Literary Literacy

Years ago, Howard Gardner published Cultural Literacy, in which he delineated a body of knowledge Americans should possess in order to be considered educated. I always ask my secondary level students to tell me what they’re reading for school assignments, and I am often dismayed by the dearth of classics on their lists. So, for the sake of cultural literacy, I feel compelled to introduce them to authors with whom they may not be familiar. For certain “great works” form the basis of cultural literacy for the Western world.

The following works still appear on most middle school reading lists: Animal Farm, Of Mice and Men, and To Kill a Mockingbird. Noticeably absent are works by Dickens or Shakespeare. Carol Jago, past president of the National Council of Teachers of English reports that many 19th. century texts such as Dickens’ Great Expectations, are disappearing completely from classrooms, because teachers consider them, “Too long, too hard” for attention-deficient teenagers of the 21st century. Teachers are giving up.” Hence, some middle school students read an excerpt from one of these authors in an anthology. Sometimes these excerpts appear in abridged form “translated” into more “readable” form. Substitutions for the classics include popular series like Harry Potter and Twilight.

Perhaps that is one reason that the College Board has included a writing prompt on the SAT. The question directs the students to respond with reference to their “reading, and observations.” So I have them compile a “literature list” rather than a reading list. I have found that most American Literature classes in high school still expect students to read The Scarlet Letter and The Great Gatsby. While most high school students read at least one Shakespearean play, some have read only one, with assistance of a movie for explication. Few have had any exposure to ancient Greek drama or even know who Dante Alighieri is.
Mark Bauerlein of Emory University says “the background college freshmen bring to class is already helter-skelter.” In his book, The Dumbest Generation, blames “the unclear goals of the politically correct and a dumbed-down digital culture. “
According to David Kipen, director of literature for national reading initiatives with the National Endowment for the Arts, no national canon exists. We must challenge our students to help them grow. Let’s not accept mediocrity as a standard. Keep the classics alive!

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