Quality Matters

After all the bad publicity and spirited criticism of the Common Core ELA Standards, it may surprise people that one of the best defenses of classic literature in the primary and secondary classroom is in the founding version of it.  Not the standards themselves, but Appendix A (http://www.corestandards.org/assets/Appendix_A.pdf), one of the documents attached to them.  There, we have a statement about the literary curriculum that fully accords with the mission of the Institute for Classical Education. 

It especially supports the idea that the choice of what students read in English classes is crucial.  The first sentence of Appendix A states, “One of the key requirements of the Common Core State Standards for Reading is that all students must be able to comprehend texts of steadily increasing complexity as they progress through school.”  As students proceed from grade to grade, they must study writings of ever higher vocabulary level, with more sophisticated figurative and rhetorical elements, a subject matter remote from the world of American youth, implied knowledge that only an informed reader can discern, semantic ironies and ambiguities, and structural intricacy at the sentence and paragraph level.  That’s what Common Core means by “complexity.” 

The Appendix quotes a 2006 report by ACT (https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED490828.pdfnoting that when it comes to college readiness, the educators have gotten it wrong.  Educators have believed that the way to prepare students for success when they go to college is to teach them abstract reading skills such as “find the main idea in the text” and “determine the meaning of words in context.”  But in ACT’s investigation, a stronger determinant of college success was, precisely, the ability of a student to handle texts that have the features listed above. 

What appears to differentiate those who are more likely to be ready from those who are less likely is their proficiency in understanding complex texts. (Emphasis in original) 

When faced with a complex text in a first-year college class, for instance, a Supreme Court decision or a poem by Emily Dickinson, students need to engage with it on their own, to know how to understand it and what to do with it.  And they won’t have that capacity if they haven’t had sufficient experience with such complex texts in middle and high school.  They will not be able to “find the main idea” in a complex text if their practice in finding main ideas has been exercised on non-complex texts.  It’s not only that they will have to dig through a verbal surface that is more elaborate and a content that is more knowledge-demanding than they have seen before.  It is that the main idea itself will be more sophisticated and complicated, too.  Without prior experience with complex texts, students will falter.  ACT points to this incapacity as a prime reason for students flunking courses and dropping out of college.  

In other words, what teachers assign is crucial.  Reading at the college level isn’t a skill that can be developed on any old text.  Style and content matter.  The object on which you exert your faculty of comprehension has a retroactive effect on the faculty itself.  When the difficulty of a text rises, reading becomes a qualitatively different process.  One must prepare for it.  The more weight you put on the barbell, the more the muscle builds.  If you haven’t bench-pressed your way to 90 pounds over time, if you have stopped at 50 and simply repeated that weight, you can’t jump to 90 pounds one day and succeed right off.  The form of the exertion is the same, but the demand of the object is too much. 

As Appendix A puts it, “what students could read, in terms of its complexity, was at least as important as what they could do with what they read.”  If students have read mostly contemporary literature about contemporary matters in school, they may be caught short in a U.S. history course that assigns sections of William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation.  Students with experience in high school with the King James Bible and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s fiction will have a decided advantage.  If the complexity of the works students read in primary and secondary grades doesn’t lead them up to college-level texts, if the works don’t gradually introduce students to broad background knowledge and verbal sophistication, students will struggle at the next level.  Teachers in a predominantly African American school who, out of a commitment to “cultural relevance,” assign history and literature mostly centered on African American experience may find their students scrambling when they get to college and take classes that cover other traditions.  If teachers scale down the vocabulary demands of their assignments, they may believe they are properly “meeting the students where they are,” but they must remember that colleges aren’t doing the same thing. 

Unfortunately, Appendix A continues, while text complexity in college has remained stable, at the lower level it has fallen significantly.  College textbooks, in fact, have increased in complexity in many fields, but “K-12 reading texts have actually trended downward in the last half-century.”  A gap has opened between what secondary schools make students read and what colleges make them read, and poorly-prepared youths suffer the consequences. 

I teach college English, sometimes freshman composition or Introduction to Poetry.  Many of the students in the room have left high school barely three months before.  I assign papers early in the semester to get a sense of where they stand on the ladder of writing talent.  I can tell after examining a single paragraph which ones have complex-text experience and which ones do not.  The latter do what one would expect: they simplify the text about which they have to write.  Their prose is halting and disjointed.  You can feel the uncertainty of the student.  He isn’t quite sure of what he’s supposed to do.  He can’t quite make out all the shades of meaning.  The former students, on the other hand, act differently.  They don’t fumble over ambiguities in the language; they expound them.  They don’t hesitate when they come across the terms Siren song and Appomattox.  They expect to find things that stump the others: dense language, multiple voices, historical references . . .  This is another gap apart from the one Appendix A notes between high school and college readings.  We have students who’ve been primed for the readings and those who haven’t.  It shows up, of course, in their grades. 

That’s a bare utilitarian argument for classic literature, which generally meets the qualifications of complex text.  Experience with the Book of Genesis, Macbeth, and Tocqueville helps students get ahead. Ambitious youths who aim for graduate school or high-paying white-collar jobs right after college graduation know that it’s a competitive game.  There aren’t as many slots as there are aspirants.  The kids sitting beside them in class aren’t their friends.  They are their rivals.  The better prepared ones will go farther, entering the better medical schools and business schools, getting the better internships . . .  Those who read The Odyssey and Inferno in high school will climb higher on the achievement scale than those who don’t, even in fields wholly unrelated to literature.  

Let’s take a specific example.  There is a practice exam on the ACT web site that has a reading comprehension section. (http://www.act.org/content/act/en/products-and-services/the-act/test-preparation/reading-practice-test-questions.html?page=0&chapter=0)  Two passages, one literary and one informational, are followed by a battery of comprehension questions.  The literary passage comes from The Men of Brewster Place, a 1998 novel by Gloria Naylor.   

Here is the opening paragraph: 

Clifford Jackson, or Abshu, as he preferred to be known in the streets, had committed himself several years ago to use his talents as a playwright to broaden the horizons for the young, gifted, and black—which was how he saw every child milling around that dark street.  As head of the community center he went after every existing grant on the city and state level to bring them puppet shows with the message to avoid drugs and stay in school; and plays in the park such as actors rapping their way through Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Abshu believed there was something in Shakespeare for everyone, even the young of Brewster Place, and if he broadened their horizons just a little bit, there might be enough room for some of them to slip through and see what the world had waiting.  No, it would not be a perfect world, but definitely one with more room than they had now. 

Several paragraphs in the same vein follow.  Note first the vocabulary.  Not a single word stands out as unusually expressive save for rapping in the line “rapping their way through Shakespeare,” which serves as a twist on the standard way of putting it (“reciting”) and renders the pop culture world of the youths.  Everything else is altogether ordinary, a discourse you might hear on NPR.  There is a reference to a Shakespeare play, but you don’t have to have read the play in order to get the point.   

Second, instead of vivid description, we have clichés: “use his talents . . . broaden the horizons [used twice] . . . stay in school . . . something in Shakespeare for everyone . . . a perfect world.”  Indeed, the flat usages pile up so predictably that a reader familiar with complex texts ends up wondering whether the clichés serve a different purpose, perhaps to reflect the naive thinking of the main character.  But nothing in the passage itself reinforces that irony.  The clichés stand by themselves as earnest portrayals, and none of the questions ACT crafts about the passage urge test-takers to take the clichés in any other way. 

Finally, the syntax has little complexity.  We have some subordination and a few compound sentences, but the pieces hold together in commonplace ways.  No inventive parallelism or parentheses, no literary stylistics.  In fact, at one point when Naylor might have crafted a complex sentence, she actually bungled the grammar: “to bring them puppet shows with the message to avoid drugs and stay in school.”  The prepositions with and to are misused.  She could have fixed that sentence by saying “to mount lively puppet shows imparting a sober message: avoid drugs and stay in school.” 

The placement of this passage on the ACT practice Web site gives it an authority it doesn’t deserve.  Prose like this isn’t even a valid choice for middle school.  Appendix A gets it right when it takes as its model text for Grades 6-8 a passage from The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, which has sentences such as this one: 

I am strongly tempted to give the names of two or three of those little boys, as a testimonial of the gratitude and affection I bear them; but prudence forbids—not that it would injure me, but it might embarrass them, for it is almost an unpardonable offence to teach slaves to read in this Christian country. 

The contrast with Naylor’s sentences speaks for itself.  The sad consequence is that the presence of simple texts such as Naylor instead of Douglass on the ACT page encourages English teachers to put it, or something of equally low quality, on their syllabi, which only widens the bridge students must cross when they get to college.  In fact, ACT’s choice actually conceals the damage done by a weak reading curriculum in primary and secondary schools.  A student who lacks the ability to handle complex texts would do fine on this portion of the ACT test because The Men of Brewster Place passage is not a complex text.  Students who have attended schools that prefer such readings will perform just as well on this section of the exam as will students who attended schools that assigned Romantic poetry and Russian novels.  But when they get to college, their respective talents will tell.   

Classic literature in K-12 schooling solves the problem.  Even in the lower grades, it helps form a youth into a college-ready freshman.  The formation works in several ways.  One, it builds cultural literacy, the term E. D. Hirsch famously gave to the background knowledge that people must possess if they want to participate in professional workplaces and upper-middle-class society.  However much our country has become more multicultural, the tradition of classic literature still pops up all the time in intellectual discourse.  If you have no idea what an Achilles heel is, or what the First Amendment says, or when and why the Renaissance happened, or what a City on a Hill is, you will fail to understand pieces of an inauguration speech or a New York Times op-ed—or a passage on the MCAT or GMAT. 

Two, classic literature draws students into other times and places.  It thereby prepares them for the unfamiliar and oppositional in ways contemporary literature cannot.  As students read Paradise Lost, they enter an intensely moral and God-centered university that most of them never encounter in their daily lives.  It places a burden of imagination upon them that few contemporary works can equal.  Educators who call for more multiculturalist representation, more authors outside the Western tradition, don’t realize that to a student in Phoenix in 2019 a Puritan poet in 1660s England is a lot more “otherly” than a Nigerian novelist working today. 

Three, the language of works that have stood the test of time presents students with the most beautiful and sublime expressions of human thought and feeling and experience.  The phrasings of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Spenser, the Sermon on the Mount in King James, the couplets of Dryden and Pope, the epigrams of Wilde . . . they acquaint teenagers with English at its best.  American adolescents are surrounded by social media all the time, inundated with mass culture that prizes witless communication.  If schools do not provide them with examples of a better idiom, they believe that Twitter and Instagram and Youtube comments are, indeed, accepted repositories of preferred language.  Instead of filtering their experience through the characters of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, they do so through the puerile dialect of the Web. 

Quality matters, and classic literature ensures it.  Contemporary literature hasn’t stood the test of time, nor does it foster historical understanding, nor a philological appreciation of words.  We are too close to it to judge it well; it is too close to us to expand our imaginations beyond the present.  Furthermore, it is all too easy for us to let topical concerns override the quality factor, as we can see in the case of the ACT passage.  When we give in to the lure of the present and false notions of relevance, when we lower the bar of challenge in the materials we choose and downgrade the cultural inheritance for which we are responsible, we fail to equip students for “the best that has been thought and said.”  In my first year at UCLA in 1978, I took a basic comparative literature course that had us read Voltaire’s Candide, Goethe’s Werther, Dostoevsky’s Karamazov, Paul Valery’s La Jeune Parque, and Rilke’s Duino Elegies.  The works hit me hard, especially the last three, but they wouldn’t have if I hadn’t had a few good English teachers earlier in my schooling who taught me to read closely and assigned the right books.  I owe to them the power of my college experiences as much as I owe it to my professors. 

© Retained by author and Institute for Classical Education 2020