Common Core’s War On The Love of Learning

Perhaps this is old news to those keeping their thumbs on the pulse of the Common Core’s controversial standards, but some of us — including yours truly — have come to the game a little late. One thing I find strangely under-discussed is the Standards’ slap in the face to one of American culture’s strongest foundations: fiction. The short version:

The Common Core guidelines recommend fourth-graders get an equal amount of fiction and nonfiction. Eighth-grade reading should be about 55 percent nonfiction, going to a recommended 70 percent by 12th grade (emphasis added).

This concern has been brewing since 2012, when essentially everything to be read anywhere was about the presidential election. The thinking is that since upper-level education places a greater emphasis on non-fiction texts, it behooves high schools to prepare their students for these materials — to the point of excess. Some parents & teachers are concerned that fiction “has become a dirty word,” that literature is becoming “a second-class subject,” or even that it “mark[s] the end of literature.”

Doubtlessly many of these proclamations invoke the same dramatic flair as Shakespearean tragedy, but there’s something to be said for the Common Core’s unintended consequences of shattering creativity and a love of learning. In a nation where teachers are already forced to focus on state exams rather than education, eliminating fiction is just one symptom of the Common Core’s creepy focus on business rather than individualized growth.

Of course it’s important to attain skills beneficial for higher learning and a career, but how can one expect to do all that if kids don’t love learning in the first place? Here’s just one example of how the Common Core’s non-fiction edict does just that:

Jamie Highfill, an eighth-grade English teacher at Woodland Junior High School in Fayetteville, Ark., and 2011 Arkansas Teacher of the Year, told the Washington Post she’s already had to drop short stories and a favorite literary unit to make time for essays by Malcolm Gladwell from his social behavior book The Tipping Point.

“I’m struggling with this, and my students are struggling,” Highfill told the Post. “With informational text, there isn’t that human connection that you get with literature. And the kids are shutting down. They’re getting bored. I’m seeing more behavior problems in my classroom than I’ve ever seen.”

Heck, this voracious reader hated The Tipping Point. Does the federal government really expect middle schoolers to be engrossed by it?

A classical education has a long history and a real purpose — to open one’s mind to new ideas, to inspire a love of knowledge, and all the other flowery platitudes that do ring true. Losing oneself in the creative world of a fictional text is one of the best ways to accomplish that. There’s something unnerving about making education simply about grooming young children for future careers, there’s something in that concept that leeches the very purpose of education from its veins.

How is that any different from teaching for the sole purpose of passing standardized exams? If schools aren’t granted the latitude to inspire a love of learning, how can we expect children to stay in school in the first place?

Do you remember how The Giver punched you in the stomach in middle school? Well, that book isn’t condoned by the Common Core. Remember the chill down your spine when you read about O’Brien cleaning up Curt Lemon’s entrails in The Things They Carried? That’s missing from Common Core as well. Classic American works that made you think critically about our nation’s checkered past are strangely passed over as well.

Huckleberry Finn is nowhere to be found.

And another oddity of note. While the Common Core does suggest invaluable texts from our nation’s history, such as Paine’s Common Sense, why is it categorized under Grade 11 English Language Arts? Isn’t that something more appropriate for — you know — a history, a social studies, or even a civics class?

The exclusion of so many great works of American fiction belies the question of whatever happened to celebrating our rich history of literature?

Thankfully, a quick glance over the Common Core’s Standards for English Language Arts show that To Kill A Mockingbird, Fahrenheit 451, The Grapes of Wrath, The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and some other high school memories have been saved. But America’s greatness is not only found in its history and political texts, but in its literary contributions to that history as well.

Call me old-fashioned, yet it seems out of place to replace Winesburg, Ohio with State of the Union addresses in high school English classes. Literature isn’t just a matter of inspiration, analysis, or even those slogging essays you wrote on symbolism. Ignoring our literature is ignoring a part of what makes America great.

If the federal government doesn’t suggest my son’s teachers introduce him to Catch-22, I guess more parents like myself will have to do it for them.