Never mind algebra–is literature necessary?

August 23rd, 2012

Writing last month in The New York Times, Andrew Hacker, an emeritus professor of political science at Queens College, caused a stir when he suggested that perhaps high schools should not require all students to learn algebra. Responding to Hacker’s suggestion, Tim Clifford, an English teacher in New York City, raised the next question: If algebra is no longer necessary for students to learn, what about literature?

Clifford writes:

[Hacker’s] premise–that we that we should at least consider jettisoning algebra course requirements because many students who fail algebra eventually drop out of college–was met with cries of derision. Yet nary a word has been said about the continuing erosion of English instruction in our schools.

Bit by bit, the body of English language instruction has been dismembered over the last 15 years or so. […] Even reading has not been left unscathed. Many schools teach reading as a set of skills to be mastered rather than as a journey to be embarked upon. Children are taught how to predict, to connect, to draw inferences, and so forth, but they are rarely allowed the leisure to savor what they read or to reflect on the art of good writing. […]

Starting this year, at least half of all reading in our schools is supposed to be non-fiction. And that includes kindergarten.

What makes matters even worse for later grades is that students already read non-fiction almost exclusively in all their other courses, so if you take science, social studies, and math into account, only one-eighth of student reading will be literary. And that fraction is likely to shrink in the future.

So the question looms: Is literature necessary? If algebra can be tossed by the wayside, why not Austen?

The same rationale can be applied to both. They can both be difficult for some students and cause children to fail. Neither algebra nor literature is really prerequisite for most of the jobs available in the 21st century. Ditching these subjects will increase graduation rates because students will no longer have to struggle with classes they find difficult.

We can teach students what they need to know, and send them off to toil in whatever career they can find. So why not be practical, like the “eminently practical” Mr. Thomas Gradgrind [a fictional character in Charles Dickens’s Hard Times] , and only teach sonnets to English geeks and polynomials to math nerds?

While ripping “The Cat in the Hat” from the hands of kindergarteners and replacing it with “How Factories Work” may, in the long run, produce better factory workers, it is unlikely to produce better citizens. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be operated on by a doctor who couldn’t master “Dr. Zhivago,” nor do I want to be defended by a lawyer who thinks Sydney Carton is a box of Australian cigarettes.

In truth, we should be encouraging students to read more literature, not less. Literature allows us to see how all humans are connected through common experiences and emotions. It allows us to examine our past and plan for our future. It can help make us more empathetic to our fellows. Perhaps most importantly literature exposes us to new ideas and forces us to think in new ways.

If our goal is to improve education, what could be more practical than that? Even Mr. Gradgrind might agree.

 Read the whole thing here.

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