Textbook Publishers, Take Note

In a stack of papers called Reading.

  • Jan
  • 31
  • 2006

Remove most literature deemed “classic” from our textbooks, replace those pages with quality, contemporary nonfiction and I venture to guess we’ll have students who are better prepared to succeed in college and in life. And we may create students who actually like to read in the process.

Consider the CSU and UC systems’ recent claims that students entering colleges throughout California are not prepared. It’s a leap to blame this on a lack of nonfiction reading in high schools, but I do believe it’s a possible answer to the problem of why Johnny can’t read and what the CSU Early Assessment Program can do about it.

Think about this for just a moment: as an English major, I have never even cracked open a copy of Moby Dick. Mind you, it’s not that this novel was assigned and I just never read it; that novel never once crossed my path on the way to my English BA. The only reason I even own a copy of it is because it was twenty-five cents at a garage sale. I have not read Julius Cesar either, as evidenced by my lack of ability to spell the damn thing.

And I’m an English major. And a high school English teacher.

My point is I have never read some of those things people consider classics and my life has not suffered for it. Literature I read during my education was fun, a release from other boring classes. Literature should be exactly that. However, most of what I read during my day is nonfiction and that’s probably the same for you, too. If nonfiction reading is the reading most of us do in our lives, shouldn’t high school curriculum reflect that?

As English teachers, we don’t help prepare students for reading in math or science by teaching them “The Devil and Tom Walker” or The Scarlet Letter. In fact, honestly, when you think really hard and look deep into that dark corner of your mind, will a student’s education be any worse for the exclusion of To Kill A Mockingbird? Sad to say it because that’s a great book and I’ve seen teachers do great things with it, but how is the reading of that book preparing the student for life? What is it that he learns from that book, that specific text, that makes it a necessary component of high school education, any more so than a nonfiction essay about the Red Sox winning the World Series, written by Mike Lupica? Or an essay about the development of Mickey Mouse’s physiology by Stephen Jay Gould?

Those last two are examples of the type of reading a student will likely go on to perform every day of his life. To Kill A Mockingbird is a rare type of reading that he won’t perform so often. And even when he does go on to read a novel, it won’t be in the same fashion as we teach, dissecting each night’s reading to lay out on the table the reason for enjoyment, those cold secrets that die in the unveiling.

Newspapers, magazines, court documents, client profiles, job descriptions, business memos, real estate paperwork, credit card offers, medical information, bank statements, privacy policies, movie reviews, nonfiction writing is the bulk of what we encounter each day. But high school English textbooks rarely have enough nonfiction to support more than a short unit on the genre.

Oh, yeah, we have that brief unit on nonfiction, a 3- or 6-week spell where essays and articles are all we read and discuss. I think we have it backward when we conduct things that way, though. It should be a brief unit on fiction, with the rest of the year dominated by discussion of nonfiction pieces. That’s hard to do, though, without costing the school a lot of money in reproduction expenses for the copies of those essays that you want to teach but aren’t in any textbook, those essays that possibly hit students closer to home and carry a higher interest level by the mere fact that they are modern and not written by one of those DOWGs we all know (and love?).

Worse, college placement exams typically involve students responding to a nonfiction selection. That’s a type of writing that we are not preparing students to respond to in high school English classrooms.

If high school is to be a place where we prepare people for life, not just academic life, but life in general, shouldn’t we put students in environments that mimic the life they will face once they leave this institution? My friends, that involves reading nonfiction more often than not.

1 comment

1. Laurie says:

[1/31/2006 - 5:14 pm]

I know what you are saying about the DOWG and their cannon and believe me I agree with you. I think the idea that all college students have to have Heart of Darkness, Lord of the Flies and Hamlet under their belt is archaic. I know many well read people who have not touched Ulysses, or the dreaded Moby Dick, or even Grapes of Wrath. But.
I can’t stand the idea that fiction is dead. I love fiction and I want to help our students love fiction too. Any kind of fiction. I don’t want to encourage students to think that the only kind of reading that is worthwhile is nonfiction. Is that the danger of moving in the direction you suggest?