Nonfic: Reality and the Common Core

A piece in The New York Times this week discussed the importance of nonfiction reading in the new Common Core standards that exist as part of an attempt to control what is taught in many elementary and secondary schools.

As a high school teacher, I would argue with some of the particular skills that the makers of the Common Core think students should be learning, but that nit-picking doesn’t really matter. What’s more important is recognizing that these learning standards aren’t really all that meaningful to anybody but the educators paid to write them and the politicians who paid for them to be written.

We can ask our students to do whatever the standards tell us to ask students to do, and mostly our students will indulge us in this. Some students will waste time until the class ends, but most students tend to, whether out of their respect for their particular teachers and/or their desires to get decent grades, try to do their assignments. Though we can’t explain to our students why every one of them would need to be able to

“Delineate and evaluate the reasoning in seminal U.S. texts, including the application of constitutional principles and use of legal reasoning [e.g., in U.S. Supreme Court Case majority opinions and dissents] and the premises, purposes, and arguments in works of public advocacy [e.g., The Federalist, presidential
addresses]”)

as Writing Standard 9.b. for Grade 11-12 students demands, our students will probably do these tasks as well as they can (which may be well or not well at all), and then the students will leave school to go play sports, work a job, care for their babies, play in a band, or do anything and everything else that matters to them personally. Of course, ideally, all students would be able to do everything well, but then, also of course, our students are not ideal. They are particular people whose futures will much more likely depend on their own particular, peculiar interests and abilities, and perhaps the opportunities they are offered, than their futures will depend on a generalized national curriculum.

As a teacher myself, I can’t say that the books I was assigned to read and the essays I was assigned to write were all that much of an influence on me. I was far more interested in and influenced by the reading I did out of my own volition — and even if my high school teachers had assigned me to read the works of Jack Kerouac, Wendell Berry, and others, being assigned to read them might have turned me off to those writers. Maybe, maybe not. I can say that “The Great Gatsby” made a lot more sense to me when I re-read it in my mid-30s than it did to me as a 17-year-old junior. We can ask our kids to read and write whatever the Common Core dictates, but I don’t know that such reading and writing themselves will mean very much.

To think that a curriculum describes and controls reality is to think that the world can be captured within language, that the world and all of the people in it can be streamlined, regularized, quality-controlled, and “improved.” The world is far too interesting to be captured in a set of generalizations, and language is far too interesting to be used only to mean things!

3 responses to “Nonfic: Reality and the Common Core

  1. Pingback: Are You There Blog? It’s Me, Writer. | Marsha Lee

  2. I’ve long tried to think of assigned high school reading that really moved me and have been forced to conclude that apart from maybe a handful of novels, most of it fell short. Way short.
    Few curriculum planners take a student’s perspective and begin with that world view. Growing up in Ohio, I never encountered literary writing that originated in anything reflecting my experience — the British classics, in contrast, were from an alien time and place. Maybe some of the biographies I read on my own came much closer.
    Without the hands-on material in the mix — and by that, I mean anything that engages what that student encounters passionately in daily life, whether it’s auto mechanics, fashion, or out-and-out gossip — we won’t establish the roots for real, widespread reading.
    How on earth can you create a “Common Core” from the bottom up? Especially if it has to be oh-so-politely correct?

  3. I agree, and I like how you make the point about getting kids engaged with whatever engages them as individuals. One thing leads to another; all writing and all culture may be linked. A student who starts out reading tabloids may be led to classic movies, or not! What’s really crazy to me, going to college in the canon-questioning era of the 1990s, is how little of that has filtered down to high school curricula. While the parts of the Common Core I’ve read seem to avoid prescribing certain texts, the suggested texts are the same ones that have been prescribed for the last several decades.

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