"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, November 23, 2012

Fiction Or Non-Fiction?

I am a lover of fiction, and after many years immersed in history, political geography, economics, and political science, I have returned to Shakespeare.  I was disappointed after travelling in over 50 countries, studying why they were the way they were and what might be their future trajectory only to come to the most predictable answers.  People, communities, and nations all seemed to be marching to the same drummer who beat out rhythms of accession, succession, expansion, defense, conquest, and subjugation in repeating cycles.  How could it be that all communities from aboriginal tribes hidden away from civilization since their particular dawn of history to the most sophisticated and advanced Western and Eastern societies behave in the same way?

Shakespeare knew that this endless cycle of history was what the critic Jan Kott called The Grand Mechanism – a perpetual motion machine whose gears cranked and meshed the lives of kings and queens, pretenders and usurpers, sons and daughters, wives and lovers again and again.  Lay out the Histories one by one, he said, and you will find the same trajectories and the same results.  Pure will, said Shakespeare and later his devotee Nietzsche, was what enabled great men to rise above the din of the clattering machine.

Shakespeare, of course, did not stop with reflections on human history, but gave us insights into human behavior.  He was Freudian long before Freud, understood sexual politics and sexual dynamics long before Post-modern Feminists deconstructed intimate relationships, provided us with treatises on management, public relations, and strategy; and along the way gave us some of the most memorable characters in literature.

This leads me to the question posed today in the New York Times (11.23.12) by Sara Mosle, What Should Children Read? There is a great debate these days on the relative merits of fiction and non-fiction as teaching tools, and non-fiction is winning out.  Curricula, even in lower grades, are stacked with very practical subjects as school administrators prepare for the Common Core State Standards to go into effect in 2014:

The Common Core dictates that by fourth grade, public school students devote half of their reading time in class to historical documents, scientific tracts, maps and other “informational texts” — like recipes and train schedules. Per the guidelines, 70 percent of the high school English curriculum will consist of nonfiction titles. Alarmed English teachers worry we’re about to toss Shakespeare so students can study, in the words of one former educator, “memos, technical manuals and menus.”

The reason behind this move is clear – public education should be designed to produce civic-minded and economically productive students. 

David Coleman, president of the College Board, who helped design and promote the Common Core, says English classes today focus too much on self-expression. “It is rare in a working environment,” he’s argued, “that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.’ ”

This is all well and good, especially for public education.  I see no reason why taxpayer dollars should be spent on courses, for example, which teach the deliberately indecipherable and irrelevant dicta of Jacques Derrida, or which equate all ‘texts’ and pile them pĂȘle-mĂȘle, car manuals alongside of Hamlet

Focusing so exclusively on non-fiction in lower grades, however, seems a bit rough.  Children from the earliest ages are read to by their parents – not economic dissertations, but Wind in the Willows, Mr. Gumpy’s Motorcar, The Cat in the Hat, and Goodnight Moon,stories that appeal to wonder, imagination, and fantasy.  These are the stories that engage children in reading, teach them that books can be sources of pure joy; and if told right by aware parents can provide moral lessons. Why abruptly stop this sojourn in the fanciful and replace it with practical elements that are far from a child’s reality?  What fourth-grader can possibly appreciate even the simplest deliberations of the Founding Fathers or have any clue about what such reflections meant?

The early grades are certainly more about learning how to learn than learning a particular fact.  Regardless of whether a young student reads a history book or a novel, he should know how to read it.  He should learn how to analyze facts as presented in a history, validate and confirm then with other sources, decipher meaning from past events and suggest likely future outcomes.  He should ask why fictional characters do what they do, and what their actions suggest about character or psychology.  He should consider the social and cultural context in which the characters are presented and understand allegory, metaphor, and allusion.  Either way – fiction or non-fiction – he should learn how to think.

Which brings us to the second reason for reading – learning how to write.  I was once told by a supervisor that I wrote well.  “I am amazed”, he said, “at how fast you turn out documents.  Where did you learn to write?”.  He thought that writing concise, well-conceived, logically-presented, substantiated arguments must have come from some writing course I had in college, some verbal dexterity, and maybe typing speed.  The dope ignored the fact that I had learned how to think. One of the principal purposes of school from K-12 and beyond is to teach students what I learned – how to read quickly, analyze contents, formulate conclusions, organize a reply, and write clear, unambiguous, declarative prose.

What schools really need isn’t more nonfiction but better nonfiction, especially that which provides good models for student writing. Most students could use greater familiarity with what newspaper, magazine and book editors call “narrative nonfiction”: writing that tells a factual story, sometimes even a personal one, but also makes an argument and conveys information in vivid, effective ways.

The point is not necessarily better non-fiction, it is better books and writing, period.  If fiction and non-fiction are taught to encourage the same intellectual rigor in students, then it does not matter what they read as the books are well-known, challenging, and interesting.  I do not mean to say that all the juice and fun should be wrung out of fiction.  Far from it.  Critical analysis helps the reader to understand dynamics of a novel or play that he might not have noticed or appreciated.  Parsing of poetry or lyrical prose passages can help the reader appreciate the evocative lines even more.

If nothing else, such focus on rigor, exegesis, and critical thinking will provide a strong defense against the wobbly intellectual tendencies encouraged by the Internet.  There is so much information transmitted and shared so quickly that critical appraisal of it is rare.  If there have always been conspiracy theories, there are 100 times the number than there once were as questionable information whizzes through the web, attracting credulous believers who pass it on until it has life and veracity of its own.  Good teaching can help stem that irrational torrent.

Finally, I think that room should be made in the Core Curriculum for non-traditional subjects which are directly relevant to a productive civic and economic life.  I have lamented before on this blog about how students are given a 19th Century education in the 21st Century.  They should be learning about risk, independence and creativity, and enterprise when these are routinely discouraged.  Schools favor ‘cooperative’ learning and inclusiveness to the exclusion of the talented, the very bright, and the intellectually curious.

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