Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Truth, Fiction and the Common Core

“That's what fiction is for. It's for getting at the truth when the truth isn't sufficient for the truth.” -- Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried

Many public school teachers in America are gearing up for the new school year, scrambling to adhere to the new Common Core English Language Standards, the ones that demand that 50% of texts read in K-5 and 70% of texts read in 6-12 be non-fiction. I can only be grateful that I teach in a private school where I don't have to pay attention to the initiative created not by anyone who has cracked open a Shakespearean play in an English class, but by David Coleman, someone who was a business consultant for McKinsey and Company and who will be earning compensation of $750,000 a year as head of College Board.

I'm sorely grieved for anyone who does have to conform to the new Common Core, and I'm even more concerned about the fate of students who are learning in such a regimen.

I understand where the requirement is coming from: we're living in an age of information, and the idea is that students be able to successfully synthesize that information, to curate content in a sophisticated manner. But the Department of Education seems more and more to me like the Ministry of Magic, trying to get a job done right but blundering it in a most egregious way (and tomorrow's students may not understand that allusion, since it's from a work of fiction).

As much as American students have to be able to read and write, the most important thing they're going to have to do in the future is be creative and innovative. The New York Times reported in a recent article that robots are well on their way to replacing human workers. The article reveals that compared with a Philips Electronics factory on the coast of China, where "hundreds of workers use their hands and specialized tools to assemble electric shavers," a sister factory in Holland has "128 robot arms do the same work with yoga-like flexibility," performing tasks "well beyond the capability of the most dexterous humans" (Markoff). How quickly robots replace humans is a matter of debate, but my response as an educator to such an article is to make sure my students are capable of producing something original and creative, something that cannot be replaced with a machine.

In fact, if you view the following video on Social Innovation, you'll see that the future the present requires people who possess a myriad of cross-disciplinary talents:

A July 2010 article in Newsweek's The Daily Beast chronicles the falling levels of creativity in America's children. The Daily Beast reported that Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William and Mary analyzed almost 300,000 creativity scores of children and adults and found that until 1990 scores for creativity rose; however, since then scores have "inched downward," with the scores of children in the lower grades -- kindergarten through sixth grade -- showing the most serious decline. 

Loss of creativity has severe ramifications. As The Daily Beast points out:

A recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the No. 1 "leadership competency" of the future. Yet it's not just about sustaining our nation's economic growth. All around us are matters of national and international importance that are crying out for creative solutions, from saving the Gulf of Mexico to bringing peace to Afghanistan to delivering health care. Such solutions emerge from a healthy marketplace of ideas, sustained by a populace constantly contributing original ideas and receptive to the ideas of others. (Bronson, Merryman)

There's no doubt that non-fiction can foster creativity and awareness of the broader world. But how can anyone argue that fiction can't do the same? Why the hard-line insistence that 70% -- a huge number! -- of works in a grade 6-12 English class be non-fiction? I can guarantee you that fictional genres -- novels, plays, short stories, poems, art -- can also demonstrate how to think about important world issues and how to synthesize information about them. An example:

I teach a twelfth-grade English elective called Hot Topics, an English class that runs very much like a freshman composition course. During the first semester, the class focuses on the hot topic of medical ethics. Students read or watch:

* the novel Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
* a selection of non-fiction articles about America's sterilization program in the 1930's, the Nazis' sterilization and eugenics program, and the ethics of using Nazi medical data obtained through sadistic medical experiments
* the short story "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut
* the novel Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
* the film Gattaca
* the non-fictional work The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
* numerous newspaper and magazine articles about genetic discrimination and the Genetic Discrimination Act of 2008
* selected readings by Michael J. Sandel, a political philosopher at Harvard University who wrote The Case against Perfection

My syllabus, which favors works of fiction, but includes non-fiction as well, makes students aware of the ethical issues facing us as we decode the human genome, experiment with stem cells and DNA, and even try to create synthetic life. As with the new Common Core standards, students learn to analyze, synthesize and curate the information they are given. They also continue their studies of literature, however, by exploring how authors use literary tools to present their views, how the imaginative force is evoked to convey profound truths about the human condition.

I can't imagine my course without its fictional works, and I don't want to. The students identify with Kathy and Tommy in Never Let Me Go, are outraged by the indifference society evinces towards clones who behave as any human would. In discussions of Never Let Me Go and Gattaca, the class and I analyze the way science fiction imagines technological "what if's" in order to create hellish dystopias that warn us of avarice unchecked by moral sensitivity and humility. Through fiction's use of imaginative settings, circumstances and character and of language that is nuanced, rich in word choice and often highly figurative, students learn about the issues humanity grapples with, and they do so in ways that are often more searing than when they read a non-fiction text. Non-fiction can educate and can even be deeply moving and engaging, but it doesn't offer a magical -- even if it is a sometimes darkly magical -- encounter. 

Gattaca's slogan is "There is no gene for the human spirit."
The movie demonstrates that sometimes the facts -- what non-fiction offers --
don't always convey the whole truth.

And this brings me to my last and most important point. Humans seem innately wired to tell stories, to imagine the world in symbolic, non-literal ways. 

Dating from about 28,000-10,000 BCE, the Hall of Bulls in the
Lascaux Cave in France shows animals from a twisted perspective.
The animals are depicted from a frontal and a side view.
This "lie" reveals the truth about what features the animals possess
and shows that facts are not always the best way
to understand something. 

From the earliest cave paintings, with their representationally true, but not optically true forms, to the Homeric epics, which some say mark the beginning of Western civilization, humans have been depicting their world in ways that are simply not true. Maybe a great warrior such as Achilles lived, but it really doesn't matter if he did. To read the Iliad is to understand that fate is a capricious thing and that finding one's purpose in life does not always yield him every kind of success he can imagine. To read the Iliad is to dip into the realms of human creativity and emerge altered, with an understanding of some abiding universal truths.

I can synthesize information about Greek epics and myth and glean data about the Greek worldview from the Iliad, but that's not really the point of reading it. Something much more important is happening to my consciousness when I encounter a work of art with the kind of power that the Iliad has. And I can't imagine the disservice we do our students when we leave them on the dry sand of facts and data and prevent them from fully diving into the springs that brought forth and continue to give rise to such art. 

I don't think everything about the Common Core Standards is evil and wrong, but I think it sacrifices too much that doesn't need to be sacrificed, depriving students of a valuable and, I would add, necessary connection to humanity's creative spirit, a spirit that they not only need for today's world but that artists through history have shown us is a natural and crucial part of what it means to be human. 

My earlier assessment of the Department of Education, then, needs a modification: the Department of Ed. is not like the Ministry of Magic, it is more like the Ministry of NoMagic, and if it succeeds in forcing schools to align with Common Core, thereby depriving English class of most of its fictional content, I worry our students are in for a very dry spell. 

For more information on the human need to be creative, see the following TED Talk:

For a scathing assessment of non-educator David Coleman's creation of Common Core Standards, click on the following link:

Works Cited:

Bronson, Po and Ashley Merryman. "The Creativity Crisis." The Daily Beast, July 2010. Web. 15  
     Aug. 2012

Markoff, John. "Skilled Work, Without the Worker." New York Times, August 2012. Web. 18 Aug.  

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