Jacob Lawrence, “The Library,” 1960

I read Sara Mosle’s article, “What Should Children Read,” in The New York Times with interest. In the article, Mosle shares her disappointment with the content specified by the Common Core State Standards. The national benchmarks set to go into effect in 2014 require that nonfiction comprise 70% of the curriculum. According to Mosle, David Coleman, the College Board President who helped “design and promote the Common Core,” offered this as the rationale for his vision:

“It is rare in a working environment that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.'”

In response, Mosle offers education researcher Diane Ravitch’s perspective.  She asks, “Why does David Coleman dislike fiction?” In support of English literature, Ravitch offers her own view of the value of fiction:

“I can’t imagine a well-developed mind that has not read novels, poems and short stories.”

Ravitch’s got the right idea. Her view of reading as an aspect of education emphasizes thinking whereas Coleman’s view of reading seems to be limited to a single context. Sure, work constitutes an aspect of life, but not all of it. Little of what I did over this Thanksgiving holiday could be described as work; that was the point. I enjoyed myself cooking, eating, talking, reflecting, listening, writing, reading. I enjoyed my time with my family. Working represents only one aspect of life, not the entirety of it.

It was interesting to read Ginia Bellafante’s article in the Times about the city’s lack of compassion for the hardships confronting people in housing projects in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in light of Mosle’s article: The lack of consideration for the diabetic who could not properly store insulin in the refrigerator without power; the lack of recognition for the danger facing young people moving about thru unlit hallways. As people have been forced to spend what little income they have in response to Sandy’s wreckage, some have not been able to afford their rent; others have not paid in protest against the city’s failure to provide adequate services. Bellafante points out that the city gave residents free tickets to Carnegie Hall. That would have been a fine gesture if it were offered in tandem with basic services. While the city’s leaders suggest through their gesture that they value art, their failure to show empathy and compassion suggests little of art’s influence.

Good students of the arts are moved by it–if not changed altogether. The arts create a sense of intimacy around the human condition. They have the power to bring you in touch with the interior lives of those we are normally cut off from; it’s a soulful experience. According to Toni Morrison, reading, specifically, is also a seductive experience.

In Paradise, for example, the seduction of reading-understood as the beckoning, siren like pull of literacy-emerges prominently in the history of rejection and dissention within Haven and Ruby; limited literacy contributes to the violence directed at the Convent women. Women are not simply victims of male illiteracy however, but have their own responses to the lure of literacy. Thus, when Mavis saw Connie shelling pecans she, “was reminded of her sixth-grade teacher opening a book: lifting the corner of the binding, stroking the edge to touch the bookmark, caressing the page, letting the tips of her fingers trail down the lines of print. The melty-thigh feeling she got watching her” (42). Mavis’s seduction occurred as a result of observing the thorough, tactile attention her teacher gave every aspect of the printed page. She was moved to feel the erotic sensation she witnessed through the teacher’s lingering, attentive fingers lift, stroke, and caress the book.

Responses to literacy are revealing. When I watched Steve James’s 30 for 30 documentary, No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson, there was a moment in that film that offered a telling story of Iverson’s relationship to literacy. Though Iverson was in prison, college basketball coaches still sought after his prodigious talent. In his recruitment bid, Coach Mike Jarvis, then basketball coach at  George Washington University, went to visit Iverson in prison and brought him The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Jim Ellenson, one of the attorney’s involved with the defense, claimed that when he saw Iverson in prison, Iverson’s comment with respect to the book was “what the fuck am I supposed to do with this?” Ellenson suggests that Iverson was merely commenting on how impractical the gift was for someone who just wanted to get out of prison, but I thought it a tragically revealing admission of his shortsightedness. The Autobiography should have been received as a relevant text for a young black man imprisoned in the prime of his life. It might have suggested hope for a meaningful life beyond soul crushing circumstances.

Young people need to be taught what to do with books and how to establish a relationship to literacy. If schools are not doing this, you can have  your own literacy requirements for your children. Thus, in considering Sara Mosle’s well-founded critique, your child’s reading list does not have to be limited by the school’s curriculum. Be forewarned though: your child may not like your assignments. But as I say to my own son when he shares his feelings concerning what he wants to do, “wanting to is not a requirement (think about it, instructions rarely if ever require liking what follows)–you don’t have to like it, you just have to do as you’re told.” Children must be good at following instructions–yours and the schools.

Advertisements