September 1, 2009

The End of Cultural Literacy

Justin Katz

The New York Times article doesn't claim a trend, instead following the efforts of a single teacher, Lorrie McNeill, with a class of gifted students, but one can be sure that the positive article in the publication formerly known as "the newspaper of record" will encourage more teachers to follow her lead. What McNeill has done is to jettison a classroom reading list, instead letting students choose their own books, with a gentle "prodding" to "a higher level."

The deceptive success of the program has been in increased interest in reading and achievement on a standardized test, but one could argue that the uptick highlights nothing so much as the low performance of students previously:

Of her 18 eighth graders, 15 exceeded requirements, scoring in the highest bracket. When the same students had been in her seventh-grade class, only 4 had reached that level. Of her 13 current seventh graders, 8 scored at the top.

If these are gifted students, they ought to be passing these tests handily; one shudders to think how lower-level students are doing. An education system that must dumb down assignments and ignore its mandate to develop a shared literacy in order to achieve positive results in mechanics is failing its students by any definition, and an attempt at finding social redemption strikes me as starry-eyed:

In the method familiar to generations of students, an entire class reads a novel — often a classic — together to draw out the themes and study literary craft. That tradition, proponents say, builds a shared literary culture among students, exposes all readers to works of quality and complexity and is the best way to prepare students for standardized tests.

But fans of the reading workshop say that assigning books leaves many children bored or unable to understand the texts. Letting students choose their own books, they say, can help to build a lifelong love of reading. ...

... literacy specialists also say that instilling a habit is as important as creating a shared canon. "If what we're trying to get to is, everybody has read 'Ethan Frome' and Henry James and Shakespeare, then the challenge for the teacher is how do you make that stuff accessible and interesting enough that kids will stick with it," said Catherine E. Snow, a professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. "But if the goal is, how do you make kids lifelong readers, then it seems to me that there's a lot to be said for the choice approach. As adults, as good readers, we don't all read the same thing, and we revel in our idiosyncrasies as adult readers, so kids should have some of the same freedom."

Will the fact that more students allow themselves to be motivated by choose-your-own-adventure reading assignments mean that they'll choose reading over other candidates for their attention in the future? I'm skeptical. As I argued recently regarding summer lists, books' unique attraction is their evocation of substance, profundity, and achievement. If gifted students already in eighth grade are still not past the point of picking books that are essentially cartoons in sentences, they've precious little time to reach the vista at which one sees the literary canon imparting meaning to life.

And that brings us back to the fact that they'll have little experience plumbing a common meaning conveyed in classics. Frankly, I can't help but think of a lecture from the '80s by former Soviet propagandist Yuri Bezmenov about Communists' strategy of subversion as warfare. Explaining the components of the first stage of subversion, demoralization, Bezmenov touches on education:

Distract them from learning something which is constructive, pragmatic, efficient. Instead of mathematics, physics, foreign languages, chemistry, teach them history of urban warfare, natural food, home economy, your sexuality — anything, as long as it takes you away.

Although Bezmenov doesn't mention it in his brief explanation, cultural literacy is a critical component to social cohesion and a national sense of purpose. Left to their own devices, young Americans will isolate themselves in limited communities of interest and ideology; many will simply remain functionally illiterate. In this context, it's significant to note that the "reading workshop" method appears — once again — to further the trend of locking boys out of educational "progress":

To Ms. McNeill's chagrin, several students, most of them boys, stubbornly refused to read more challenging fare. One afternoon this spring she pulled her stool next to Masai, an eighth grader who wore a sparkling stud in one ear, as he stared at a laptop screen on which he was supposed to be composing a book review. Beside him sat the second volume in the "Maximum Ride" series, which chronicles the adventures of genetically mutated children who are part human, part bird. He was struggling to find anything to write.

Foreign government agents may not be behind these social movements — indeed, Bezmenov likens subversion to the martial arts technique of helping your opponent to knock himself off balance — but a generation or two of dumb, demoralized men and slightly less dumb, self-esteem-inflated women all disconnected from each other and from the culture into which they were born will spell destruction as clearly as would a successful invasion.