American Students Are Starving for Fiction and Poetry
Several writers have recently called attention to the decline of literature in American schools. Nathan Heller’s much-circulated New Yorker article “The End of the English Major” examined the slow death of fiction and poetry in colleges and universities. In the New York Times, Pamela Paul responded to Heller by blaming the Common Core for killing high schoolers’ desire to read. In the Atlantic, novelist Katherine Marsh lamented the lack of stories being read to America’s elementary students. At all levels, it appears, our students are reading less and less.
All this fatalism about our country’s wavering commitment to teaching English is telling. Despite the apparent decline of stories in our schools, literature remains close to our hearts. We may click our tongues at the demise of other liberal arts—philosophy, say, or history—but we gnash our teeth about English.
Encountering the right book at the right time can redirect a life like few other things can. In grade school my love of stories was kindled by the likes of the Hardy Boys and Matt Christopher’s sports tales. In college, reading and discussing long novels like Moby-Dick and The Brothers Karamazov forced me to ask the ultimate questions—Why are we here? What is life for?—and spurred me to search for answers both in myself and in the world. In his 1949 Nobel Prize speech, William Faulkner claimed that the only thing worth writing about was “the human heart in conflict with itself,” and that is certainly what drew me—and still draws me—to a good book. Perhaps what we mourn in the death of the English class, above all else, is the rapidly closing aperture in public life for these kinds of transformative encounters.
My own generation’s elementary school experience brimmed with stories. Consider a second-grade textbook from this time, Come One, Come All, illustrated by Tomie dePaola and published by Houghton Mifflin. The anthology is full of dePaola’s evocative artwork and contains a wide range of short works from Aesop’s fables to poems by Nikki Giovanni. “Some stories are funny,” the introduction reads, “and some are sad, / Some will amaze you, / Others make you glad!” No other justification for reading was necessary, it seemed, in 1991.
Contrast this with my own second-grader’s experience in our highly rated public school, which demonstrates what Marsh, writing in the Atlantic, calls a “hyperfocus on analysis.” My daughter’s class doesn’t read stories for the sake of reading; they read short informational texts for the sake of developing critical-thinking skills. The poems they do read seem to be delivery systems for information: “How does the poem ‘Coral Reef Family’ show the theme that the living things in the coral reef belong together?” asked one recent worksheet she brought home. “Coral Reef Family” reads like it was written by an AI chatbot that has been prompted to render a book report in verse. My heart leaps upon opening Come One, Come All.
How did we get from the unexpected exuberance of my second-grade textbook to the joyless exercise of my second-grade daughter’s poetry-themed homework? Pamela Paul places the blame on the Obama-era Common Core, which she claims turned public school English classes into proto–job training workshops where the analysis of informational texts takes pride of place over encounters with fiction and poetry. There is truth in this, although it should be pointed out that the Common Core is only the latest in a long sequence of efforts to kill the art of reading and discussing actual books in an English classroom. The Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act pressured English teachers to forgo discussion to prepare students for standardized testing. There will always be English teachers who go beyond the requirements and hand novels to their students, but even before the rollout of Common Core, it was possible for a high schooler to march through four years of English classes without ever reading a full-length work of literature. That said, it’s more typical now.
The informational reading paradigm does not prepare students well for the literary rigor of college-level English. While public high school classes are nowadays increasingly dedicated to reading and analyzing nonfiction, college literature classes—at least for now—still center on the reading and discussion of poems, plays, and novels (although those who continue into a major will invariably also receive a heavy dose of critical theory). The worlds of secondary and postsecondary teaching in this area do not overlap. This is partly a function of training: An education degree, a necessary qualification in most states for those who wish to teach high school English, differs radically from a graduate degree in literature, which is in turn necessary to teach a college class. Is there any major academic subject whose secondary and postsecondary experiences are more dissimilar?
If Nathan Heller’s sprawling New Yorker article could be said to have a thesis, it is that the demands of the free market have killed the English major. This claim is largely true. Students who perceive harsh economic weather beyond the safe enclosure of their campus are likelier to choose majors more apparently conducive to reliable employment after graduation than ones dedicated to the cultivation of their own hearts. Activities like reading poetry or reflecting on timeless philosophical questions—that is, activities we imagine to be valuable as their own ends—have a hard time surviving in our culture unless they receive independent funding, whether private or public, that insulates them from commercialization.
In this light, we might reconsider the current role of the high school English classroom. Instead of simply preparing students to comprehend informational texts, it could again become the setting where students encounter great literature. Public high schools are less beholden than colleges are to cutthroat financial realities. Why not take advantage of this shelter from the vicissitudes of the economy to require students to read, discuss, and think about the novels and plays and poems that represent the best of humankind’s endless conversation with itself about our place in the universe?
There are various obstacles to this vision, for sure—ones that high school English teachers like me know well, and those who teach in public schools know especially well. Large class sizes hinder productive discussion and prevent teachers from commenting thoughtfully on student writing. Online reading guides (SparkNotes and the like) tantalize students with easy opportunities to short-circuit the important process of reading. Other emerging wonders of the internet (ChatGPT4 is the latest) make it easy for students to avoid the hard, slow work of writing—a practice that, as a disciplined form of thinking, does so much to help students develop independent points of view.
But these difficulties are not unique to high school; professors and college-level instructors complain about them, too. And teachers have found ways to mitigate their effects. My teaching career lines up almost exactly with the iPhone era, and as our lives have moved increasingly online, my teaching style has also changed. Less and less convinced that my students are having meaningful encounters with assigned texts on their own, I make sure they are available to them in class. Often, I walk around my class with an open book, asking my students not just what they thought of a passage, but how they arrived at that insight.
I am fortunate enough to teach at a school that values reading and discussing classic works of literature, and whose resources and reputation are such that my classes are small and filled with engaged students. But even in situations that are less ideal—I did not always teach in this setting—students can still have meaningful encounters with Shakespeare or Donne or Ralph Ellison.
Making space for more literature in high school English classes does not necessarily mean returning to the 1990s. U.S. educational policy in the last two decades stressed quantifiable skills and test-taking for a reason: to address the widely disparate rates of student achievement across the country. A standardized curriculum itself is not the problem; what those standards are and how they are measured matter a great deal, however. While the current iteration of the grade 6-12 standards in English Language Arts suggests various plays, novels, and speeches that teachers may use in teaching the standards, it does not require any of them. The explanation: “While the Standards focus on what is most essential, they do not describe all that can or should be taught.”
But what is “most essential”? The Common Core takes it to be the skills themselves, and so it mandates exercises to develop those skills as one might develop one’s chess game or ability to work out a proof in geometry. But putting students on a diet of rote exercises in analysis and interpretation risks leaving them with no appetite for the very purpose (and richest pleasures) of literature: to engage us in fundamental questions about life and what it means to live well. And losing this frame of meaning for literary engagement carries a second risk, too: that once a student has taken the test, the skills they developed for it will degrade. How many of us can still capably manage those geometric proofs? But students who have had their minds opened by an encounter with the right story or poem at the right time are likely to keep going back for the sake of those life-sustaining enjoyments, retaining their skills naturally through regular use.
This gets at one of the problems with the Common Core’s framing, which is that it isolates the skills from the subject that gives them their sense. But both naturally go together. The ability to analyze a text is essential, of course—it’s what makes grappling with a book possible in the first place—but that ability must remain rooted in the fertile soil of good stories, poems, and plays to bear fruit in a student’s life. Imagine a jazz trumpet player who memorizes his scales but has never heard Kind of Blue. Listening to Miles Davis’s legendary recording for the first time could transform those scales in his imagination, helping him to realize in a moment the fundamental reason anyone should want to know their scales at all. Ultimately, you might say it is valuable for students to develop skills in the language arts, but it is “most essential” for those students to acquire them knowing what those skills are for.
To those who, as I do, lament the decline of stories in schools: Why not demand more from the high school classroom? Every American teenager is required by law to take four years of English. What if they were guaranteed, during that time, to encounter literature that, while not overwhelming them with reading difficulty, challenges them to think deeply and ask questions about the meaning and purpose of life? In high school, reading John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath kindled my own nascent desire in literature; a few years later, I found myself deep in Melville and Dostoevsky. Works like The Catcher in the Rye, Frankenstein, The Song of Solomon, and Death of a Salesman are both accessible to high schoolers and thought-provoking in their own right. They provide a rewarding, potentially formative encounter for students who will never pick up another book after high school, and they will encourage others to seek out the deeper pleasures and provocations of Beloved and Moby-Dick and Hamlet when they do get to college.
College English might be beyond saving; some would argue that higher education writ large might be, too. But high school English is here to stay. Let’s not overlook the potential of its permanent role in public education. It could become one of the last places where students encounter great texts—and not for the purpose of building skills only, but also to help them build their own imaginative horizons.