Gray World Without Poetry

No Emily DickinsonIt doesn’t much matter which side of the political spectrum an education bureaucrat comes from, they want to destroy the essence of education. The reason is very simple: they want to create workers rather than human beings. Children are not taught to read so they can spend time with the greatest minds of our culture. They are taught so they can read technical documents and understand signs that say, “No sleeping in the workroom!”

Ezra Klein tells us that 46 states plus the District of Columbia has passed the “Common Core State Standards” in English. These standards call for pushing kids to learn how to read “informational” text rather than fiction. This makes no sense on a number of levels.

Primarily: reading is reading. I have always found reading fiction more difficult than reading technical material, except that most technical material is poorly written. Everyone understand the difficulty in starting a novel. You have no context, it just starts. I remember helping my mother decipher the first couple of pages of Naked Lunch, when she inexplicably decided to read it at 60.

Regardless of how technical the material, a good writer is always telling a story. So in a fundamental sense there is no difference between nonfiction and fiction. The biggest difference I find between the two is that nonfiction is typically padded. Reading a ridiculous amount of nonfiction in book form, I can tell you that most 400 page books could easily have been cut down to 100. (In fact: note how often and easily magazine features—10,000 words—get whipped up in to books of 120,000 words. I avoid such books at all cost.) Technical documents (e.g. government reports) are far worse. First, they are with few exceptions poorly written. Second, they are excessively padded—often belaboring one aspect of the subject because one of the team members cared about it. And was verbose. But the editor couldn’t pair that down, because such reports are rarely read and thus judged by weight.

By far the worst aspect of such guidelines is that they destroy our culture. Do we really what a society in which graduates can easily digest a government report but fail to recognize an allusion to Shakespeare or the Bible? Where no one has read Proust or Dickinson or Cervantes? Conservatives are always claiming that they want individual rights. But rights for what? To be a cog in a massive economic machine?

Give me poetry or give me death!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Gray World Without Poetry

  1. Teachers already (at least in the high and middle schools I went to) do a terrible job at motivating kids to read. They made it boring and slow. One of the worst things they did, in my opinion, was to have each student read a part of a book aloud. Not only would i have to read a few paragraphs out loud, which I hate doing, both because I have a bad speaking voice and because I don’t get much of what I’m reading when I do–I’m too focused on not fucking up in front of 35 people–but I’d have to listen to all the other kids read out loud, only a few of which were good at it. I’d usually just read to myself until my turn came up.

    I couldn’t imagine having to read only technical stuff in English class. It was boring enough as it is. Our country’s education system is already bad in comparison with much of the rest of the developed world. And our culture is suffering because of it. Such policies will only make things worse.

    But these guidelines will turn out exactly the kind of graduates that the people in favor of them want: to use your metaphor, cogs in a machine. They will not only adversely affect the culture of these students, but they will affect their critical thinking faculties as well.

  2. The official Common Core State Standards website says this about the reading comprehension requirement:

    "The Standards also lay out a vision of what it means to be a literate person in the twenty-first century. Indeed, the skills and understandings students are expected to demonstrate have wide applicability outside the classroom or workplace. Students who meet the Standards readily undertake the close, attentive reading that is at the heart of understanding and enjoying complex works of literature. They habitually perform the critical reading necessary to pick carefully through the staggering amount of information available today in print and digitally. They actively seek the wide, deep, and thoughtful engagement with high-quality literary and informational texts that builds knowledge, enlarges experience, and broadens worldviews. They reflexively demonstrate the cogent reasoning and use of evidence that is essential to both private deliberation and responsible citizenship in a democratic republic. In short, students who meet the Standards develop the skills in reading, writing, speaking, and listening that are the foundation for any creative and purposeful expression in language."

    That sounds reasonable to me, but I can’t help but believe that Frank is right–the real agenda is to create the opposite of that. A truly literate populace does not serve well as slaves to the corporate machine. To simply decide that art is no longer important, that literature is no longer something of value and that kids shouldn’t have to understand how to read fiction or how to process symbolic language, is a terrible precedent to set.

    That having been said, I think there are enormous problems with the way literature, especially poetry, is currently being taught. Poetry is taught as kind of game of "gotcha"–it’s bewildering enough to most people, but when it’s taught with this attitude that you’re stupid or wrong if you incorrectly interpret what the author "meant", that’s enough to turn anyone off to it permanently. Literature should be taught as an imaginative exploration. I absolutely loved to read fiction as a kid; it was one of my great joys, but I can’t tell you how many amazing reading experiences were ruined for me by teachers who insisted that they knew the only "correct" way to interpret an author’s work and that my experience of the work was wrong or didn’t count.

  3. @Kristen – I remember that! I remember it with various poems (Road Less Traveled) but also with short stories (The Lottery) and books (Lord of the Flies). From a very young age I believed (rightly it turned out) that many of my teachers were just faking it–that they weren’t that bright.

    I would go further. Teachers are far more likely to destroy math. I know how this happens. When I tutored math, they taught us to destroy the subject: turn in into a system–an intellectual machine–rather than a creative endeavor. Math is as creative as jazz (and in much the same way), but you would never know that from the way it’s taught.

    Whether English, math, or whatever, teacher ignorance is a killer. Standards tend to make the situation worse. In fact, I think those teachers who claim that Animal Farm is simply an allegory of of the Soviet revolution get the information from just such a source: a teacher’s manual. But it is hopeless if our starting point is that children should read Executive Order 13423.

  4. @Mack – Yeah, I hated reading aloud too. I think such exercises are time fillers.

    I tend to think that our current system scares away good teachers. I had thought that it would be nice to teach high school math and science. But with all the testing requirements: forget it. I know there needs to be accountability, but this is bureaucratic think. It’s nonsense.

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