What’s Lost When Literature Vanishes?

Carlos Gordillo is ditching the non-fiction experiment and bringing on “The Tempest.” Earlier this year, when I spoke to Carlos, he was cautiously excited about the Common Core’s emphasis on non-fiction texts. As an experiment, he dumped his second semester literature unit for his seniors and replaced it with a series of short units that emphasized the kind of practical, real-world reading and analysis that would be more relevant, more useful in the workplace and more likely to build the reading skills students will need in non-literature college classes like social sciences or STEM courses—really almost anything they’re likely to study other than English.

When I visited him in January, students had picked from a list of high-interest topics like the relationship of video games to violence, parenting styles and their effect on children, Latinas and welfare, and the relationship between lack of education and incarceration. Once they picked a topic, they read scholarly articles on the subject, decoded data, interpreted charts, did independent research, discussed their conclusions and wrote papers. The kids loved it. One student with an older sister in college said he felt more prepared now for the work he saw her doing every day.

But for Carlos, the experiment came at a high price. “The kids are enjoying themselves, but I’ve lost the personal connection,” he tells me. “When I taught literature, I was making emotional connections with the kids. We had these rich conversations about people’s actual experiences. With this we’re more removed, we’re more like, that’s not good parenting. There’s been a lot of strong, healthy debate, but the kids have no emotional attachment to each other. There’s no excitement about graduation. They don’t care who goes. We don’t know each other. It’s so detached: do your work, turn it in, log out, see you tomorrow. It’s like a community college class with a bunch of people they’ll never see again. Do they know the skills? Yes. Will they do well on the assessment? Yes. Will they miss me? No. Does it matter?”

Carlos leaves the question hanging. It’s a question over which many English teachers agonize, myself included, and there is no easy answer. Recently when Louis C.K. ignited a twitter firestorm with his tweets deriding the Common Core and its testing, Newsweek writer Alexander Nazaryan mocked Common Core testing opponents by implying that they were sentimental bleeding-hearts. “Staging scenes from Of Mice and Men isn’t going to catch us up to China anytime soon,” he wrote. “Nor are art projects and iPads.” Nazaryan dismissed New York City schools chancellor Carmen Farina’s concern that children in school are deprived of joy. “Joy, our twerking young ones know. Trigonometry, not so much…kids in the South Bronx or the South Side would benefit from a little more rigor in the classroom and a little more accountability from their teachers, some of whom think it is enough just to show up and baby-sit disadvantaged kids.”

Nazaryan ignited his own firestorm and was answered eloquently by many critics, most notably Diane Ravitch, who responded with a blistering piece of her own deconstructing and correcting his facile misunderstanding of everything from testing and supposed accountability to international test scores and their historical lack of relationship to national economic prosperity.

But underneath all of these argument lies a deeper question about the meaning of education, one to which there is no evidence-based answer. It involves a word that no one likes to say, and the word is not “joy.” (I frankly don’t understand why some people associate joy only with the arts; I’m a huge arts advocate, but in my experience plenty of students absolutely love math, amazing as that is to me, and they appear to get great joy out of it. They also get joy out of just about any drill-and-kill practice if it’s presented as a competitive sport. My Composition kids used to beg to play Vocabulary Taboo. The whole class would go totally wild. There was plenty of joy, as long as you define “joy” as “fun,” which appears to be the going definition as long as the twerking reference stands uncontested as an example.) No, the word I have in mind is far more incendiary.

The word is “spiritual.”

That’s right. I said it.   Go ahead: consign me to your spam folder. But before you do, allow me to say that I know “spiritual” is a dangerous word because it is so often used as a weapon for right-wing extremism, for the intrusion of prayer into public spaces and for an erosion of the separation of church and state. “Spiritual” can also, on the lefty side, have drippy New Age connotations involving a miasma of near-meaningless feel-good assertions, many of which have been commodified into profit-making items like $90 yoga pants.

But when I say “spiritual,” what I mean is more narrow. What I mean by “spiritual” is “of the spirit,” something relating to that part of ourselves that can’t be measured or touched or proven, that inner self that amateur cog-sci enthusiasts will these days associate with actual parts of the brain. Others will call it “mythos,” a narrative way of processing the world, as contrasted with “logos,” or a more logical way of processing the world. Call it what you will–the soul, the self, the mind–what I mean is some kind of deep identity, something both separate from and connected to the rest of the world, a place where we take in our moment by moment experience and attempt to integrate it with all that we’ve learned so far.

Literature speaks the language of the spirit because no matter how much evidence-based textual analysis we use, the main evidence we can use to understand it is our personal history–our own pain, our own happiness, our own loss, our own developing identity. We compare poor Lenny in Of Mice and Men to helpless people we’ve loved and resented taking care of; we understand Gregor Samsa in Metamorphosis because what teenager hasn’t felt like a hideous outcast? When we share our pain, love, loss and identity with a roomful of others who are also engaging in this search, a sense of fellowship develops. We may not understand our inner lives, but we’re finding a language with which to talk about it, and that search breaks the isolation of each individual. We learn empathy, a spiritual quality whose value cannot be monetized no matter how many studies you read of its Darwinian purpose. If you attempt to commodify empathy by telling me that humans have it only because its deployment will increase any individual’s odds of survival, I just don’t like you very much. You’re an asshole. Sorry if I don’t have the data to prove it.

There is a public argument being made right now by people like Nazaryan that education is primarily of and for the marketplace, that people who engage in discussions about literature and the arts are sentimental at best and racist at worst. What they mean is that such discussions and pursuits will not lead directly to gainful employment and are unlikely to lay groundwork for future study in college, where the liberal arts in general are vanishing faster than the icebergs. And I absolutely agree that literary discussions in the absence of rigorous analytical skills or vocabulary or fluidity with grammar would be absolutely unfair to students who lack vocabulary, grammatical fluidity or rigorous analytical skills.

But when education is seen only as the inculcation of those skills, what’s lost is that in its highest form, education leads to the development of a personal sense of meaning and connection with the human beings who have lived before us. To those who say that human beings joining in a search for meaning is a luxury that we can’t afford, I’d like to point out that schools in affluent communities, less vulnerable to the draconian punishments of testing, haven’t jettisoned that search, which has historically always been part of education. We seem to have no problem, though, deleting it from the lives of African-American and Latino/a children in low-income communities in favor of useful skills. Are we ready to say, as a civilization, that only the wealthy are entitled to an education that addresses their spirits as well as their skills? Do the emotional lives of children in poverty matter less to us, then, than those of affluent children?

So when Carlos tells me that he’s going back to literature, he’s not being sentimental. He’s staking his ground on a deeper definition of an education, one that includes an emotional connection between the people in the room and the value of their personal experience, their inner lives, their spirit.

Carlos’ decision makes me remember an afternoon long ago, in my first year as a teacher as I was desperately trying to understand the job, I asked one of our most respected veteran teachers why nobody ever talked about how much we love our students.

The teacher just nodded sympathetically. “We’re a ministry of love, miss,” he said, putting a finger over his lips. “Don’t tell anyone.”

But maybe it’s time to spill the secret.


16 thoughts on “What’s Lost When Literature Vanishes?”

    1. Yes, I saw that study! For me, it’s really a question of whether education is supposed to be about encouraging those qualities, which may not have a market value but surely have a human value, right?
      Thanks so much for reading and responding!

  1. Those analytical skills deal with the what is there…what we can see, what we can move around and juxtapose…and this spirituality you speak of cannot be touched or seen because it lives in the mind..in the thinking….in the feeling.

    It is abstraction. Imagination. Dream. Conceptualization

    You cannot achieve empathy without actually being able to imagine not being you.

    This is the most challenging, creative and highest order of thinking.

    According to Piaget some folks will never develop to this level.

  2. Enjoying your blog. But wondering, as a HS English teacher, why Carlos thinks that Common Core requires him to dump literature. Many thanks.

    1. Thanks for reading and responding! Great question. I don’t think Carlos believes the Common Core requires him to dump literature altogether, but the tests and philosophy are focused on an increased emphasis on non-literary texts. As an experiment, Carlos wanted to see what would happen if instead of combining the two at the same time, he separated out one semester for fiction and the other for non-fiction. I thought the results were interesting in view of the current debate about the value of narrative in education (something some CC promotional materials have mocked).

      1. Very interesting! I’m coming into high school English teaching from a university Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) model. From reading the standards themselves, it looked like the philosophy was a WAC model, with disciplines outside of English increasingly responsible for teaching students to read authentic informational texts of greater complexity within those disciplines. English classes would continue to focus on imaginative literature and literary non-fiction. From the standards, it’s not apparent that informational texts are a larger share of the ELA classroom. But perhaps standards, curriculum, and assessment aren’t fully aligned. Thanks for your time.

      2. Yes, people and schools seem to interpret CC differently. What I’m seeing among ELA teachers who are trying to incorporate CC standards is that many are bringing in informational texts as a supplement to literary reading. I haven’t yet seen a lot of literary non-fiction (though I’d love to, it’s one of my favorite forms.) Unfortunately, in the end teachers and schools are going to have to skew instruction toward the tests, and so far the English tests are based on interpreting informational texts, which is likely to push ELA classrooms in that direction.

  3. As a comparative literature major who decades after college still reads literature and finds it invaluable to my understanding of life and of myself, I appreciate your point of view. Thanks so much for doing this thinking and exploring for all of us!

    1. (Cont) Inspiring, love-ministers. I do not remember a curriculum detached from that. And that is what I also aspire to be. Such a great post!

      1. Thank you! That’s what I found I aspired to as well…I do believe it can mix with standards and high expectations. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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