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.

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