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What Will the Common Core’s Dilution of Literature Mean for Higher Education?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

The Common Core Standards are all the rage in educational circles. They create a standardized set of guidelines for what students across the country should be learning in many of the key academic disciplines, particularly literature and the STEM fields. It is the latter that is most often mentioned, but the former that might cause the most problems for institutions of higher learning and the intellectual future of our society. Proposed changes in what students are exposed to, particularly in high school, are concerning. The current plan is that works of fiction will be gradually weeded from the curriculum in favor of informational or technical texts (Huffington Post, Dec. 12, 2012). As a lover of literature, former English major, and licensed high school English teacher, I find these changes disturbing. In particular, I see this as part of the continuing degradation of American intellectualism, and a development that will adversely affect higher education and the future of American society.


(Planet of the Apes, 1968 by Franklin Schaffner)

The Lowest Common (Core) Denominator
According to the Huffington Post article, classic works of literature such as The Great Gatsby, and The Catcher in the Rye will be cut from the common core curriculum in favor of works like the California Invasive Plants Inventory and excerpts from Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. While I am a huge fan of Gladwell and completely against invasive species, this seems like an incredible watering down of the curriculum and a vast lowering of our expectations of what students can and should be capable of.

For example, while the Invasive Plants list may be wonderfully informative, a creative teacher could achieve a more poignant and lasting result by teaching about invasive species through works of literature such as Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers (1955) and using the California list as a supplement to bring the fictional account home to students. Working this way serves several purposes: helping students cultivate the ability to focus and pay attention for an extended period of time; developing emotional attachments to issues being studied; and expanding their perspectives globally.

In the case of The Body Snatchers, a skillful teacher could use this reading to not only discuss invasive plant species, but also the Cold War, the possibility of alien life, symbiosis/parasitism, isolationism, what makes us human, and many more topics. Allowing students to experience the world through literature at these multiple levels and working to integrate all of this knowledge and their perspectives into their mental schemata provides a far more enriching experience, and one that will help them become lifelong learners and active intellectuals, and do well on standardized tests.

Short Attention Span Theatre?
There is equal chatter about children’s inability to pay attention in school as there is noise about teacher accountability, yet the Common Core is making a move to further damage the former as a way of ensuring the latter. Literature, specifically the novel, is a tool which has been used for centuries (and the orally told story prior to it) as a way of remembering our shared history in sufficient detail to help us understand the past. Reading long works fiction is one way of accessing these shared memories and incorporating them into our own world view.

Additionally, research is emerging which demonstrates that reading, specifically fiction, accesses the same portions of the human brain as having the actual experience (Mar, 2011). By cutting out all novels and excerpting most fiction, the Common Core will be depriving learners of the ability to have experiences beyond their everyday lives. It is through these familiarities that we can develop empathy with others and know more deeply what the human experience is about. Removing these aspects from school curriculums will create college students with a far more limited world view, thus requiring colleges and universities to work much harder to create the enlightened, global thinkers that we need. If they even can with such a late start.

The Long-Term Effects
It is hard to predict exactly what the long-term effects of this move toward a minimalized, excerpt-only inclusion of fiction in the Common Core will be. It could be that we are becoming a world where the lived and imagined experiences of others hold no meaning for us. If that is the case, the Common Core may well represent the end of humanity in the sense of our connection to the other inhabitants of the planet.

In the short term, this failure of the Common Core to include literature in a meaningful way will either create a tremendous backlog of students in college literature courses, and a subsequent struggle for professors to teach a student body with an ever-decreasing ability to understand fiction. Or, it may produce a situation in which literature simply vanishes as a field of study in higher education, as the survey results below from Debate.org indicate. If students are only exposed to excerpts in high school, they will never develop a curiosity, hunger, or passion for written stories. This could literally be the end of literature as an academic discipline as we know it.


(Source, Debate.org)

Imagine the loss of students no-longer reading Lord of the Flies, Bleak House, Paradise Lost, The Heart of Darkness, The Wasteland, or any of the tens of thousands of works of literature that tell us the story of humanity. This all seems very Cormack McCarthy, post-apocalyptic – though no-one may ever be able to catch the meaning of that analogy if the Common Core has its way. How will students be able to write new creative works if they have never read them? That inability to think creatively and imaginatively will be the greatest loss of the Common Core’s gutting of literature.

The Solution is More, Not Less Literature
It seems that the Common Core is just one more symptom of our lack of trust and respect for teachers. At the risk of sounding like a broken record – teachers are well-trained, experienced professionals who know both how to teach and what to teach. Attempting to make education fool proof through the implementation of the Common Core is really creating a culture of non-intellectuals out of fear of the popular myth that teachers can’t do their job well.

If we really want our educational system to help students learn, so that we can create well-rounded college students and adults, we must step out of the way and allow educators to do the job for which they were trained. One way to do this is to include more literature –full novels, epic poems, and plays- in the core studies of every student. Innovative teachers can teach about art, science, technology, history, geography, culture, mathematics, and every other subject through literature. By doing so they not only help with our perceived attention-span problem, but also teach critical, interdisciplinary thinking, and most importantly, cultivate the creativity that is "proof that a divine spark exists in the simian brain." By the way, that last paraphrasal is from the film adaptation of Planet of the Apes, a 1963 novel by Pierre Boulle that can easily be used to teach about evolution, racial segregation, physics, and a host of other topics. Please don’t let our children or grandchildren grow up in a world without literature!

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