You’ve probably figured out by now that I love literature. I love reading good books. Even when a class is forcing me to read, if the book is good, I love it. If not for school, I wouldn’t have read All Quiet on the Western Front or Macbeth or “Blackberry Picking.”
So you can imagine my shock and dismay when, in interacting with the blogosphere, I found that there is a debate over whether we should require high schoolers to read classics. I was baffled that that is even up for debate. Of course we should! Speaking from experience, the vast majority of teenagers don’t read, except for the occasional YA dystopian or contemporary. (Not to say that there’s anything wrong with YA, it’s just that if you’re only reading YA, you’re missing out.) If schools don’t intervene, high schoolers will never pick up A Tale of Two Cities or Jane Eyre.
Then, in conversation with a fellow literature lover, I discovered something even more alarming. A school district in Texas has considered replacing fiction books with non-fiction books in their high school curriculum. The reason given? Non-fiction will teach students valuable skills for the real world: i.e., STEM jobs.
I did some more research and came across this article about replacing non-fiction with fiction in English classes as a reaction to the fact that “17-year-olds have shown no significant improvement in reading since 1980.”
“The Common Core guidelines recommend fourth graders get an equal amount of fiction and non-fiction. Eighth grade reading should be about 55 percent non-fiction, going to a recommended 70 percent by 12th grade.” (x)
These guidelines perpetuate 4 incorrect assumptions that I’m going to debunk.
1. Teenagers are reading too much fiction in schools. That’s why they’re not improving in reading.
There is no empirical evidence that reading fiction is hurting kid’s brains. If kids don’t know how to read well, non-fiction isn’t going to fix that. However, there is evidence that reading great fiction improves reading skills:
“‘Massachusetts is testament to the value of literature,’ said Professor Stotsky. ‘Its literature-rich standards include a recommended list of classic authors broken down by the educational level for which they’re most appropriate. As a result, the commonwealth’s students have consistently scored at the top on national reading tests and college readiness measures for nearly a decade.”‘ (x)
2. Fiction is childish.
According to the Common Core guidelines, the younger the child, the more fiction is permissible–but 12th graders are old enough to dispense with the childish practice of reading stories. However, anyone who has ever picked up a book knows that great literature is far from childish. Even books that feature young protagonists, like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, deal with difficult topics such as racism. People of all ages have much to learn from fiction. Stories can tell us more about history, human nature, and ourselves in ways that non-fiction can’t.
3. English class is the only place where students can read.
If students should be reading more non-fiction, why can’t they do that in other classes? It makes sense for students to read science articles in science class and history books in history class. In English classes, students can read some non-fiction, but the main focus can be on classic literature. If students practice their reading skills in all their classes instead of just in English class, they will learn to apply reading to all kinds of writing, and thus improve their reading skills.
4. Fiction is useless.
Sure it is–if you’re utilitarian and believe that nothing can have objective value unless it has some kind of usefulness that can translate into money. But if you want informed and virtuous citizens in your country, fiction is priceless. As I said earlier, stories teach us about the human race and how to interact with it. Schools can’t afford to cut fiction from their curricula unless they want their students to lose a critical part of their development as human beings.
I’ll close with a quote from C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man.
If reading skills aren’t improving, it is probably due to a deficiency rather than an excess of reading great literature.
Now I’d love to hear your thoughts. What do you think about replacing fiction with non-fiction? Do you agree or disagree with my thoughts? Let me know in comments!