Friday, August 24, 2012



Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
24 August 2012

The New Common Core Standards call for a 50% reduction in "literary" [aka fictional noninformational texts] readings for students and an increased to nonfiction informational texts, so that students may be better prepared for the nonfiction they will encounter in college and at work.

In addition to memos, technical manuals, and menus (and bus schedules?), the nonfiction informational texts suggested include The Gettysburg Address, Letter from Birmingham Jail, Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, and perhaps one of the Federalist Papers.

History books, such as those by David Hackett Fischer, James McPherson, David McCullough, Paul Johnson, Martin Gilbert, etc. are not among the nonfiction informational texts recommended, perhaps to save students from having to read any complete history books while they are still in high school.

In the spirit of Turnabout, let us consider saving students time from their fictional noninformational text readings (previously known as literature) by cutting back on the complete novels, plays and poems formerly offered in our high schools. For instance, instead of Pride and Prejudice (the whole novel), students could be asked to read Chapter Three. Instead of the complete Romeo and Juliet, they could read Act Two, Scene Two, and in poetry they could read, instead of a whole sonnet, perhaps just alternate stanzas could be assigned. In this way, they could get the "gist" of great works of literature, enough to be, as it were, "grist" for their deeper thinking skill mills.

As the goal is to develop deeply critical analytic cognitive thinking skills, surely there is no need to read a whole book either in English or in History classes. This will not be a loss in Social Studies classes, since they don't assign complete books anyway, but it may be a wrench for English teachers who probably still think that there is some value in reading a whole novel, play or poem.

But change is change is change, as Gertrude Stein might have written, and if our teachers are to develop themselves professionally to offer the new deeper cognitive analytic thinking skills required by the Common Core Standards, they will just have to learn to wean themselves from the old notions of knowledge and understanding they have tried to develop for students in the past.

As Caleb Nelson wrote in 1990 in The Atlantic Monthly, speaking about an Older Common Core at Harvard College:

"The philosophy behind the Core is that educated people are not those who have read many books and have learned many facts but rather those who could analyze facts if they should ever happen to encounter any, and who could ‘approach’ books if it were ever necessary to do so…."

The New Common Core Standards are meant to prepare our students to think deeply about subjects they know practically nothing about, because instead of reading a lot about anything, they will have been exercising their critical faculties on little excerpts amputated from their context. So they can think deeply about Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address while knowing nothing about the nation's Founding, or Slavery, or the new Republican Party, or, of course, the American Civil War.

Students' new Common academic work with texts about which they will be asked to Think & Learn Deeply, may encourage them to believe that ignorance is no barrier to useful thinking, in the same way that those who have written the Common Core Standards believe that they can think deeply about and make policy in our national education system, without having spent much if any time teaching themselves or even in meeting with teachers who have the experience they lack.

It may very well turn out that ignorance transfers from one domain to another much better than deeper thinking skills do, and that the current flight from knowledge and understanding, while clearly very well funded, has lead to Standards which will mean that our students will need even more massive amounts of remediation when they go on to college and the workplace than are presently on offer.

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