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Grabar: The Gradgrinds of the Common Core

How good a player would Arne Duncan, former basketball pro and current secretary of Education, have been had he not been allowed to play a pickup game or idly bounce a ball? How many great players would there be had they not been able to play at the corner lot, instead forced through endless drills?

Kids would not have learned the lingo and mannerisms of basketball, or imagined themselves shooting jump shots next to Shaquille O’Neal or Larry Bird. The sport would have become a serious business; no longer would it be about the love of the game.

In short, the culture of basketball, so cherished by fans and players alike, would never have developed.

Yet Duncan proposes standards that make reading and writing a drill-like business. In the new Common Core guidelines, high-school English teachers would have to spend more than 50 percent of their time on nonfiction and informational texts such as court opinions, Federal Reserve bulletins and computer manuals!

As a college English instructor, I am dismayed by how much we have already lost of our literary heritage. During the past 20 years, I’ve found each successive entering class to be less familiar with cultural and literary concepts. Often trained to parse imaginative works for political messages, students are rendered incapable of understanding the pathos of tragedy and the delight of humor evoked from sentences that build up complexly. They think that only facts are needed.

It is impossible to convey to them the delight at encountering a passage that evokes laughter at a character’s self-delusion. Few appreciate irony. Nearly all stare at me quizzically when I ask whether they’d ever gotten “lost” in a good novel. They see writing as a chore. As a result, writing skills have deteriorated to the level of, well, a computer manual.

Nor do they find solace in reading and writing, as do many who turn to books when growing up in trying circumstances. Today’s children will have less opportunity to escape difficulties through good stories and obtain the sense of accomplishment in crafting a well-turned sentence.

The situation promises to get worse, for the Common Core standards, adopted by 45 states, will make teachers into Mr. Gradgrinds, the utilitarian schoolmaster of Charles Dickens’ novel “Hard Times.”

Emphasizing “nothing but facts,” he evokes laughter with his “square wall of a forehead,” a “square forefinger,” an “obstinate carriage, square coat, square legs, square shoulders” and hair that “bristled on the skirts of his bald head, a plantation of firs to keep the wind from its shining surface, all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie, as if the head had scarcely warehouse-room for the hard facts stored inside.”

He calls on one of the hapless inmates of the “plain, bare monotonous vault of a schoolroom,” Sissy Jupe, to define a horse. When she is unable to, another boy gives a satisfactory definition: “Quadriped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in spring,” etc. It’s a far cry from the ponies of Marguerite Henry’s children’s books.

Sissy Jupe, understandably, has a breakdown.

The education bureaucrats also fail to understand that a nation’s literature enhances understanding of its foundational documents, now placed under the “informational texts” category. Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” humorously gives insight into changes brought by independence as denizens of the Hudson River Valley go from being subjects to citizens. Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” allows students to follow the adventures and moral dilemmas of a boy rafting down a river with a friend — a slave. Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” illuminates struggles for existential freedom.

But rather than restoring literature to something that “delights and instructs,” our education bureaucrats are becoming like the government officer who oversees Mr. Gradgrind. For example, one South Carolina school administrator, defending Common Core, declared, “Kids don’t need to be spending hours and hours reading classical literature.” A representative from the state superintendant’s office claimed that students learn to write better if they study informational texts rather than literature.

Every study I know shows a correlation between reading and writing. “Informational texts” do not offer models of elegant prose, nor do they invite readers.

We are losing not only writing skills, but cultural cohesion. What will the future hold when we have no frame of reference, such as a “Rip Van Winkle” or an “Invisible Man”?

Perhaps Duncan and education bureaucrats have not had the experiences we lovers of literature have had.

Many have never gotten lost in a basketball game, but they understand the value of such sports and the joy of play, whether physical or intellectual. But children will not love basketball if it is a grinding chore. The same with reading and writing.

Mary Grabar is a writer who teaches English at Emory University.

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