Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Canon, and Other Instruments of War

[Updated August, 2017]

There is (and will likely continue to be) a great deal of debate between two camps of English teachers – those who preach the canon of “great literature(s),” and those who specifically seek titles outside the canon.  It is almost impossible, at times, for members of the two camps to speak on the issue without polarizing epithets such as “purist,” “elitist” or “prescriptivist” being hurled at the pro-canon educators, or similar (and even worse) being levied against those who would incorporate more non-traditional and modern texts.

In the seventies and eighties in New York State, a student coming up through the ranks in English/Language Arts might have found his or her curriculum doled out thus:
7th:  Grammar, language arts, mechanics, writing skills, vocabulary, and writing.

8th:  More of the above, and a lot of writing.

9th:  Genres of Literature:  A smattering of poetry, a novel, one or two plays[1], a few short stories, thorough review of key Language Arts fundamentals, and a lot of writing.

10th:  American Literature:  A rigorous tour of the movements in American Literature (colonial/federalist, romantic, transcendentalist, naturalist, realist, Lost Generation…), five or six required major pieces,[2] and a ton of writing.

11th:  British Literature.  Like the above, only, you know, for Britain, plus a ton of writing. This would have been a NYS Regents Exam year.

12th:  Exploration/enrichment – semester electives, specialized/focused coursework, or A.P. classes.
There are a number of reasons why this has changed: demographics, economic and social issues, trends in research, politicization, and simply the all-too-familiar and mercilessly destructive myth of change-for-change’s-own-sake.  But one undeniable and very empirically real trend that has beset our schools over the past generation is a staggering increase in students who, for whatever reason or reasons, enter intermediate and high school absent the literacy and basic writing skills to be successful.  This article is not about blame (at least not exclusively), as everybody has a theory and a personal scapegoat-of-choice.  This is about observations, and maybe, solutions.

In recent years, the old, familiar Language Arts mission of intermediate school years past has been replaced by variations on a theme: world literatures, multiculturalism.  The desire to expose children to various styles, views and types of people is laudable.  It is not a stretch, however, to posit that the loss of certain core elements from that former curriculum has contributed to many of the deficits we now see, and I would suggest that – if we are really dead set on the latter – it is not impossible to hybridize the two, to avoid proffering the latter at the expense of the former: to teach grammar and mechanics in the context of short readings that achieve the new purpose, while still fulfilling the old.

A response to increasing diversity – not only in language and culture, but also in ability as “tracking” becomes passé and heterogeneous grouping becomes the norm (not coincidentally in recent years perhaps, stingier budgets lead to staff cuts, which increases the necessity of heterogeneous grouping, not out of any especial love for social leaning theories or constructivist teaching methodologies, but out of the simple financial mathematics of being no longer able to offer all students enough targeted, developmentally appropriate classes to meet their specific needs) – has been to “throw out the canon,” to quote a former colleague. I understand the motives behind such a philosophy, and to a certain extent, I do subscribe to the Krashen-era philosophy that massive amounts of reading, any reading (Krashen has been known to tout the virtues of comics, graphic novels and role-playing games, all of which, for the record, I am a huge fan of) can only be good. However, I also believe that for the few works that a teacher selects to study and investigate as a class in depth, it is important to retain as much of the canon as possible. Works become part of the canon for their staying power, the enduring nature of their universal themes, and/or their close connection to times and events in history (typically in our case, United States history) that it is important to preserve and commemorate.  In this way, and taken in the aggregate, they form what may be called the “root metaphor” of our culture.

A common concern is salience: Will my students “get it?”  Especially students who are under-prepared for reasons of recent immigration, language interference, a de-emphasis on academia in the student’s home, or just plain poor prior academic performance.  Attention span and motivation are also common what-ifs: “My students simply won’t pay attention or care if I try to get them to read X.” By way of hackneyed analogy, the temptation to offer children snacks instead of food is overwhelming, as any parent knows whose child refuses to eat at mealtimes.  Now, I certainly would not characterize all modern works, YA titles, and such as pseudoliterary “snacks,” but I would say that without a steady diet of more nutritious “food,” the mind slowly starves. And of course, there are new works that emerge as “Great Works,” by some big and intangible consensus, and they become part of the canon: The House on Mango Street, for example, Night, or Fences. At one point, all publications were new and untested pieces, after all, and even much of Shakespeare was little more than the occasionally scandalous pulp fiction of his day.

One solution is to relegate extracanonical titles to Independent Reading status, and indeed, IR programs can be an important part of a successful ELA class structure.  This is also a great place where short works of fiction can be used, saving perhaps the assigned major works for more traditional and time-tested pieces.  In other words, newer, edgier, on-the-vanguard short stories and more appealing or salient novels might be used to get students’ feet in the door, hook them, get them reading and involved in class discussions on a chosen theme, topic or “essential question,” thereby saving the “major works” slots for more established canonical pieces.

Or, efforts can be taken to identify those more contemporary and/or accessible titles with a distinct literary flair. Some that I have come across: Journey of the Sparrows, Trino’s Choice, The Last Unicorn, The Hunger Games, The Things They Carried.

Another solution is to tie lesser known works into larger thematic discussions that scaffold up to more established (and perhaps complex) canonical pieces.  The aforementioned Trino’s Choice and other works featuring two characters from different worlds provide a great opportunity to presage Romeo and Juliet.  Ayn Rand’s Anthem and Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” both very short and easy pieces with dystopian settings, serve as excellent springboards to more adventurous and advanced pieces such as Farenheit 451, Brave New World, or 1984.  Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn and “The Smallest Dragonboy” by Anne McCaffrey, both self-discovery pieces with a fantasy theme, are wonderful bridges to The Lord of the Rings, or the study of classical Hero’s journey (a la Joseph Campbell) mythologies, such as the story of Orpheus, the epic of Gilgamesh, or Homer’s Odyssey.  (In fact, many YA “coming-of-age” or “taking your lumps” stories would fulfill this scaffolding need.)

With planning, this process can satisfy even the most long-scale “essential questions”-themed curriculum planning.  For example, My Brother Sam is Dead (for younger/intermediate readers) or The Things They Carried (for older readers) can be set nicely against Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage and his poem “War is kind,” as well as Dickinson’s “Success is counted sweetest.” Throw in Anne Frank and/or Maus, the excellent short stories “The Sniper” by Liam O’Flaherty and “The Censors” by Luisa Valenzuela, have them watch the movie Good Morning, Vietnam, and do some non-fiction reading(s) about the Stanford Prison Experiments and Milgram’s obedience research, and you have a very serviceable, diverse, interesting and varied term-long unit on War in Literature.  (Throw in Gunter Grass’s 700-page magical-realist fictional WWII memoir, the Nobel Prize winning The Tin Drum, and also perhaps the harrowing and once-banned Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo, if the class is truly advanced or A.P.-level).

Even canonical works can scaffold to other canonical works, especially if one is in a more easily digestible format:  The Crucible lends itself particularly well as a huge anticipatory set unit to a reading of The Scarlet Letter (especially with a couple of Jonathan Edwards sermons as supplemental readings!)  The relative simplicity of the drama’s format, stripped of verbose and baroque narration, streamlines the students’ appreciation of aspects of Puritan Colonial culture; the witch-hunt motif and the courtroom imagery prepare them well for the more dense (and intense) novel.  In fact, when I teach this unit, I begin with an investigation of a song lyric, “Witch Hunt” by Rush (lyric by Neil Peart) which I teach both to review the basics of poetry analysis and figurative language, as well as a launching point for my lessons on Crucible and/or Letter.

With the proper respect paid to important canonical pieces, modern public ELA education can still be salvaged from the onslaught of the über-progressive juggernaut which is the “essential question,” which, like so many other trends in education, is well intended, but ill applied. Instruction in English classes has, for better or for worse, shifted from a study of literary movements and the rigid application of what used to be called “language arts” to the nebulous and amorphous conceptual blob that is the aforementioned “essential question.”  The idea is to present pieces of literature not as standalone entities, but as part of a larger philosophical structure that is supposed to impart salience, relevance, and a base to anchor otherwise decontextualized knowledge, to enhance retention, etc...  The arguments are convincing, and they really make it sound like students’ best interests are being served.

They’re not.

Consider a parallel from the other side of the curricular tracks.  Efforts to take math classes and modify their sequence from the standard Algebra, Geometry, Algebra II/Trigonometry, Pre-Calculus to an “integrated,” “inquiry-based” platform almost universally meet with failure.  The reason is simple.  An algebra curriculum presents a series of core concepts that are required for all future math study, and it does so by scaffolding in the previous years’ arithmetic skills (the four functions of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division; fractions and decimals; positive and negative integers…), and so neatly adds another layer to existing knowledge.  Also, since the set of skills and concepts germane to algebra is rather small, it is possible over the course of a school year to investigate algebra with great depth, providing a secure foundation for later study. Efforts to break up traditional math courses into integrated courses that are “a little bit of this, a little bit of that” do so at the extreme peril of denying students the opportunity to appreciate the gestalt that is algebra.  With no real concept of algebra as an entity unto itself, students are forced to learn lesson to lesson; with a minimum of transferable skills from each lesson to the next, each new lesson is like starting over, with little chance for the valuable synergies that really move learning forward.

This is not just a simple personal prejudice in favor of traditional mathematics instruction methods; the decade-plus of research following the adoption by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) in 1989 of new standards that de-emphasized traditional modes of learning in favor of trendier, more “progressive,” methods of instruction combined with intentionally less rigorous and less empirically objective standards of assessment was a 50-state cataclysm the debris of which is still being cleared.  Called “fuzzy math” by advocates of more traditional mathematics instruction, this short-lived revolution singlehandedly dropped the United States to dead last in international competitions and comparisons in mathematics education, skill and prowess.  With its emphasis on exploration, the gold standard being “trying” and not “solving” or “knowing,” a destructive “good enough” mentality, its negation of absolute rational standards, and a knee-jerk denial of the value and validity of such old-school practices as rote memorization of times tables, this wave of kum-ba-ya warm fuzziness annihilated an entire generation of American mathematics study.

Now let us return to the 7-12 English curriculum from the halcyon days of ELA respectability, as delineated earlier (look back if you need to).  Here is what it became all over my state by the start of the 2010s:
7th:  World/Multi-cultural literatures, literacy “strategies.” Students advance with their age-appropriate peers, whether or not they have successfully mastered any skills or content (social promotion).

8th:  World/Multi-cultural literatures, literacy “strategies.” If a student is 15+, s/he advances to 9th grade regardless of grades earned in 7th and 8th grade.  If not, promotion is still usually “social” in nature.

9th:  General Literature Study and Appreciation: 2-3 novels, 1-2 plays, how to write a paragraph, introduction to essay writing . A poetry unit that focuses largely on autobiographical "I am" type poems.  The average student is 1-4 years below grade level by most rubrics, and so much of 9th grade is remedial. Sorry, that's a dirty word now. "Developmental."

10th:  General Literature Study and Appreciation: 2-4 novels, 1-2 plays, lots of template-driven writing (geared specifically towards passage of the NYS Regents exam). Much of tenth grade is still remedial.  Fortunately, by 11th grade, many of the truly dismally lagging students will have left due to attrition, incarceration, or re-tracking through GED programs (since so many schools have had to cut other programs -- art, music, vocational education, school-to-career, in order to fund efforts to meet government-mandated standardized-test-success-rate targets).

11th:  General Literature Study with a mild (if any) focus on American authors.  Not an American Literature course.  No more than a couple of major works, which are equally as likely to be of the new trendy “topical non-fiction” genre (Fast Food Nation; The Tipping Point; Guns, Germs and Steel; Nickled and Dimed, etc…) as they are from the canon of vaunted American Literatures.  More essay writing, largely for the 30-40% of students who have failed the Regents once or more, and geared almost entirely to passing the Regents ELA Exam through the use of template-based essay writing, guaranteeing that the only essays that most students will actually be able to write are those whose structure mimics exactly the ELA Regents prompts, as opposed to developing a set of flexible and organic writing skills that can be then used to write any essay type.

12th:  Same as 11th grade, probably with a unit of resumes and college essay writing, and maybe a research paper thrown in.
As you can see, with the exception of the possible addition of a research paper (or a Power Point presentation, since many English teachers seem to think that writing traditional essays will damage a student, and Power Point is somehow a functional equivalent), nothing is really added to the secondary ELA curriculum that a generation ago would have been considered anything above 9th or maybe 10th grade. Instead, educators are concerned with fragile student egos, appeasing anxieties by making gestures to validate their diverse backgrounds, and not challenging them too hard.  A wave of politically correct descriptivism has made it passé to talk about good grammar or “correct” English, and much like the fuzzy math of the bad old days of the post-1989 NCTM regime, has stolen away the precision and the urgency with which education’s most important skill – literacy – is imparted, in favor of installing false confidence and pride in students who are by the age of 16 still unable to construct a simple paragraph without graphic organizers and a lot of hand-holding.

Look at what two crucial elements have gone missing since the old guard in ELA education has given way to the new:
1.  Rigorous and thorough instruction in English mechanics.  By the time students hit ninth grade now, they are still tragically ignorant of the most basic aspects of subject-verb agreement, sentence punctuation, singular vs. plural, apostrophe use, the subtleties of verb tense (went vs. have gone, vs. had gone, for example)…  In bygone decades, these were taught in a defined developmental sequence that was carefully scaffolded, and most importantly, as a primary objective, not as an afterthought or mini-lesson buried in the context of some random reading.  Students knew: the goal and purpose of this unit/semester/course is to master the basics of proper academic English.  Now, even when grammar is taught, it is an “oh, by the way…” event, and clearly subordinate to the larger issues of “big ideas” and “essential questions.”  Students nowadays lose essentially two full years of designated instruction in English language mechanics, all sacrificed willingly at the altar of progressive education (which is apparently defined these days as that process whereby all students, regardless of cultural heritage, skin color or socioeconomic status, are equally allowed to be performing below grade level), and schools are spending precious time and resources to remediate students, often with insufficient success.
2.  Presentation of American literature that allows students to not only appreciate the country’s history but to see how its literature changed in response to it.  In previous generations, American Literature would have been taught as a 10th grade course, one year in advance of U.S. History, thereby assuring that the 11th grade student of U.S. History had a thorough backing in the basic movements and ideas that swept the nation, from Jonathan Edwards’s Calvinist/Puritan fire and brimstone, to the more recognizable colonial America of Ben Franklin’s autobiography; from the Romanticism of the early days of American expansion to the local color and harsh realism of slavery and Civil War-era America; from the Lost Generation of the Depression Era to the westward thrust of Steinbeck.  In much the same way that the integrated math movement of the 90s crushed any chance for students to perceive the distinct identity of the entity that is algebra, the current state of American Literature in many schools denies students the chance to take in all that is and has been America, a sad irony in a nation in whose schools’ classrooms American flags are still flown, ostensibly proudly.
Please note that, in regards to (2), above, that this does not mean that the trendy, multicultural YA literatures that make up much of the current grade 7-9 reading regimen have no place in schools!  In fact, as I mentioned earlier, they make excellent first-level readers that can then be used to springboard to a more robust piece of canonical literature, and are also excellent components to an Independent Reading (IR) that should go hand-in-hand, though in the background somewhat, in the grades 7-8 Language Arts courses (students should shoot for at least one book a month of outside reading).  Imagine, then, a 7-12 course sequence in English/Language Arts that hearkens back to the 70s and 80s in terms of scope and sequence, but where options are put into place that maintain the rigor of a traditional ELA program while at the same time providing a developmentally appropriate place in the course sequence for the exposure to, appreciation of, and appropriately rigorous academic study of, multicultural literatures.

School administrations in urban centers in particular, whose demographic often includes a staggering adult illiteracy rate, inadvertently play in to the insecurities of the families whose children languish in re-designed “progressive” programs such as these, with teachers afraid to assert their pedagogical know-how in the faces of parents who are often simply too uninformed – despite what may be their best intentions – to know what is best for their children’s own education, and/or who often suspect racism or some other sort of “elitist” discrimination around every corner, and in the faces of School Boards who are too afraid of those same parents to actually care about education as anything other than a means to avoid parental and/or societal wrath.  As teachers, administrators, schools, districts, and Boards of Education, we cave in and invent feel-good rationales for our declining expectations of students, and these reasons become our shields when confronted with evidence of declining performance.  We are so afraid of litigation and bad press that we have become unable to draw lines in the sand and defend the absolute, rational, objective standards that must exist for a high school education to have any real value or meaning. [Please note: This is not an endorsement of the so-called Common Core State Standards. Sadly, nowadays, when anyone uses the word "standards," that's the assumption people make.]

[1] In my 9th grade English class, we did Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Antigone, and a lot of poetry (especially Poe and Frost), and To Kill a Mockingbird, and I’m sure we read short stories, but I cannot recall which.

[2] In my 10th grade English class, our required major pieces were "Bartleby the Scrivener," The Scarlet Letter, Billy Budd, Huck Finn, The Red Badge of Courage, The Great Gatsby, Death of a Salesman, and Our Town.)

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