“[M]y task is to paint the whole earth, the entire world, in novel form, by imagining adventures,” wrote the renowned, late-nineteenth-century French novelist Jules Verne.
As vacation begins, decades of K-12 education research tells us that summertime is when the academic paths of higher- and lower-performing students most radically diverge. According to Scholastic Reading Challenge, “the ‘Summer Slide’ accounts for as much as 85 percent of the reading achievement gap.”
Simply put, studies support what common sense makes plain: students who read during the summer return to school much better prepared than their classmates do. Meanwhile, great fiction that offers higher-quality vocabulary, complex plots, and engaging characters can positively shape young minds.
American kids could use the lift better summer reading provides. For decades, American students’ reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), called “the nation’s report card,” have been flat, as have results on SAT, ACT, and Advanced Placement testing. The only real bright spot was Massachusetts, whose previously classic literature-rich K-12 English standards helped it outperform every other state between 2005 and 2013 on the reading portion of NAEP.
But, in 2010, the Obama administration offered states $4 billion in one-time federal grant money (Massachusetts took $250 million) to abandon their English standards in favor of uniformly mediocre nationalized standards, the Common Core, which cut fiction by 60 percent. Originally trained as a lawyer, Verne loved ships and the sea, and immersed himself in timeless literary odysseys from Daniel Defoe, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe, James Fenimore Cooper, Alexandre Dumas, and Victor Hugo. These immortal authors, who are largely excluded from Common Core, not only influenced each other across eras, but also link generations of readers worldwide.
Just Peek at the Treasures So Many Kids Are Missing
Monsieur Verne is considered the “father of science fiction” for his books “Journey to the Center of the Earth” (1864); “From the Earth to the Moon” (1865); “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” (1870); and “Around the World in Eighty Days” (1873), which are the most noted of his “Extraordinary Voyages.” Verne’s 60-plus classic works have been translated into 174 languages.
Verne’s voyages value literature, history, geography, math, science, and high-tech engineering. Few authors are capable of propelling students’ imaginations while simultaneously surveying such varied academic disciplines. Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy called Verne’s books “matchless.” Since 1979, UNESCO’s Index Translationum reports, Verne is the second most-translated author on earth, outpacing Shakespeare and trailing only Agatha Christie. “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” ranks as the seventh most-translated book in the world, surpassing “Harry Potter,” “Alice in Wonderland,” and even Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales.
“Around the World in Eighty Days” is Verne’s most successful novel. This globetrotting tale features a meticulous, clock-conscious British aristocrat, Phileas Fogg, and his acrobatic French valet and sidekick, Jean Passepartout. Together they’re sprinting to win a $4 million bet against Fogg’s stuffy London club mates.
Pursued by slippery detective Mr. Fix, Fogg embarks on a race that provides student-tourists cultural and geographic lessons via transcontinental railroads and steamships, spanning from England and Egypt to the Orient, across America, and on home to London. In India, Fogg and Passepartout rescue a beautiful princess, Aouda, from a ritualistic death on her husband’s funeral pyre, then the book speeds towards its nail-biting finish.
A World of Imagination Lost to Many American Kids
In another exotic adventure, “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” Captain Nemo (“no one” in Latin) is a scientific mastermind, Indian subcontinent prince, and antihero who escapes beneath the ocean, fleeing landlubbers and imperialism. In his futuristically self-engineered, 230-foot, elegant submarine, the Nautilus, whose motto is Mobilis in Mobili (“Moving Amidst Mobility”), Nemo kidnaps stranded sailors, battles a giant squid, and leads fast-paced nautical expeditions.
“The sea does not belong to despots. On its surface immoral rights can still be claimed … [where they] carry out all earth’s atrocities,” Captain Nemo says. “[B]elow the surface their power ceases … live in the heart of the sea! Independence is possible only here! … Here I am free!”
Verne’s illustrious admirers included American rocketeer Robert Goddard; Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin; and radio inventor Guglielmo Marconi. They all read his sci-fi novels, which predicted and inspired technological ingenuities, such as spaceflight, airplanes, helicopters, and submarines. Unfortunately, American students are far less likely to find Nemo or other Verne protagonists in classrooms, because they’re not in Common Core. And not reading classic literature is taking its toll on performance.
In Massachusetts, despite years of overall stagnation on NAEP, falling from number one in the country in eighth-grade reading, and a 20-point decline in SAT scores, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration has merely rebranded Common Core. Consequently, Verne’s journeys will still remain adrift from Bay State students.
After seven years of Common Core, the national results are no better. As The Washington Post reported about the 2015 NAEP scores, “Reading performance… was sobering: Eighth-grade scores dropped… while fourth-grade performance was stagnant compared with 2013… The 2015 scores show that 64 percent of fourth-graders and 66 percent of eighth-graders are not considered proficient in reading.” American kids deserve better.
Science-fiction novelist Ray Bradbury said, “[W]e are all, in one way or another, the children of Jules Verne.” Most kids cannot afford to take expensive summer trips or vacations to mysterious lands, but reading Verne’s imaginative voyages could help every child go farther academically. Besides pushing your legislators to make dramatic changes to curriculum and testing requirements, including full slates of classic literature, take matters into your own hands and introduce children to Verne’s wonderlands.