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The Literature vs. Information Debate

December 14, 2012

Over the past several weeks, a debate has raged in the education blogosphere over the Common Core State Standard’s (CCSS) recommendation that 70% of reading in classrooms be devoted to “informational text” with the balance being devoted to “literature”. This is an anathema to many liberal-arts-major-bloggers who see this as a portent of the elimination of Shakespeare in favor of reading manuals and dry analytic texts.

I strongly disagree with political context surrounding the CCSS— namely the desire to quantify the “quality of schools and teachers” using analytics derived from on standardized tests based on a common set of goals and objectives. However, if testing is a “given”, and the improvement of public education is a national priority, then having a set of universal standards is a necessity. Having started my career as a public school superintendent in 1983, the year A Nation At Risk was published, I have engaged in variations of this debate throughout my career> I’ve noticed that the breakdown in consensus occurs when a panel attempts to specifically identify which books should be included in the national canon at a particular grade level and which topics should or should not be included in historical and scientific texts. The notion of dividing language arts reading into “informational text” and “literature” seems a more productive undertaking than trying to determine WHAT information to include or what books to read.

The question of whether the split between “literature” and “informational test” seems to be a  good way to divert attention from the overarching political context and also seems to be creating a host of false dichotomies. With all of this swirling in my mind, I was interested in Timothy Egan’s column this in this morning’s NYTimes. Titled “In Ignorance We Trust”, Egan is concerned with the state of history instruction in our schools:

…History, the formal teaching and telling of it, has never been more troubled. Two forces, one driven by bottom-line educators answering to corporate demands to phase out the liberal arts, the other coming from the circular firing squad of academics who loathe popular histories, have done much to marginalize our shared narratives.

He calls out FLA Governor Rick Scott’s “knuckle headed” idea of charging more for liberal arts courses because we have all the anthropologists we need, and writes about the sad stte of history texts many of which “… are boring, badly written and jargon-weighted with politically correct nonsense.” This is the comment I wrote in response to the article… which I hope might provoke a column about in the future.

You MIGHT have something to contribute to the ongoing debate among educators regarding the 70-30 rationing of “informational text” to “literature”. Liberal Arts majors are annoyed and there is a lot of rumormongering going on about “the elimination of Shakespeare” in favor of reading “dry non-fiction”… As you note in your essay, non-fiction isn’t necessarily a recounting of carefully screened factual information that is arguably propaganda… it can be stories told by real people who lived through experiences similar to those we are encountering today.

I DO think the “literature-versus-informational” text assumes that students will be forced to read textbooks in history and social studies to the exclusion of literature. It could, just as easily, compel teachers to work in an interdisciplinary fashion.

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