Common Core and Bradbury’s Fiction

Fri, Jun 27, 2014

General Education, Uncategorized

By Dr. William Overton
Director of Faculty, School of Arts and Humanities at American Public University

There are a wide variety of blogs ripping on Common Core (CC), the effort to standardize across states what students learn throughout the mathematics and English (Language Arts) curricula. The question I pose is “Where do university faculty fit into this picture, especially those of us who are involved with inspiring our students with a love of literature and the humanities?

What’s the big fuss? Well, the critics claim that humanity has been drained from education. One of the biggest criticisms is that kids read because of content, not for the skills that are to be measured by the test questions in CC. Diane Ravitch posted her thoughts on the CC on her blog, Diane Ravitch’s blog within the post, “There is nothing fun, or interesting, or gripping about the Common Core skills. They are purely mechanical, which means they are the last thing a struggling reader will care about.”

Some bloggers, like Diane Ravitch for example, have said, “Never mind what the author is saying. Never mind having an authentic, transactional engagement with the text.” Another worries, “The heart has been ripped away to be replaced by data driven, impersonal technology.”

So are we talking analysis only with CC? Or, is there something more insipid afoot here? Ray Bradbury wrote a novel entitled Something Wicked This Way Comes in which a magic carnival seeks to destroy a town through evil influence. Is CC the magic carnival that will destroy literature and the humanities?

In that novel, evil is overcome by love, affection, music and laughter. Will love of literature prevail? Will at least one of our university students read for pleasure and the sheer joy of a willing suspension of disbelief?

In another Bradbury novel in which books are burnt and reading is forbidden, Fahrenheit 451, the demise of reading and even a law against books come gradually at first, then proceeds more rapidly as so many people, with so little time, demand more and more entertainment and less and less expended personal effort (the Entitlement Generation?).

Beatty, the fire captain in Fahrenheit 451 says, “Classics cut to fit 15 minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two minute book column, winding up at last as a 10 or 12 line dictionary resume.” Sounds appalling, yet when I questioned a middle-school language arts teacher, she informed me that CC provides only snippets of literary works and demands that the test-taker write an essay about how the author’s use of figurative language in this selection contributes to his mood and tone.

I venture that might be an interesting, even compelling, exercise if a student reading Bradbury would go on to trace the demise of reading and books as a way of educating the masses as to what a governmental entity desires. Again, in the words of Beatty, “School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored. Life is immediate, the job counts. Pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?”

So to satisfy my curiosity, I borrowed a copy of Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts. The stated purpose is “Preparing America’s students for college & career,” or, because we all live through acronyms, CCR, which stands for college and career readiness standards in reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language (as well as in mathematics).

Well, all this is very practical. What can go wrong?

An aphorism attributed to Confucius states: There are three paths to wisdom. The first is reflection, which is noblest. The second is imitation which is easiest. The third is experience which is bitterest. Perhaps we should reflect more and test less?

About the Author

Dr. William Overton is Professor of English and Faculty Director for Philosophy, Humanities, Religious Studies, World Languages, Communications, and Art & Music Appreciation at American Public University. He lives and works in Idaho with a patient wife and two energetic toy poodles.

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