The Book Catapult

Tonight’s Homework: Coke is it!

It is a far, far better thing…

This complete and utter madness was brought to my attention this afternoon: the Sweetwater (California) Union school district (south of San Diego) has decided to remove the reading of classic literature from their English department curriculum in favor of a so-called “rhetorical approach” involving “expository, analytical and argumentative writing.”  

The new approach eschews reading books in the manner than you and I remember – whether slogging through Wuthering Heights in 9th grade or having your eyes opened by Aldous Huxley – in favor of reading and analyzing “newspaper editorials, historic documents, advertisements and some nonfiction” which the district hopes will steer students toward improved argumentative and expository writing.

While the approach may be a noble attempt to prepare students for the critical thinking and analysis required in college level course work and beyond, removing the reading of literature – “classic” or otherwise – from the classroom is terrifying to me.  This is a quote taken from the San Diego Union-Tribune (which recently dumbed itself down & out of the conversation by re-branding itself as the San Diego U-T, but that’s another story) by Glen McClish, a writing professor in the Sweetwater district:

“The idea is to prepare students to be able to read and respond to a wider variety of text. This is not to denigrate literature by any means. You don’t need to equip most high school students with a thorough command of English literature. If they have the reading ability, they can read more later. For most students, what’s really most important for their participation in college, life and work is basic literacy and critical thinking skills that allow them to read and write and understand, so they can join the conversation.”

“They can read more later.”  This is from a writing professor!  What student, if not introduced to Steinbeck or Salinger or Austen or Vonnegut as a 15-year-old is ever going to just pick it up later?  Is not the issue being addressed that of general literacy, for isn’t that what reading comprehension is all about?  So how is removing well-written novels from the syllabus the best answer for that?  What baffles me is that these teachers and this school district have so little faith in the cognitive abilities of their exiting students that they feel the need to streamline their curriculum to avoid literature, yet they somehow believe that those same students will have the wherewithal and the general worldly knowledge to gravitate to The Great Gatsby when they’re 23.

I understand the aim here, I really do.  The kids are struggling with writing and comprehension skills once they move on in life – even beyond college.  This struggle is, of course, reflected in the standardized test scores for the district, which has become what it’s all about these days.  (Even more alarming is that 58% of incoming SDSU students from the Sweetwater district were channelled into remedial English for their freshman year.)  Yet, is this really reason to remove a fundamental, developmental exercise like reading a piece of classic literature?  Can’t there be room in the English department for both Fahrenheit 451 and an analytical study of the editorial page of the…(shudder)…U-T?  

To me, understanding both is critical to the development of the young, cognitive mind.  It frightens me to think that we’re facing a new generation of Americans who have never read a book in a class. 

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8 comments on “Tonight’s Homework: Coke is it!

  1. Naomi Johnson
    September 2, 2010

    Shoot me now.

  2. Anonymous
    September 3, 2010

    I think the problem is that most of them already weren't reading what was assigned. Although the change will have some negative effects, it is in large part merely an acknowledgement of a change that has already occurred. If a student isn't taking AP Lit, (s)he probably isn't reading lit anyhow.

  3. Anonymous
    September 3, 2010

    BTW, I don't know how else to reach you. I just finished The Glass Rainbow and wonder what you think the (won't mention it) ending foretells for another Dave Robicheaux novel.

  4. Seth Marko
    September 3, 2010

    Anonymous (although I still wish you'd use a name!) I totally agree that they're probably not reading anyway, but I still have a hard time removing lit from the classroom under the guise of improving their educations. How many of those kids were reading the assignments? Even if it's just one, that seems worth it to me to keep it in the classroom.

    As for JLB… I'm sure that Dave's fine, right? I mean, Clete got there & he's gonna be okay… 🙂 Even though a vast majority of Dave's life has been governed by the violence of others, I can't imagine Burke letting him go out in a blaze of gunfire like that, can you? A brilliant book, though.

  5. Crybaby
    September 5, 2010

    This is more of a PR blunder by McClish than it is a sudden and dire turn of events. I have asked hundreds of teenagers the name of the last book they read of their own volition (Twighlight exluded) – I will be generous and say that 1 in 10 are reading anything at all – and those 1 in 10 ain't reading Emerson. A change is coming….

  6. Seth Marko
    September 5, 2010

    Right, so they're already not reading on their own so what incentive will they ever have to pick up a book of their own volition as adults?

  7. Crybaby
    September 5, 2010

    The point is, a great number of teens are not equipped to read books from the Western or even American canon. Ideally, every young person would be introduced to great ideas through great literature at a young age. Realistically, there is a fundamental deficiency in critical reasoning and reading skills occurring at the grade school level. The problem is born long before approved reading lists are assembled – keeping great books on the classroom shelf is a Pyrrhic victory if they are never read.

  8. aaryn b.
    September 10, 2010

    I think this is fantastic! The kids can focus on U-T editorials and the opinion columnists in that progressive rag…what's it called again? CityBeat? Yeah! They can read that! Eventually, when they want to read a chapter book, they can move on up to James Patterson!

    To be consistent, I think the Sweetwater School District should dump all math beyond pre-algebra and focus on teaching kids how to calculate credit card interest rates and balance a bank account. They can always pick up calculus later on.

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This entry was posted on September 2, 2010 by in http://schemas.google.com/blogger/2008/kind#post, literacy, Sweetwater.
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