Monday, December 20, 2010

"Ban Fiction"

Grant Wiggins is someone in the education field whom I usually admire. I've seen him speak numerous times, I like the book he wrote with Jay McTighe, Understanding by Design, and during my years with Big Education Company, I trained my curriculum team to write according to his principles.

So it was a bit of a shock to see a friend post the quote "Ban Fiction from the Curriculum" on LinkedIn today, attributed to Wiggins. It sounded unusally stupid and thoughtless. And, not too surprisingly, when you check out the larger context within which he made that statement, you find that his thoughts are, as usual, thoughtful.


I think it's still a bit extreme to say "ban fiction" or even "ban most fiction," just because most boys seem to dislike most of it. I think the important point here, relevant to the arguments Wiggins usually makes, is that fiction becomes dreary at best and useless at worst when taught by itself, for itself, as though it were an Absolute Good (art for art's sake). That may be fine in an MFA or PhD program, but kids by and large do not see ANY academic subject or sub-subject as an Absolute Good in and of itself.

Kids have real-life, real-world concerns, and we do a poor job, in education, of validating them through the curriculum. Instead, we take obvious labels and design towards those. "Oh, you're a Puerto Rican girl? Okay, here's a book about Puerto Rican girls." When I was forced to teach such a book to such a population, I came close to having the book thrown back at my face. "Mister!" one girl wailed, "I don't need to read my freakin' diary in school."

The whole point of fiction is supposed to be to allow you to explore different worlds, different times, and different kinds of people. But we don't do that out of mere curiosity; we do that to learn something about people, or the world, or ourselves.

So why isn't the English curriculum tied to anything? That's the important question here--not whether or not what the kids read is 54% fiction. Why are we putting students through a literature curriculum instead of a life curriculum? Why can't middle and high school students explore genres of writing from and about important periods of history while studying those periods? For that matter, why can't students learn the history of art and music, and have the chance to play with artistic media and musical instruments of particular times and places, while studying those times and places? Why can't we, now, finally, in the 21st century, stop fracturing the world into arbitrary and nonsensical shards of life for study, and allow students to come at the world in all of its variety and complexity, looking at important themes or questions from different points of view and through different lenses?

When we make everything a "studio" art, studied off in its own corner and taught lovingly by an expert who believes that the only way to approach the art is to learn it as a lover and life-long practitioner, of course we turn off tons of people. And worse, we give the philistines all the ammunition they need to cut the arts (and, soon, literature) out of our schools. They're frills. They're not "core." They can go without harming "the important stuff."

The arts (and let's be honest and admit that literature is one of the arts, and is a completely different subject for study than English grammar, rhetoric, or writing) are either central to our understanding of life, with tendrils and connections snaking out to history, philosophy, math, and science, or they are, like the philistines say, a frill--a silly thing--a "womanish" thing, not to be taken seriously.

Wiggins is right. It's not necessary for any American student to study or understand 1984 or Lord of the Flies. But it is absolutely necessary for American students to study and understand power and its relation to individual freedom. And a true understanding of that issue can be informed not only by a study of history, philosophy, and psychology, but also by a close reading of literature, both fiction and non-fiction. There are things to be learned by Orwell that you will not learn in your Civics class. For that matter, there are things to be learned by looking at "Guernica" that you simply will not get from a textbook. Important things. But if you're 16 or 17, the most essential thing to talk about isn't, "what an interesting metaphor" or, "look at how he draws those horses."

With all of the tools at their disposal, why must our schools focus on trivia and ignore the world that our teenagers are so hungry to talk about and learn about?

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