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Virginia Multiculturalists Expel Literary Tradition From State English Standards

If you care about literature, good novels, and poems, Virginia’s new English Language Arts standards will depress you.


The Virginia Department of Education has approved a draft of new English Language Arts standards. They make for a dreary read. If you care about novels and poems, if you think Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson are essential voices that every young American should hear, if you feel, as W. E. B. Du Bois did, that an hour with Shakespeare is a mighty inspiration that can relieve the dismal circumstances of life, this fresh version of ELA in the Old Dominion will only depress you.

The document is an expression of a utilitarian, 21st-century mindset. We have highfalutin talk of “multimodal literacies” and “media messages,” but nothing on Hawthorne or Robert Frost. Students are asked to acquire “the ability to problem solve and collaborate in and across teams,” not to memorize and recite classic poems and speeches.

It is true that in 12th grade, students are asked to examine “universal themes” in “British literature … of different eras,” but we need much more than such a lax demand that can be satisfied with but a few poems and novels from different times. The authors of the standards care more about making Virginia classrooms “better align with the demands of the present and future world” than they do about conserving literary tradition. One standard has students “Interpret and complete an application for employment or college admission.” There is no standard that says, “Describe the main themes and styles of English Romantic poetry.”

As I said, the new standards do mention literary history a couple of times, with one “Guiding Principle” stating that “our students should be exposed to literary work across cultures, eras, and viewpoints.” It even uses the words “foundational” and “masterpieces”:

Virginia learners should be exposed to foundational authors such as Homer and Shakespeare as well as masterpieces from different genres, cultures, geographies and time periods.

This is not a standard, however, only an exhortation. It won’t be assessed. The principle is so vague that a teacher may satisfy it with but three or four classics assigned in all of 11th grade. Call it a little window dressing, a feeble gesture toward the old-fashioned way.

It’s not enough, not nearly, and we also know what the plural term “cultures” means: less Jane Austen and more BIPOC writing. The literary education Virginia kids receive will vary from district to district. There will be no common reading, no shared experience statewide. Students will not get what they really need: a big picture of the past, a grand inheritance waiting to be claimed, the novels of Hawthorne, Melville, and Twain, the poems of Pope, Blake, and Keats, the plays of the Bard. This is what we created in Florida, Georgia, and Arkansas, whose governors understand the importance of literary tradition to the formation of young Americans.

The result goes along with what has happened to English in the last 40 years. The field has been drained of content, with no domain knowledge. Physics has Newton’s laws, civics has the Constitution, and English has reading and writing skills, which amount to no content at all. It used to be that English meant grammar, punctuation, and the Great American Novel, Charles Dickens and Jane Eyre, some Shakespeare and modern poetry. Multiculturalists didn’t like the tradition because it was overly male and Eurocentric, while business-type conservatives preferred PowerPoint over Hamlet. From the ’80s onward, they won. Literature dropped out, and it will remain that way as these Virginia standards move forward. 

American youth are not doing well. Health indicators are down, and so is educational achievement. The causes are many, and one of them is under-recognized: the loss of a meaningful, stabilizing past. The average teen is flooded with social media and crass entertainment by the hour, all of it present-oriented, immediate, and pressing. They have no sense of legacy or lineage, leaving them to enter the adult world without roots or foundations. They are existentially insecure. Life doesn’t have much meaning beyond the daily rush.

The critic Matthew Arnold once noted that people who read the old writers find that those voices produce a certain “steadying and composing effect upon their judgment.” Without them, the individual flounders to manage the flood of information, consumer messages, and social media. For the 15-year-old, the 21st century is chaotic. 

The new English standards won’t help. They provide none of the stability that young Virginians need. The past means little to the authors of them. This is especially frustrating because of the role education played in Gov. Youngkin’s rise. Parents want a coherent, meaningful curriculum that prizes tradition, not trendy nonsense about multimodal literacies.

Youngkin claims to be a conservative, but this model conserves nothing. Could he not find any conservatives to participate in the process? Does he not understand that a conservative society thrives only as long as it hands down a cultural inheritance? Once again, a Republican champion on the campaign trail is turning out to be a disappointment. Now in office, Youngkin is failing English.

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