, and indeed Bauerlein quotes from Hirsch’s most recent book, The Making of Americans, to explain the natural alliance:

“I am a political liberal, but once I recognized the relative inertness and stability of the shared background knowledge students need to master reading and writing, I was forced to become an education conservative.  The tacit, intergenerational knowledge required to understand the language of newspapers, lectures, the Internet, and books in the library is inherently traditional and slow to change. Logic compelled the conclusion that achieving the democratic goal of high universal literacy would require schools to practice a large measure of educational traditionalism.”

“To Hirsch, educational conservatism is the best curriculum for ensuring the kind of social mobility and access essential to liberty and equality,” writes Bauerlein. ”One way to keep low-income and disadvantaged youths in that downward place through adulthood is precisely to deny them the knowledge that would allow them to enter and remain in college, and to join middle- and high-income spheres that do, indeed, demand a certain level of cultural literacy,” he concludes.

A Place at the Standards Table for Content?

by Robert Pondiscio
July 2nd, 2009

One of the early criticisms of the emerging “Common Core standards” initiative has been the question of who is writing them–and who isn’t.  The groups behind the multi-state effort, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, have set up a website that includes a list of the individuals working on math and English standards. As Edweek notes the list is “dominated by three organizations:” Achieve Inc., the College Board, and ACT Inc.

What’s new and interesting is the announcement of a pair of “Feedback Groups,” to offer expert input on the draft standards, which are due at the end of this month.  “Final decisions regarding the common core standards document will be made by the Standards Development Work Group,” notes the NGA announcement. “The Feedback Group will play an advisory role, not a decision-making role in the process.”

If you believe that content matters as much as process in crafting standards–that any attempt to write national standards should outline the specific material to be covered, not just describe the skills children should master–then the inclusion of Emory University’s Mark Bauerlein is a welcome name among the members of the English-language Arts Feedback Group, along with Fordham’s Checker Finn.  Bauerlein, author of the best-seller The Dumbest Generation, has been a consistent voice in favor of cultural literacy and teaching broad background knowledge.  Ironically, he may have presaged the debate he’ll find himself drawn into when he wrote recently about the difficulty of reaching consensus in college curriculum meetings.  Traditionalists, he observed, ”want to identify core texts, events, figures, and ideas….Progressivists want to enlarge the canon and contexts, to give representation to other cultures and identities, and explode the reigning ‘normativities,’ and they resist a core knowledge of any kind being set down as official.”

There doesn’t seem to be any way out of the impasse, however, which I think partly explains the rise of the “skills” movement in education circles. What the skills emphasis does is neutralize the culture-wars conflicts inherent in any knowledge selections in a curriculum. It speaks about abstract cognitive abilities such as “critical thinking,” “higher-order thinking skills,” and “problem solving.” No disturbing questions about representation of female authors on a syllabus or about Thomas Jefferson’s racial attitudes. Instead, the skills approach promises to empower students to handle those questions better later on — not here in the classroom, but after they have graduated from the skills curriculum.

Whether the feedback process is genuine or merely a way to blunt criticism remains to be seen, of course.  For now, the entire enterprise can be viewed with guarded optimism–the willing suspension of disbelief that anything of use will emerge.

It’s Not Your Fault, But It Is Your Problem

by Robert Pondiscio
June 11th, 2009

Mark Bauerlein has a piece on the Chronicle of Higher Ed’s Brainstorm blog that should give pause to those whose definition of achievement in public education starts and stops with reading and math scores. 

Bauerlein spins a fictional tale of a top Emory University law school student interviewing at one of the leading law firms in Atlanta.  Over lunch with the senior partners, the conversation turns toward the older gentlemen’s memories of the Cold War. “It’s not a test, and it’s not planned,” Bauerlein notes.  ”For them, the Cold War is simply one of those realities that any intelligent person is familiar with and has some opinions about.”  But the overachieving young man has nothing to add and is conspicuously out of his depth.   

The others have the tact to move on, but they note the deficiency. It doesn’t cost the young man the job, but the senior fellows make a judgment. This guy, they think, is sharp and hard-working, but get out of his training and he doesn’t bring much to the table. The deeper awareness that makes for a sober judgment and wider perspective is missing…This is the professional value of cultural literacy. It counts a lot more in professional spheres than academics and educators realize. The measure is informal, yes, but it makes a difference in how peers and superiors regard you.

Bauerlein’s piece reminded me of a conversation I had with an unusually bright student a few years ago.  She blew away every math and reading test she’d ever taken, but her walking around knowledge of even basic history, geography and current events was virtually nonexistent (Granted, she was a 5th grader, but she was under the impression that New Jersey was a country).  Discussing the gaps in her education, I told her, “This is not your fault, but it is your problem.”  Indeed, this young lady had done absolutely everything asked of her in school.  Her lack of breadth was not something she chose, but something we had allowed to happen to her.   If the gaps in her knowledge persist into adulthood, I knew, the world would certainly judge her skeptically, even harshly, for precisely the reasons Bauerlein describes–especially as a person of color from the South Bronx. 

Crucially, this was a kid with top scores on standardized tests–one of my school’s rare ”double 4s” in both math and reading.  By that measure–but only by that measure–a screaming success story of public education.  But what the data doesn’t show, and Baurlein’s piece reminds us, is that out in the real world there are very different metrics at work.  There’s too often far less to our current definition of success than meets the eye.