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Beware The Loss Of Literature


The Ides of March occurred Sunday. Most people are familiar with the date because it’s when Julius Caesar was murdered, and Shakespeare made the infamous event more so when, in his tragedy, the soothsayer warns Caesar to “beware the Ides of March.”

Has anyone under the age of 30 heard that phrase or read Shakespeare? Between the boom of bestselling Young Adult (YA) fiction like “Hunger Games” and Common Core English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum mandates, it appears while classic literature hasn’t been tossed out the window altogether yet, it’s slowly disappearing from high-school and college classrooms. That’s a mistake.

It’s not that kids aren’t reading. According to the Association of American Book Publishers, “Sales for children’s and YA books rose by 20.8% to $1.9 billion for 2014, while children’s and YA e-book sales soared by 33.7% to $227.3 million, making up 12.0% of sales, up from 10.9% in 2013.” This is great news. Even if these numbers fail to reflect a sales in classic literature—and think about what’s prominent on displays at Barnes and Noble or online, not much Mark Twain—being a purist when it comes to reading, however delightful that sounds in its “Dead Poets Society” nerdiness, proves unnecessary here. Taste in literature, just like music, movies and people, can change and improve over time. “Hunger Games” can be a gateway to more complex and classic books like “1984” or “Animal Farm.” But if children rarely pick up a book, whether it’s “Star Wars” or “The Fault in Our Stars,” that development doesn’t even have the chance to happen.

Youth Literature Isn’t Very Good

However, with that said, the quality of literature on sale, and that teens are reading, is disappointing, to say the least. It’s not like it’s the only alternative. Books like “Twilight” are among the usual litany of YA books critics hate. With its weak protagonist, scrawling and silly romanticism, and ridiculous plot, it’s a wonder the thing became as popular as it did. “Divergent” is another popular YA book and it, too, is just as trashy. “The Fault In Our Stars” is a huge success as a book and film—in 2014, 10.7 million copies of the book had been sold. While the plot is more developed, the characters more dimensional, and the writing improving upon many in its field, it demonstrates a classic flaw in YA fiction that, as another writer who used to have a column called “YA for Grownups,” described thusly: “At its heart, YA aims to be pleasurable.”

Our kids should be held to the highest possible standards, and their education should reflect the knowledge and values we want our next generation to inhabit.

An element of that seems to have translated into school syllabi as well, no doubt driven by Common Core’s ELA standards. Many conservatives are vehemently opposed to Common Core standards but not sure why. I’m not expert in the entire smorgasbord—the guidelines are thick—but at least in the area of English literature, the current standards are disappointing as they are confusing. Please hear this: That’s neither an ideological judgment nor a politically-driven statement. If our tax dollars are funding a national educational standard (whether they should is another piece), then our kids should be held to the highest possible standards, and their education should reflect the knowledge and values we want our next generation to inhabit. After all, they will inherit this country.

The guidelines state these standards will make all students college-ready, and their prescription for this is to suggest a heavy load of nonfiction reading, rather than, as this Heritage Foundation article describes, “a concentrated study of complex literature in the secondary English class will.” Sure, in college one reads more nonfiction than fiction, but that doesn’t mean reading it will make you better equipped to understand it. “In fact, the history of the secondary English curriculum in 20th-century America suggests that the decline in readiness for college reading stems in large part from an increasingly incoherent, less challenging literature curriculum from the 1960s onward. This decline has been propelled by the…assignment of easier, shorter, and contemporary texts—often in the name of multiculturalism.”

Methinks Shakespeare would say, of the Common Core ELA, “A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.” A personal anecdote: With my sights set on law school, every single attorney I worked with at a reputable firm told me to major in English, not pre-law, because that was the only major that accurately reflected the amount of reading and writing I’d do in law school. (Thanks guys. I became a writer instead of a lawyer, whew.)

Reading Quality and Assignments Decline

In 2013, a company called Renaissance Learning discovered, through a study of what kids were reading through their Accelerated Reader program, that most books kids chose to read were well below their grade level. Their educational research director, Eric Stickney, said, “The complexity of texts students are being assigned to read has declined by about three grade levels over the past 100 years. A century ago, students were being assigned books with the complexity of around the ninth- or 10th-grade level. But in 2012, the average was around the sixth-grade level.” Even in the 1980s, high-school students were reading Sophocles, Shakespeare, Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, Emily Bronte, and Edith Wharton.

‘The complexity of texts students are being assigned to read has declined by about three grade levels over the past 100 years.’

Not all high-school teachers or college professors are eschewing the classics. I found a few Advanced Placement high school English syllabi online and observed several wonderfully packed schedules of complex, dense, mind-broadening literature, including Shakespeare. I saw just as many, though, that admitted while the coursework would include a “Catcher in the Rye” or “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” the rest of the work would be non-fiction. There’s nothing wrong with studying the Gettysburg Address or the Declaration of Independence. Those are immensely valuable pieces of historical and cultural significance to our country. But studying only that type of non-fiction while disregarding broader, more complex works of fiction fails to develop certain analytical thought processes as one only can while dissecting a work of fiction.

Where else can one study the syntax of sentences, the rhythm of poetry, the vocabulary of words, universal themes of humanity (greed, jealousy, betrayal, love, loyalty, honor, courage), the power of imagination, and political implications? People can find many elements of these in non-fiction, but not to the same degree. Heritage, again: “[A]s ACT (a college entrance exam) found, complexity is laden with literary features: It involves characters, literary devices, tone, ambiguity, elaboration, structure, intricate language, and unclear intentions. By reducing literary study, Common Core decreases students’ opportunity to develop the analytical thinking once developed in just an elite group by the vocabulary, structure, style, ambiguity, point of view, figurative language, and irony in classic literary texts.”

The ELA guidelines are fallible, misleading, and will have a poor effect on the thinking skills of young Americans. Bring back the classics to high school and college literature. Everyone will benefit. As Shakespeare said, “Ignorance is the curse of God; knowledge is the wing wherewith we fly to heaven.”