Out go the classics in English classrooms

By Kristen Blair for the Daily Journal

Classic literature has fallen from favor in English class. The movement away from the literary canon, begun decades ago, has accelerated rapidly following adoption of Common Core standards by most states eight years ago. Some states, including North Carolina, have revised these standards. But the devaluation of classic literature is widespread, shortchanging students’ writing competencies, cultural knowledge, and analytical thinking. That’s a lot to lose. 

A new report from the Fordham Institute sheds light on how much has changed. Featuring a nationally representative survey of 1,237 English and reading teachers in public elementary, middle, and high schools, the report reveals numerous instructional shifts — some good, some bad. Among the good: Teachers are increasingly emphasizing “close reading” of texts and teaching vocabulary in context.  

Among the bad: Fewer texts are classics. Seven in 10 teachers overall and five in 10 high school teachers limit classics “because there is no longer room for them in the curriculum.” No room in the curriculum? That boggles the well-trained mind. Unpacking Puritan piety in The Scarlet Letter or making sense of Shakespearean prose and verse is hard, but important, work.   

A major casualty of the de-emphasis on literature is students’ writing, says Dr. Sandra Stotsky, an English standards expert and Professor of Education Reform Emerita at the University of Arkansas. “If we know anything in the field of composition,” she says, it’s that “repeated, regular exposure to high-quality prose helps them to develop writing skills.” Classic works have been studied “not because they’re classical but because of the quality of the prose.”  

Another casualty? “Cultural knowledge is obvious,” says Stotsky. “How do you even understand what writers are referring to if you have no understanding of literary allusions?” The Sisyphean task, the Siren song, Orwellian doublespeak — these presuppose shared knowledge.   

It’s easy and right to blame Common Core. The standards’ over-emphasis on informational text, ostensibly to prepare students for college and career, is short-sighted and harmful. But literature was undervalued before Common Core. A national teacher survey and report by Stotsky and colleagues, published in 2010, already revealed a “sharp decrease” in instructional time devoted to literary study, compared to decades earlier.  

Read more here.

Prepare your child to read the classics with Reading Kingdom.  Sign up today for a free 30 day trial.