Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Losing the classics

I've spent the past semester reading some of the greatest works of literature known to man. It seems like a pretty lofty way to open a blog entry, but I know that it is a huge gift to be able to devote as much time as I have been able to to reading Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, and Aristophanes. I am also acutely aware of the fact that these books have greatly influenced the way I am seeing the world. The gift of great writers is their ability to leave their wisdom to the rest of us. What would this world be like without the influence of Shakespeare, without the wit of Aristophanes, without the pathos of To Kill a Mockingbird? Unfortunately, we may soon find out.

It was was great alarm that I read an article last week about a national push to remove fiction from the public school curriculum. According to this article the industrial model of our educational system, has reached its logical end. The classics are slowly but surely being removed from classroom curriculums due to the adoption of "Common Core Standards". These standards state that across the curriculum 70% of reading should be non-fiction. In order that students be able to fill that 70% requirement there is an accompanying list of recommended texts "like Recommended Levels of Insulation by the the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the Invasive Plant Inventory, by California's Invasive Plant Council." The purpose of this emphasis on technical texts is to create students who are better equipped for the workplace and who have the ability to write clearly and concisely. 

The emphasis on non-fiction and technical writing is going to have devastating consequences for our schools and our nation. I do not generally take an alarmist view of things but this is truly sad, especially for those students who do not have parents ensuring that they are fed a regular diet of great literature. Reading this article coincided with me pulling out Louise Cowan and Os Guinness' wonderful work Invitation to the Classics (truly a must for any  literature loving family) to prep for my final exams. As Os Guinness so eloquently states in the introduction:
...with the Western world at large urgently needing renewal, we should all remember that great periods of renaissance and reformation spring from a return to first things. Once we recognize the classics' lyric beauty, their aching tragedy, their probing intellectual inquiry, their profound imagination, sympathy, and wisdom, we see that their capacity to restore is fundamental to our continuing liberty and vitality.
Having had the benefit of growing up in a family devoted to reading great literature, I know that it is impossible to innumerate the myriad ways in which that shaped who I am and how I think. While this initiative is backed by such well-regarded organizations as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Governors' Association, it is one that is doomed to failure. Even the most basic goal of educating children so that they will be capable future employees requires a nurturing of the soul, something only possible in an education based in great books. The imaginations and creativity of children not encouraged by the imagined worlds of Narnia and Gulliver will stagnate and the creative solutions sought by employers will be severely lacking. In order to create employees who are willing to serve their customers, you have to be able to hire people who know empathy and I know of no better way to encourage the growth of that essential human trait than a childhood steeped in books like The Hundred Dresses, The Family Under the Bridge, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Most concerning is the fact that those behind this sort of educational push seem to have a purely capitalistic view of people. People have become commodities. There seems to be very little concern with the moral, social, and spiritual aspects of students, only a concern in their future as good workers able to produce product for our consumption based economy. This is the product of a worldview that sees no distinction between us and the animals. Someone pointed out to me that what we now call HR or Human Resources used to be called Personnel. This shift in language is very telling in that the personhood of individuals has shifted from one that recognizes people's innate value to one that sees them as "resources." These shifts have been enabled by a populace whose moral and creative education has been neglected and that has occurred as we forsake reading the classics. Any student of Shakespeare knows that King Lear vividly shows the devastation caused by such a utilitarian outlook.

While I find much to cause despair in our nation's educational system, I am daily encouraged by you! Your desire to provide your children and students with an education that broadens minds, encourages imagination, embraces humanity in its beautiful brokenness, and ultimately, creates caring, responsible, generous adults who see life as a gift is reassuring to me. I admire you for your dedication and the labor you are investing in the next generation.

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  1. Rea- This is such an inspirational post! I was recently burdened by the news of what some acuqaintence's children are being exposed to (and what they are not, i.e. great literature). I also believe that these classics will help prepare our children for the future generation of adults who were trained as "resources" with lacking morals and individuality. Thanks for your wisdom! -emily w.

  2. Hi Emily,
    So nice to hear from you, and it was a treat to see you recently. This post was actually written by my daughter, Rebecca, and I was just as inspired as you!
    The forsaking of fictional literature in the classroom is exactly the kind of scenario that Dickens paints in his novel Hard Times. He effectively shows how the pursuit of rationalism and the rejection of literature creates soulless human beings who have no capacity for what truly defines us–the love of beauty, truth, and grace. A rejection of literature for "scientific truth" is just a repeat of what they tried to do in the 19th century!

  3. Thank you for this post. I feel so blessed that I will be able to homeschool my children. And I'm excited to use Beautiful Feet Books! My girls are only 3 and 1 now. But next fall I plan to start "school" and will purchase the Character package.

  4. I don't know if you have ever read anything by John Taylor Gatto, but you are right in saying that this is the logical conclusion of the education system, as his works expose. The education system we have was modeled after a European system made to produce workers, not thinkers.