Goodbye, Liberal Arts?
New national curriculum standards call for students to read less literature and more “informational texts.”


Betsy Woodruff

What if I told you that Obama’s education-policy reforms, arguably pushed through without the good graces of the law, were crippling children’s imaginations, stifling their creativity, and on the whole setting them up to become less moral, kind, empathetic people? It’s a strong statement, but one moored in fact. The president’s push for states to accept new curriculum standards should give chills to anyone who believes in the importance of the liberal arts. If you think it’s good for kids to read stories, these changes will probably disturb you.

They sound benign enough. The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers created Common Core State Standards, whose rationale seems to be that, given the state of the economy, American students should learn skills that will make them more competitive in tightening job markets. Since reading stories doesn’t do that, students should spend less time studying literature and more time learning how to analyze “informational texts.” On paper, the new standards are purely voluntary — schools choose to opt in only if they want — but Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation tells National Review Online that it’s not that simple.

“What we saw from the very beginning was alignment with the Obama administration,” Burke says, adding that the White House pushed hard for states to adopt the new standards. To cash-strapped states, Race to the Top dangled $4.35 billion — theirs if they accepted the new curriculum standards and met several other conditions. And now states face even more pressure from the White House. Burke explains that, in effect, the Obama administration has made a state’s acceptance of the new standards the precondition for waivers from No Child Left Behind, which requires that every child be proficient in math and reading by 2014. That’s not going to happen, so some states have adopted the new curriculum standards to help protect themselves from the possibility of future sanctions — in other words, to keep from being punished for failing to attain the unattainable. It’s not unfair to characterize the White House’s education-reform strategy as coercive.

What does all of this actually portend? National standards for curricula can be only so bad, right? Wrong. The new standards change how public schools teach reading, requiring that 50 percent of the texts read in grades K through 5 be informational. By twelfth grade, that figure rises to 70 percent. The Common Core State Standards look to balance literary reading with the reading of informational texts, including texts in history, the social sciences, natural sciences, and technical subjects, according to a document from the standards’ creators. (Stanley Kurtz has explained how this could enable the federal government to use classrooms to proselytize students to adopt its political goals.)

It’s unclear what literary texts will have to be sacrificed. The Telegraph has speculated that To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye could be on the chopping block. The standards suggest that schools give to the eager young minds of tomorrow such texts as Invasive Plant Inventory, from the California Invasive Plant Council; FedViews, from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco; Google Hacks: Tips & Tools for Smarter Searching, 2nd edition, by Tara Calishain and Rael Dornest; “Working Knowledge: Electronic Stability Control,” by Mark Fischetti; and the EPA and DOE’s “Recommended Levels of Insulation” (fun!).

The prospect of students’ missing out on classic literature so they can read about how to use Google and insulate their homes is funny in an Orwellian way — and that’s a reference students may be increasingly unlikely to recognize if the White House successfully pushes through its education agenda.

The greater problem here is the premise behind the change: that students read so they can learn how to process information and eventually get jobs as information processors. If that’s why kids go to school, then we should have stopped wasting time on pishposh like The Catcher in the Rye decades ago. Washington education bureaucrats must be puzzled about how the West survived at all when its education principles weren’t narrowly focused on career optimization. Why didn’t the Irish monks illuminate manuscripts on how to properly rotate pastures? Can we really consider Erasmus educated when he didn’t have access to “Recommended Levels of Insulation”? Could it be possible that students didn’t always go to school just to learn how to make money?

I was an English major at Hillsdale College, a liberal-arts school in Michigan, and figured the best way to find answers to these questions was to call up a few of my favorite professors and see what they thought about all this — particularly about the shifting focus of the American K–12 education system. True, English professors might be a little biased when it comes to the importance of literature, but they’re also well equipped to defend its role in society. And I missed talking to them.

First, there’s Professor Dutton Kearney, who knows quite a bit about data processing, since after getting an undergrad English degree he went into the glamorous world of medical billing, where he worked for a disability-insurance company and wrote a lot of executive summaries of data. That may not have been the most fun job ever, as he went back to school so he could become an English professor. If you’re ever in south-central Michigan and hankering to have a conversation about Ezra Pound, look him up.