Classroom loses classical English

Classic literature has fallen from favor in English class. The movement away from the literary canon, begun decades ago, has accelerated rapidly following adoption of Common Core standards by most states eight years ago. Some states, including North Carolina, have revised these standards. But the devaluation of classic literature is widespread, shortchanging students’ writing competencies, cultural knowledge, and analytical thinking. That’s a lot to lose.

A new report from the Fordham Institute sheds light on how much has changed. Featuring a nationally representative survey of 1,237 English and reading teachers in public elementary, middle, and high schools, the report reveals numerous instructional shifts — some good, some bad. Among the good: Teachers are increasingly emphasizing “close reading” of texts and teaching vocabulary in context.

Among the bad: Fewer texts are classics. Seven in 10 teachers overall and five in 10 high school teachers limit classics “because there is no longer room for them in the curriculum.” No room in the curriculum? That boggles the well-trained mind. Unpacking Puritan piety in The Scarlet Letter or making sense of Shakespearean prose and verse is hard, but important, work.

A major casualty of the de-emphasis on literature is students’ writing, says Dr. Sandra Stotsky, an English standards expert and Professor of Education Reform Emerita at the University of Arkansas. “If we know anything in the field of composition,” she says, it’s that “repeated, regular exposure to high-quality prose helps them to develop writing skills.” Classic works have been studied “not because they’re classical but because of the quality of the prose.”

Another casualty? “Cultural knowledge is obvious,” says Stotsky. “How do you even understand what writers are referring to if you have no understanding of literary allusions?” The Sisyphean task, the Siren song, Orwellian doublespeak — these presuppose shared knowledge.

It’s easy and right to blame Common Core. The standards’ over-emphasis on informational text, ostensibly to prepare students for college and career, is short-sighted and harmful. But literature was undervalued before Common Core. A national teacher survey and report by Stotsky and colleagues, published in 2010, already revealed a “sharp decrease” in instructional time devoted to literary study, compared with decades earlier.

Can what’s done be undone? Perhaps, but hurdles lie ahead. This year North Carolina implements revised English language arts standards, passed by the State Board of Education in 2017. Four state board members voted against those standards, including Dr. Olivia Oxendine, who served on the state’s Academic Standards Review Commission. Oxendine, a professor, says much hard work has been done in North Carolina “to improve the standards and make them more comprehensible,” but the standards still aren’t well-written; many are “convoluted.” Another concern: Revised standards stipulate that instructional time in English language arts classrooms should be divided evenly between literature and informational text. “I was an English teacher and taught the classics,” Oxendine says. “The deepest kind of higher-order thinking comes from literature.”

In the end, when classic literature is left unread, some losses are intangible. English professor Anthony Esolen writes about the lovely children’s classic “The Wind in the Willows:” “… The aim of reading the work is simply the joy and wonder of it; it is a good book, because it tells us good and true things in an artful way.”

Experiencing joy and wonder; learning good and true things: Those who limit literature in the name of workforce readiness miss this, the larger purpose. They also, ironically, deny students opportunities to develop some of the very competencies they’ll need in college and career.

Theirs is a Pyrrhic victory. Time will reveal it.

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Kristen Blair is a Chapel Hill-based education writer.

Kristen Blair is a Chapel Hill-based education writer.