Wednesday, December 18, 2013

“Bah! Humbug!”: A Dickens-less Christmas from the Scrooges of the Common Core

Any people is known by and knows itself through its stories. In addition to the true story of its existence—its history—there are stories that technically never happened. While these stories get assigned to the “fiction” section of the library, that does not mean they are not true—at least true to nature. The myths, parables, poems, plays, novels, and, occasionally, epics—that are given the high name of literature—are the vehicles through which the greatest observers of human nature explain that human world to their fellow human beings. Through stories we learn about the struggles and longings, the triumphs and defeats, of ordinary men and women. We learn about the human virtues and their opposite vices. We discover the sources and meaning of love, justice, freedom, and happiness, as well as of hatred, injustice, slavery, and ruin.

In a sane world, any flourishing people has sense enough to teach its best stories to its youngest people. It does so for several reasons. Stories inculcate civility and the virtues, which any people wishes to pass on to its young. Stories unveil the permanent truths of human life—that do not change with every innovation in technology or swing of political mood. Best of all, great stories are irresistible since they invite the human imagination to embark upon adventures and encounters that never grow old: to fight alongside a warrior named Achilles, to feel for a young woman in love named Elizabeth, and to float down a river with a boy named Huck.

No sensible people deliberately forgets its stories. In fact, it would take a deliberate, premeditated act to forget them. Stories are a substantial part of any culture: the agency that cultivates the human soul and teaches a people how to think and feel. A people setting aside its stories would be tantamount to a person deliberately choosing amnesia: deciding not to know who he is or where he comes from, who his friends are and, if he has any, who his enemies. Who would ever do such a thing?

Great peoples have great stories. The Greeks had Homer. The Romans had Virgil. It has been the singular fortune of the American people to be able to draw our stories from the vast literary reservoir of two great peoples, the British and the American, who share a common language—a great language, made greater by its masterful storytellers. We in America have as much access and right to the soliloquies of Hamlet, the struggles of Crusoe, and the letter of Mr. Darcy as anyone who lives in London or studies at Oxford. And in return, this literary nation has given our British brethren the creations of Melville and Poe and Twain.

Given these fundamental truths of education, we would expect children and young people in America to know the great stories of the British and American tradition almost as well as they know their own families and friends. We would expect the name Lady Macbeth to come up in conversation more than, say, Kardashian. We would expect the lines following the words “To be or not to be” to be at least as well known as the words following “If you like it, then you shoulda putta ring on it.” Given the human mind’s love for stories, we would expect virtually everyone’s speech, especially that of children, to be awash with literary allusions and lines from the greatest tales of romance and adventure. And if that weren’t happening, we would know something had gone wrong with our education and our culture.

To right that wrong, educated and public-spirited people would come together to get the great stories back into the nation’s classrooms. They might rally around a common core of the greatest books and plays and poems. The discussion of these reform-minded folk would become heated around one central question: how can we fit in everything that is noble and beautiful and true and still do justice to these stories that can’t just be ripped through in a day? “We’ve got to have the students read Hamlet and Macbeth, but, oh, is there any way to get to Othello and Henry V and Lear?!” “Yes, Moby Dick will take at least two months to read and discuss thoroughly. Yes, it’s challenging. But it is the great American novel. We can’t let students out of high school without knowing it!” Above all, we would expect certain august names in the literary canon to appear whenever and wherever literature was discussed: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Austen, Dickens, Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, Twain.

What we would not expect is educational “experts” trying to take our great stories away from us and to do so in the name of a common core. We would not expect them to chop up the great books into thin slices so as to make room for modern, untested authors who may be all the rage one day and gone tomorrow. The last thing we would expect the reformers to do is take away classic literature and replace it with a bunch of newspaper or journal articles from just a few months ago. Such preposterous “reforms” would either be laughed out of court as an absurd surrender of our literary birthright or prosecuted as an attack on the human imagination.

And yet that is precisely what has been done through the monstrosity that is woefully misnamed the Common Core. In crafting their English Standards, the architects of the Common Core have committed three cardinal sins, all which undermine the teaching of great stories. They have required that great literature give way to modern “informational texts.” They have required the teaching of post-modern, usually multicultural, mush in each “grade-band” (which in practice translates into every year), thus further supplanting the classics. And through the specter of standardized testing and the selling out of the curriculum to the publishing houses, they have allowed the textbooks to balkanize and anthologize whatever great literature remains until it is utterly unrecognizable.

Let us take one example: Charles Dickens. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in literature to know that Dickens should be read in an English class. All you have to do is look around, particularly this time of year. How many references to Scrooge do you hear? How many times will you hear the unique and instantly recognizable vocabulary of Scrooge himself or references to the ghost of Christmas past or to Tiny Tim? Our month-long celebration of Christmas is almost unthinkable without Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. If you have not read that beautiful story in a while, do so. Or better still, listen to the audiobook read by Patrick Stewart with your family, as my wife and I do with our children the week leading up to Christmas. The language, the wit, the mystery, the pathos, and the message are captivating and moving. The story brings tears to the eye and joy to the heart. As such, it supplements (but does not supplant) the original Christmas story. Nor is it the province of the political Right. Scrooge obviously ranks among the awful top 2% who bring so much misery to the world.

A Christmas Carol does not make the Common Core’s list of “exemplar texts” that are supposed to be read by every student in the land. Apparently, the arbiters of our English education do not read A Christmas Carol every year. Nor do the unnamed “outside contributors” to the Hit Parade. More surprising, not a single work of Charles Dickens appears in the list of “exemplar texts.” Not one. There is no Great Expectations, no Oliver Twist, no David Copperfield, no Hard Times and no A Tale of Two Cities. No Dickens at all! WTD, exclaims the cultured texter (What The Dickens!) Now how did the “work group” miss that great author? That would be like leaving Joe DiMaggio out of the Hall of Fame.

What is abundantly clear is that the authors of the Common Core do not really care about literature, about great stories. That comes through in spades if you go through the mind-numbing exercise of reading the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects, whose title is repellant enough and, yes, includes a forward slash. (Fortunately, you don’t have to since I have read and translated these so-called standards in my book The Story-Killers.) The arch-testers of the Common Core do not love stories, and I actually think they are trying to kill off our stories: the great stories of a great people that teach us how to be good and happy and free. And they are replacing these stories with post-modern literary malaise and outright political indoctrination. Hence the plethora of post-modern authors that litter the Common Core English Standards and of “informational texts” such as Atul Gawande’s June 2009 article that appeared in The New Yorker: “The Cost Conundrum: Health Care Costs in McAllen, Texas.” Does anyone remember why we were debating health care costs in the summer of 2009?

“But these are only recommended texts. You can decide at the state or district or classroom level to read whatever you want to,” say the proponents of the Common Core. Of course, the reality is that the deadly combination of standardized testing and textbook publishing not only prescribes what will be taught but actually programs the teachers as to how these books are to be taught, as I have shown in previous articles. To be fair, let’s look into how much attention Dickens is given in the modern high school curriculum by opening up the high-school textbooks published by Pearson/Prentice Hall. Freshman year: No Dickens. Sophomore year: No Dickens. Junior year: No Dickens. Senior year, in the textbook called The British Tradition: six pages of Dickens, that is, six pages that have Dickens’s actual words on them, leaving aside the long, unnecessary, superficial warm-up supplied by the officious and space-wasting editors at Pearson/Prentice Hall. Specifically, the first chapter of Hard Times is printed. That’s it. A chapter hardly a story makes.

But don’t be fooled even by these six pages. They are the ghost of literature present. The ghost of literature past had students reading a whole Dickens novel. For me it was David Copperfield in my senior year. Students don’t do that anymore in the vast majority of public schools. And the ghost of literature future? No Dickens. Why? We can argue over the motivation behind the Common Core at another juncture. What we plainly see in this important season of the year is that to this great, soul-transforming story (and maybe to Christmas itself), the educational Scrooges of the Common Core have said, “Bah! Humbug!”


Deconstructing Othello

Browsing through a second-hand book shop recently, I chanced upon a New Penguin paperback edition of William Shakespeare's Othello, edited by Kenneth Muir, a Shakespearean scholar. I have the Oxford Complete Works and have read the play a few times. What intrigued me about the New Penguin edition, however, were a student's notes inked throughout it with often indecipherable and frequently puerile, labored penmanship (meaning in mixed block letters and cursive, a sure sign that the student "texts" more than he writes). But enough of it was legible that I could take the measure of the student's mind and what he was taught to focus on in the play. The most significant comment was scrawled on the title page:

    "othello & desdemonda oposits because not know his own culture." (sic)

"His own culture"? That remark moved me to investigate what the student might have thought of the characters of Othello the Moor and Desdemona. Scholars have not agreed on the ethnic character of Othello. Various covers of other editions of the play feature coal-black, Numidian faces in North African dress, or brown Arabic or Egyptian faces, and even bearded white faces in European dress. Othello, a professional soldier, whatever his race, has been retained by the Venetians to fight the invading Turks. For centuries, Europeans referred to anyone coming from any part of the Middle East and Northern Africa as a "Moor," regardless of the race. In stage and film productions of Othello, the title character has been played with varying success by white and black actors alike.

In most of the other covers of Othello, Desdemona, Othello's wife, is usually depicted as a fragile-looking blonde woman, the daughter of a Venetian senator. When I was able to decipher the student's marginal comments, I concluded that he had been told by his instructor in class to read and think of the play in terms of race determining one's culture, and not in terms of its principal theme, which is the destructive forces of jealousy and the evil of Iago, who hates Othello and plots to destroy the happy relationship between Othello and Desdemona.

The deterministic premise, that culture is a kind of genetic phenomenon that governs the contents of one's mind and one's values, is a Marxist product of the Critical Theory School of examining or "reading" literature, and has become a staple of political correctness. Formerly, the "reading" was an effort to identify and elucidate innate, ideological "class" distinctions. In this instance, it is a matter of identifying and elucidating innate, ideological "racial" differences, with race creating irreconcilable conflicts between whites and blacks, with the bias in favor of "black" culture as a "victim" of white cultural "imperialism."

However, there is nothing "Islamic" or "Muslim" about Othello. In fact, the villain, Iago, an officer in Othello's army, is not motivated by racial bigotry, either, but by a burning hatred of the good for being the good. But students are taught to search for and find such "subtexts" and "signifiers" in their Marxist "critical readings."

This kind of nonsense has been taught in public high school and university literature courses for decades. Critical Theory studies have also now shifted to examining the conflicts between Western and Islamic culture, and have invaded middle schools, as well. Numerous are the stories of how children, teens, and college students are being brainwashed in British, European and American schools to "depreciate" Western culture as an arbitrary imposition and as the "oppressor" of Islamic and other primitive cultures.

Interestingly, the student made no marginal comments on the second half of Othello, when Iago's insidious plot begins to advance rapidly to its tragic ending. This is in Act III, Scene 4, when Desdemona cannot find the handkerchief Othello gave her and Othello begins to suspect that something is amiss. Just before that Act, the student made a brief comment that while Desdemona was in her social milieu and had lots of "contacts," Othello was outside his "natural" Moorish milieu and had no social contacts.

Thus, according to a Critical Theory analysis, a method obviously imbibed uncritically by the hapless student, Othello was "victimized" by "white" culture and can't be held responsible for smothering Desdemona to death in a state of angry jealousy, as Iago had plotted to happen by appropriating the handkerchief and planting it on Desdemona's alleged lover. This is what Othello's "natural" culture demanded of him, so his action is beyond judgment.

It is likely the earliest and most notorious dramatic presentation of an Islamic "honor killing" - that is, if Shakespeare even had any knowledge of that aspect of Islamic "culture," which is highly doubtful.

Shakespeare would probably worry his goatee in confusion if he ever read a feminist interpretation of Othello (or of any of his other plays). Such as this one, penned by an anonymous "teacher," to wit:

    "Iago's desire for revenge on Othello is, in part, dictated by his view of women as possessions. He believes that ‘it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets/He's done my office' (I.3.381-2), suggesting that Othello has slept with his wife Emilia. It could be argued, however, that Iago exhibits little love for his wife, insulting her in public and ultimately killing her himself. It is simply the thought that ‘the lusty Moor/hath leaped into my seat' (II.1.286-7) which drives him mad, the thought that Othello has used a possession that belongs to him. Compounding this theory is the fact that Iago refers to his wife metaphorically in these two instances: she is his ‘office' and his ‘seat'; she is objectified and deprived of her humanity."

Or, consider these test questions from another feminist site:

    "How is Desdemona's relationship with her father explored with in the opening Act?

    To what extent are the female characters stereotyped: Desdemona the idealised wife, Emilia the nagging wife and Bianca the doting mistress?

    Why does the text focus on such powerless stereotypes?

    How is female sexuality explored in the play?

    What sexual identities are offered to the female characters?

    What sexual freedom is given to the male characters?

    What social structures are presented to maintain patriarchal control?

    What happens to women when they cross or are suspected of crossing societal expectations of submission and faithfulness?

    To what extent must Desdemona and Emelia both die in order for patriarchal control to be restored?"

So, Othello, when did you stop beating your wife? A sharp courtroom prosecutor might have asked that leading question of him. But I don't think Shakespeare had the restoration of "patriarchal control" in mind as he composed the plot of Othello. When Critical Theory English and literature teachers ask their students to plunge their mental shovels into Shakespeare in search of buried gender, class, or racial treasure, all the students can wind up doing is waving their spades in empty air over an abyss as deep as the Grand Canyon. That's when they'll make something up or just parrot the teachers' political agenda.

Shakespeare is not for "exploring" relationships or sexuality or driving a Critical Theory bulldozer to demolish his "social structures."

In my lifetime, I've seen Shakespeare done in a multitude of interpretations and styles: In early or late 20th century modern dress, in 1930's Art Deco complete with airplanes and jeeps, and in expected Shakespearean and Elizabethan settings.  In a College of William & Mary production of Othello (directed by a feminist), which was set in South Africa, the principal military characters were garbed in jungle camouflage and carried guns, while the whole cast spoke their lines into cell phones, with Desdemona, Emelia, and Bianca appearing in miniskirts and pantsuits. (I walked out after the first act, as did half the audience, so I don't know if Desdemona appeared in the final act in a Victoria's Secret swim suit, but I wouldn't be surprised if she had.)

Who can forget West Side Story, loosely based on Romeo and Juliet, which pitted two street gangs against each other? An Australian production of MacBeth features warring street gangs in Melbourne.

The problem with Shakespeare is that his plots and themes, while oft times deterministic in and of themselves and needing no extraneous political or modern interpretative overlays, were more or less original or were timeless adaptations of plays that antedated Shakespeare. (Kenneth Muir, in his Introduction to the student's edition of Othello, reveals that Shakespeare found the basic plot in an anthology of plays by Giraldi Cinthio, from 1565, when Shakespeare was one year old.)

Actually, it's not Shakespeare's problem. The problem lies in our culture's esthetic and moral bankruptcy. Political correctness and Critical Theory suffocate any attempt to either discuss Shakespeare in objective terms, especially in academia, or they discourage writers from trying to best the Bard at his own magnificent and prolific game.


860 British primary schools fail to reach targets on three Rs: Soaring numbers face closure after not reaching minimum standard

Tens of thousands of the country’s brightest seven-year-olds are being let down by primary schools that allow them to coast for years, official league tables will show.

Up to 50,000 are failing to reach their full potential by 11, particularly in reading, as teachers concentrate on low-performing and average classmates instead.

Official primary school rankings are set to expose how a ‘culture of low expectations’ is holding back high achieving youngsters who effectively go backwards.

Poor performance can trigger Ofsted visits. If the schools are unable to show they are improving they can be closed or turned into academies.

They come as international league tables revealed earlier this week how British teenagers dropped out of the top 20 rankings in maths, science and reading for the first time.

Tests on more than half a million secondary school pupils worldwide found those in Vietnam, Shanghai and Poland have a much better command of the core subjects.

Children in Shanghai are three years ahead of their British counterparts by the age of 15, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Ofsted’s annual report next week will further fuel concerns about pupil progress, highlighting unacceptable variations in standards between schools across the country.

Education experts yesterday warned that bright pupils who are prematurely turned off learning in primary school will fail to reach their full potential in secondary education.

School-by-school tables for more than 15,000 primaries will be published by the Department for Education on Thursday.

They are based on results in national curriculum tests taken by 537,800 11-year-olds pupils in the final year of primary school in England.

Children sat exams in reading and maths while writing was formally assessed by teachers in the classroom over the year. All three are combined to produce an overall score in the three Rs.

Pupils also took a separate test in spelling, punctuation and grammar for the first time this year, with the results published separately.

Most 11-year-olds are expected to reach ‘level four’, with the brightest gaining a ‘level five’.

Provisional statistics published by the Department for Education show that 76 per cent achieved ‘level four’ in reading, writing and maths, up from 75 per cent in 2012.

However, this still means that one in four - almost 129,000 - left primary school in the summer lacking a good grasp of the basics.

The tables will also highlight how low, medium and high achievers fared in the reading, writing and maths tests.

They are expected to show that as many as four in ten youngsters who were capable of achieving at ‘level five’ in the tests aged 11 - as predicted by their results at seven - failed to do so.

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research, warned that primary schools may be tempted to leave the brightest children ‘to their own devices’.

He said ‘A culture of low expectations is fuelled in part by this emphasis on getting children up to minimum standards.

‘But children who aren’t fully able to develop in primary school can get turned off schooling and they don’t have the same sort of platform for secondary education that they could leap off if they had been fully developed.

‘Our OECD rankings suggest that we could do a lot more to get the best out of our brightest children.’ This year, 14 per cent of pupils - more than 75,000 - failed to achieve ‘level four’ in reading tests compared to 13 per cent in 2012.

There was an even bigger decline in the proportion of bright pupils gaining a ‘level five’ in reading, with results down three percentage points to 45 per cent.

Last year, the number of primary schools that failed to meet the government’s targets for academic performance dropped dramatically.

Some 521 schools were below the expectation for maths and English in 2012 compared to 1,310 in 2011. However numbers missing targets are expected to rise this year due to faltering reading results.

Schools are classed as underperforming unless at least 60 per cent of pupils achieve ‘level four’ or higher in the three Rs and children make above average progress between Key Stage One (age seven) and Key Stage Two (age 11).


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