Make way for the Stupid Generation
I know it’s a bit of a downer to post something like this fresh in the new year. We’re supposed to begin with optimism for better times. After all, isn’t that what New Years is all about? (Well, that and drinking.)
But something has me both deeply depressed and astonished, something that in better times would be a mock headline from that parody newspaper The Onion. But it’s quite real.
The U.S. government, which has been trying all sorts of programs for the past 20 years (“No child left behind!”) to get our kids smarter in lieu of simply sticking to a curriculum of hard-core education, is now pushing what it calls the Common Core Standards Initiative. So far 46 states and the District of Columbia have embraced this fiasco, which states, among other atrocities, that students now only spend thirty percent of their English reading time on literature such as Huckleberry Finn. —Oh, wait, Huck didn’t make the cut. He wasn’t deemed relevant.
So what do teachers have to teach the other 70 percent of the time? Non-fiction items such as instructional manuals and technical reports.
I’m not kidding. “Informational texts,” they call them, a term that should be swept up and thrown into the garbage by, hem, sanitation engineers. You kids who thought Madame Bovary was boring are in for a shock…
The architect behind this colossally-bad idea, David Coleman, said, and I quote, “Forgive me for saying this so bluntly. The only problem with a [personal narrative] writing is, as you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give [expletive] about what you feel or what you think.” (Side note: And he thinks this is a good thing?) He and others like him maintain that non-fiction gives students the ability to digest and analyze complex information, the sort found in studies and reports. Literature doesn’t fill your noggin with useful knowledge. That’s why writers are never targeted as dangerous or subversive. When totalitarian regimes come to power, the first people they lock up are the ones who write manuals. They are also the leaders of social change, not Dickens and Orwell and Twain.
That could only have been said by someone who cut all his lit classes in high school and got someone else, probably some nerd with double his IQ, to write his papers.
Incidentally, counts as his supporters the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Participants get funding grants from Bill and Mel. Now, if you sell nails wouldn’t your solution to all of life’s problems be a nice, shiny new hammer? More hilariously, though, the man who couldn’t give us a stable computer platform is now going to tackle the U.S. educational system.
One of the things literature has taught me is how to recognize conflicts of interest, and, more broadly, how throughout human history, from Homer to Chaucer to EL James, people act in their own self-interest, while rationalizing that interest to the hilt. So forgive me when I make the observation that the B&M Gates Foundation has a personal financial stake in rewiring the curriculum to suit what it has to sell. The astonishing thing is so few of the media “watchdogs” out there have picked up on this. Or if they pretend to they quickly dismiss it with a quote from Mr. Coleman. “Frankly, I think there’s a disproportionate amount of anxiety,” he said recently. The new educational standard is backed by both the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. And while I don’t think he was asked, I’m sure Kim Jong-un would approve.
Some examples of the non-fiction on the list are Recommended Levels of Insulation by the the US Environmental Protection Agency, the Invasive Plant Inventory by California’s Invasive Plant Council and hypertext markup manuals. They’re not touting Tocqueville or Bernard Bailyn.
The thinking behind the Common Core Standards Initiative is that we’re living in an age of fast, fast, fast, baby! Tweets and Instagram rule now. Books full of words? You know, those things no one uses anymore when they can just type LOL and STFU and ;-).
If I had a nickel for how many times I’ve heard this age or this situation is new, that the old standards no longer apply. “We’re living in a different era,” Coleman said. I heard this when computers first spread into the classrooms in the 80s. I heard it during the first tech bubble of the 1990s. I heard it when Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 came into being. I heard it when the Dow hit 7,000 and again when it hit 10,000.
I can’t think of much that prepares students for critical thinking, as well as attention to detail, organizing thought and argument, and understanding different and opposing points of view, better than reading literature. The lessons of despotism, futility and intolerance in Shakespeare, Orwell, Twain and so so many others reveal these “educators” for the charlatans they are, for their either don’t see it too or they’re ignoring it, realizing the fraud they are perpetrating for some quick Microsoft bucks, and either way they should be flunked and expelled. George Orwell explained very clearly the benefits to writing—and thus reading—in his famous essay “Why I Write.”
Instead we’re being told reading “informational manuals” will teach us more about the world and our place in it than Richard Yates and Virginia Woolf. Never have I seen a generation in the pockets of the technocrats more than the current one, willing to eschew any intellectual or moral standards for a fast buck. Never have I seen administrators so uncritical of the solutions they’re sold. And what used to be a skeptical media has been demolished or bought off by this same technology—today anyone with a camera phone (which is to say anyone) can snap a picture and email it to a “news organization” and that person’s “report” will “go viral.” Who checks to see if that person understood what they photographed? Who follows up on the facts? Who is responsible? We used to call them “gate-keepers” with a certain negativity, but in my opinion we could sure use those gatekeepers now. The best of them had excellent critical thinking skills acquired through reading the great minds of the past, folks who’d been around the block before you and see maybe more than you had and had something to say, wisdom to impart.
For you younger readers, this is different from a mere blogger, who is anyone with an internet account (which is to say anyone).
If you’ve read your Fitzgerald, you’d understand that the claim “We’re living in a different era” is far from new—and you know how his era ended. If you read your Woolf, especially if you are female, you’d understand why it’s so special that today you can sit in the same classes as the boys and read the same books as they do and acquire the same knowledge they can, whereas a hundred years ago nobody wanted ideas in your pretty little heads. If you’ve read your Harold Frederic, you’d know the dangers of hubris and faux sophistication. Then you’d recognize that all of this is still very much with us, and always has been and always will be, and that we are definitely not living in times that are in any way different or new. In short, you’d be a lot harder to hoodwink, you’d see through shell-games easily, and you’d really have that marvel of marvels, an education instead of technical knowledge that allows you to excel in one area while remaining an overall ignorant member of the human race.
That’s one of the crucial qualities that distinguishes literature from entertainment—literature is skeptical. Literature asks questions and often finds answers that aren’t pretty but are true. I get the impression these technocrats think reading The Red Badge of Courage is no different than reading Sue Grafton, and that it’s dispensable, a luxury we can’t afford in this age of work work work. And defenders aren’t alerting them to the difference, either because it’s become gauche to point out that certain things have artistic or intellectual superiority to other things or because they themselves don’t get it. And the latter would not surprise me—the liberal arts tradition is generally not attracting the Best and the Brightest anymore.
When I watched members of the various “Occupy” movements last year, I was struck by the fact that they had some very legitimate and deeply-felt issues that they wanted addressed. What they lacked was the ability to clearly articulate them. They knew and know that something is wrong, and that the deck is stacked against them, but I could tell they couldn’t quite express or explain exactly how. They lacked the very analytics that literature—great literature, not Twilight—can provide. Literature contains allegory, analogy, comparison, irony, parody, ironic distance, and many other teaching techniques that roll off of today’s working people—even educated working people—like raindrops off a vinyl slicker.
Or, just to put it all in a sentiment short enough for a tweet: if literature weren’t of paramount importance, dictators wouldn’t make the censoring of it one of their first priorities when they take power.
See, that’s 136 characters, including spaces.