The Myth of Declining Standards in Literary Instruction

An article was recently shared on Facebook by one of my former teacher colleagues, originally written two years ago, about the differences between a middle school reading list from 1908 and a middle school reading list in 2014. The author of the article compares the two lists on three criteria: Time period, thematic elements, and reading level. You can find the article here. The author’s argument leans toward the typical pearl-clutching distress many adults love to display over modern education and “kids these days.” Well, as a middle school teacher I am a participant in modern education, I teach today’s kids, I am a vigorous supporter of public schools, and this author’s arguments are complete hogwash.

Time period – the author uses a modern middle school reading list that includes a few older, classic titles such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Fahrenheit 451. The list also includes many modern titles written within the last twenty years. The author of the article argues that this is a disgrace because although she concedes that older does not mean better, teachers in 1908 were more likely to provide students with “time tested, classic literature” rather than popular, modern books that may be a “passing fad.” But here’s the thing. In 1908, young adult or middle grade literature was practically nonexistent. Literature in general was limited – there weren’t as many authors writing books, and the ones who were writing were generally white males. The 1908 reading list includes only two women (both white), and the other eighteen titles are written by white men. In comparison, the 2014 reading list includes eight women (two are women of color), and one male author of color. Only five of the authors are white males. Although not as diverse as it should be, this list is much more representative of the students in today’s classrooms than the 1908 list. The other factor to consider is that in 1908, pretty much the only students who were receiving an education were white and most were middle class. Public school demographics have greatly changed, which brings me to my next point.

Thematic elements – The author of the article argues that the older, classic titles from the 1908 list give students a “vast array of themes crucial to understanding the foundations upon which America and western civilization were built.”  My counter to that argument is, however, that literature for students does not need to only address the foundations of American and western civilization. Modern public school students are not all products of western civilization, and the ones that are need exposure to the diverse literature of the world at large, not just literature that conveys American exceptionalism and a white, male, Christian-centric viewpoint. Most of my students are NOT white, Christian, or even born in America (or have parents who were born in America), and they need titles on a middle school reading list that represent them.  And anyway, we teach students in ELA class that “theme” is something that should be true for anyone, anywhere in the world, at any given point in history.  A book with characters of color living in a country that is not part of western civilization can teach students valuable themes that can also be true in their own lives.  One statement the author made in her article really raised my hackles – “A continual focus on modern literature narrows the lens through which children can view and interpret the world.” Narrows the lens? WHAT??!!?? That is one of the most misguided, incorrect, and ridiculous statements I’ve ever heard a person say about modern literature for kids. We are living in a time where the amount and quality of young people’s literature is amazing. There are so, so many great authors who write high quality books for middle school students! The only improvement I can even pinpoint is directed toward the publishing world, not at public education reading lists, and that is the need for more diverse authors and more stories about diverse characters. Even though more diverse literature is needed, students’ viewpoint and interpretation of the world is definitely not narrowed by focusing on modern literature. Quite the opposite.  Modern students are truly blessed to live in a time with so much literature available to them. Most American public schools have libraries, many communities have public libraries, and students are more likely now than ever before to actually own books in their homes. I know that many students, especially those living in poverty, do not own books, but I am comparing now to 1908 when most public schools did not have a library, and books were something only the wealthy owned. Overall, modern students are much better supplied with a huge amount of literature that is more diverse than ever before in history, and that can only be beneficial, not detrimental, as the article’s author states.

The last point the article’s author examines is reading level. She compares the first paragraph of Avi’s Nothing But the Truth to Longfellow’s Evangeline and she criticizes the former as having “simple words and casual sentence structure,” then praises the latter for having “a rich vocabulary and complex writing format.” First of all, Longfellow wrote for ADULTS, and I’ve already discussed the almost complete lack of young people’s literature in 1908. Avi writes for middle school students. Also, students in 1908 often finished school after the eighth grade so it makes more sense to expose them to more adult literature, even if young people’s literature had been available, because they were about to graduate from public school. In modern times, students continue on to four years of high school where they are exposed to more classic, complex, and adult literary selections. Modern middle school is not the place for an emphasis on that type of literature. The author is comparing apples to oranges, and her arguments are weak.

Middle school is a time to expose students to a variety of diverse titles that deal with modern issues facing people living in the world today. It’s a time to get them interested in reading, curious about the world they live in, the ENTIRE world, not just the United States. It’s a time for them to read books about characters and by authors that look like them and live in situations similar to them. It’s a time for students to read about characters living in current, complex cultural and political situations.  Classic literature has its place and its value, but there is so much more to offer modern students. This teacher is very happy that the modern trend in education is to push aside some of those old white dudes to make room for the beautiful array of colorful, meaningful, moving, and diverse stories that can widen, not narrow, students’ understanding of the world.

A Diverse Disappointment

The bookternet has been raging about diversity in publishing for a good couple of years, and all the concerns are valid – on that, most bookish folks can agree.  We DO need more books published that are written by people of color!  We DO need more books published with characters of color, or with disabilities, or characters that are LGBTQIA, or with mental illness, or who live in poverty!  Personally, I make a point to purchase and/or read books that meet all of these criteria because 1) these are good books, 2) I think it’s important to let the publishing world know, with my book purchases or library checkouts in my small part of the world, that I value these books and want more of them, and 3) I teach kids who meet one or more of the descriptions above and want to have relevant books to put in their hands.  However, I am a white, middle-class, educated, non-disabled, mentally healthy, straight, cis person who reads these books – I have no personal experience in the situations these characters face, so I’m just blindly hoping that the authors get it right and accurately depict the characters in an honest manner without being stereotypical.  I have never experienced the outrage and disappointment that many people who meet the above descriptions must feel when they read a book about marginalized characters that just gets it ALL WRONG. Until recently, that is, and let me tell you, my outrage is still simmering, ready to boil over to anyone who will listen.

A few weeks ago, I was anxiously awaiting the release of a middle-grade book that was promoted as realistic fiction with magical realism set in New Mexico.  What WHAT?? This is in my wheelhouse, y’all! I LOVE middle grade fiction!  I LOVE magical realism!  I am FROM New Mexico!  This book description rang all my bells, so as soon as it was for sale I ran out and bought a copy.  This is not a book review, so for the purposes of this post I will not reveal the title, but if you are active in the book world at all (or can do a simple Google search) you can figure it out.  This book partially took place on a ranch, and in addition to growing up in New Mexico I also grew up around ranching families and spent a lot of time on ranches, so I know a thing or two about that culture.  And it is a culture, not just a vocation.  New Mexico also has a large Hispanic population, and although I am not Hispanic, I did grow up with very rich Hispanic culture all around me, so I know a little about that as well.  I was extremely excited to read about something I KNOW about. What I was not prepared for was the crushing disappointment and subsequent rage I felt when I discovered how many mistakes the author made while telling this story.

I won’t go through all the terrible missteps the author made in the details of this story; I will just say that after some light internet stalking I discovered that the author is white, young, and has no history that I can find of living in New Mexico at all.  She lives near New Mexico in another state – but Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and Texas are not New Mexico.  New Mexico has a culture and landscape that is uniquely its own. This author made some unforgivable mistakes about the Hispanic culture in NM – one example I will share is that she had all the Hispanic children in the story willingly anglicize their names.  ALL the children, even undeveloped fringe characters, not just one as a quirky character trait.  This is a common misconception that many white people with no experience in the Hispanic culture, especially the NM Hispanic culture, make.  They think Hispanic people want to have names that sound more American or English. They don’t.  I grew up and later taught school as an adult in NM, and the Hispanic people I knew with Spanish names were very proud of their cultural heritage, and if you mispronounced their names they would immediately correct you.  This author assumed Hispanic children in NM are ashamed of their Spanish names, which made it obvious to me she wrote the story from her white perspective and didn’t do research to get it right.  She also made some glaring mistakes in the descriptions of the landscape and cities of NM and the ranching culture.  The mistakes were so, so bad that it was clear the author maybe drove through NM once and perhaps stopped to eat in Albuquerque, but that must have been the extent of her research.

This book made it clear to me that the publishing world still has a long, long way to go when it comes to diversity.  If a Hispanic person had read the book during the editing process, or if the author had consulted Hispanic people from NM during her writing process, or if the author talked to someone familiar with ranching in NM, or if the author actually spent some time in NM exploring the landscape, it could have been much better.  I searched and searched online reviews of the book to see if anyone else noticed the problems like I did, but most reviews just raved about the book.  Again, this made it clear to me that there is even a serious lack of diversity in the people reviewing books. I found one review, from a teacher in Albuquerque, who called BS on the book. One. It made me wonder if books I’ve read and loved that centered around a location or culture I’m unfamiliar with could be just as bad, and I’ll never know because I have no experience to give me background knowledge.  I hope not.  What I do know is that authors need to be better about knowing what they don’t know, authors need to have more diverse beta readers when they write about a culture different from their own, and the publishing world needs people from diverse cultures and ethnicities working as editors. I have no control over those things, but I do know, now, what it feels like to have a place and culture I love terribly misrepresented in literature. I was surprised at the amount of anger I felt, and have decided the best way for me to deal with it, now and in the future, will be to call out the BS when I read it.