“Give me my students, give me my books and close the door on your way out.”
A colleague used that pithy mantra whenever a new trend in education emerged. This was not a refusal to embrace new initiatives; it was a statement about our priorities as English language arts teachers — students, books and a place to bring them together.
With those three essential ingredients, our teaching and our students would be successful. Now, however, one of those fundamental ingredients is disappearing: books.
You read that right. Books are disappearing from our classrooms. Books — the be-all and end-all of teaching kids to be better readers, writers, thinkers and human beings — are going the way of the dinosaur. It’s an alarming trend we can’t ignore.
Many schools are eliminating the classics of literature, the backbone of any self-respecting English language arts class, in favor of “choice” books such as pulp fiction that offers comparatively little challenge.
Anyone with affection for reading and the study of literature has to wonder how this could happen, why school officials would allow it to happen and why there isn’t more outrage.
In part, the cause of this terrifying trend is the Common Core State Standards emphasis on short articles and excerpts of nonfiction, particularly historical and scientific documents, which are easily assessed on a standardized test. The Common Core website indicates that “fulfilling the standards requires a 50-50 balance between informational and literary reading.”
This translates to fewer works of great literature, more nonfiction.
Of course, we can’t separate the curriculum changes wrought by Common Core from the forces driving those changes: the realization that the U.S. lags behind other countries in education and the resultant emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). According to the Common Core website, “It’s no secret that most of the best jobs out there that today’s students can hope to find are in the STEM fields.”
You don’t need to be an English teacher to read the writing on the wall: The increased focus on STEM minimizes the humanities, placing ever-decreasing importance on liberal arts and resulting in a nation of job-ready graduates with a limited view of what it means to be a human being.
Fareed Zakaria wrote in The Washington Post that the dismissal of a liberal arts education comes from a misunderstanding, particularly about America’s international rankings on math and science tests. “Since 1964, when the first such exam was administered to 13-year-olds in 12 countries, America has lagged behind its peers, rarely rising above the middle of the pack and doing particularly poorly in science and math,” Zakaria wrote. “And yet over these past five decades, that same laggard country dominated the world of science, technology, research and innovation.”
Even the staunchest proponents of STEM-centered education would have to concede that minimizing language arts is at best premature, at worst, unnecessary.
Sadly, students who once embraced the classics, including Shakespeare, now flinch when given lengthy novels and dramas — books that might get in the way of math and science homework. As literature slowly disappears, our more than capable students become reluctant to read, analyze, discuss and connect with complex books. They miss the value of immersing themselves in books, of reflection, particularly on others’ ideas, and of the sustained focus needed to work through difficult material.
No one contends that STEM subjects aren’t important. We often remind students that if they don’t learn algebra, they will never learn to think in certain abstract ways. Beyond their ability to stimulate cognitive function — a worthy goal — STEM skills are essential in today’s global economy.
But books, the soul of humanity, are essential, too.
The solution is a matter of balance: Offer high-caliber STEM courses and preserve literature in our language arts classrooms while using nonfiction to supplement the themes of such literature. For the ability to read literature effectively can produce smart scientists, trustworthy techies, ethical engineers and mindful mathematicians, individuals who understand the power and the responsibility they hold and the effects their innovations will have on humanity.
To school administrators, school board members and state legislators, we offer this slightly altered version of our colleague’s stance: Give us our books, give us our students and come visit our classrooms to see what happens when you bring them together.
Steven Nicastro and Timothy Sanderson teach English language arts at Glastonbury High School.