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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 10/ 5/2009

Willingham: What Should Students Be Required to Read?

By Valerie Strauss

U-Va. cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, author of "Why Don't Students Like School?" is my guest today.

By Daniel Willingham
What should students be required to read?

The recent draft of national reading standards released by the Common Core State Standards Initiative has a good deal of information about what students should be able to do when they read, but nothing about what they should actually read.

It is not controversial to specify desirable knowledge in other subjects.

In science, for example, we expect that students will acquire certain skills-- methods of scientific analysis--but we also believe that there is a body of scientific knowledge that students will learn. The same is true of history and mathematics.

What makes literature different? Why don’t standards specify what students ought to read?

Two complaints are often raised. One is that aesthetic judgments are arbitrary.

Why ask students to read “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats but not Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl?” What makes one poem better than the other?

The second concern is that listing titles destroys local control and teacher autonomy. Should some committee really declare that every 11th grader in the country must read Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn?

Both objections spring from the idea that content standards should specify particular titles based on their literary merit.

But that’s not the only way to write standards. Perhaps a better method would be to select literary movements based on their influence.

Specifying literary movements (e.g., Modernism, The Lost Generation, Harlem Renaissance) rather than specific authors would better parallel standards in other disciplines.

We might expect a national body to recommend that students study Colonial American History in 3rd grade. We would not expect that national body to specify the particular events that must be studied (and by inference, what ought to be excluded).

Listing broad movements in literary history to be studied is the stuff of standards.

Selecting works to be studied constitutes a curriculum.

Additionally, one would expect that that standards-related activity would translate to only part—say, 60%--of classroom time devoted to literature, with the remainder at the discretion of the district or teacher.

If one were to pick literary movements, which would be selected? Influence is likely a less arbitrary criterion than aesthetic value, and it is more useful to students. Influential movements changed how future authors wrote, their subject matter, how they thought about literature, and so on.

For that reason, students must understand something of these movements in order to understand individual works. A student’s appreciation of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" will be richer if she has some knowledge of British Romanticism.

Which movements should be included and which excluded? Romanticism? Realism? The Beat Poets?

The problem of selection is not that different than the problem in Biology, Chemistry, or American History. Selection is difficult because the domain is vast. In those subjects, the centrality of the topic to the field is a crucial determinant. Evolutionary theory is important to teach because so many of the subtopics within biology require a firm grasp of its concepts. Similarly, it makes sense that students have some familiarity with the literary movements that have been the most influential.

Obviously, elementary students will not study literary movements. Once the essential topics are selected, one can work backwards through the grades, specifying the knowledge and skills that serve well as building blocks. Third graders don’t learn about evolution, but they might learn about properties of matter or bodily systems in preparation for more advanced topics.

Is it really impossible for literature experts to agree on a set of major literary movements with which American high school graduates ought to be familiar? It would not be an easy task, surely, but I think that, if given the chance, a group of literature experts (teachers, editors, professors, writers, and critics) could rise to the occasion, especially if the criterion—literary influence—were made clear.

Literary history is currently ignored in too many American schools. I asked two friends about this, both English professors at selective universities. Both said that entering freshmen were experienced in considering tone, theme, and other rudiments of analysis, but were usually completely ignorant of literary history. As one said, “We have to start from scratch.”

A stated goal of the common core standards is to prepare students for college. If the standards leave the selection of literary works utterly to chance, they are unlikely to meet that goal.

By Valerie Strauss  | October 5, 2009; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, Learning, National Standards, Reading  | Tags:  Content Standards, Daniel Willingham, Literature, Reading  
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Next: Should Shakespeare Be Required Reading?


I like Dr. Willingham's ideas about teaching literature. I would take them a step further, though, and advocate for the establishment in general of more inter-disciplinary courses and curricula, such as American studies, history of science, and engineering or applied math.

Posted by: rlevy1 | October 5, 2009 1:41 PM | Report abuse

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