English Teachers Say Teaching of Literature Is in Jeopardy

By Thomas Toch — December 07, 1981 4 min read
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The National Council of Teachers of English (ncte)--a 38,000-member association of school and college English teachers--has attacked what it sees as a growing trend in the nation’s schools towards a curriculum that stresses minimum skills and job-oriented vocational training at the expense of more sophisticated ones in reasoning and effective writing.

In addition, many of the English teachers interviewed during the ncte annual conference held here recently said they feel threatened by what they contend is a growing perception by the public and school officials that the academic subjects--such as literature--most effective in teaching these sophisticated skills are frills and are expendable in the current climate of budget-cutting.

Robert Squires, outgoing ncte president and an English teacher at Oneonta Senior High School in New York, said literature curricula across the country are in jeopardy. He cited as primary “threats” the nationwide minimum-competency-testing movement, the increasing strength of conservative groups such as the Moral Majority, shrinking school budgets, and what he described as the Reagan Administration’s belief that the nation’s schools should restructure their curricula to respond more adequately to the needs of business and industry.

“There is an increasing risk,” Mr. Squires said, “that the minimum-competency curriculum could become the only curriculum. True literacy is cultural literacy. Reading scores should never be the sole indicator of achievement.

“There is more to life than ‘economic survival,”’ he asserted in a speech to convention participants.

To illustrate his concern that a growing attack on literature is underway, Mr. Squires alluded to the Aldous Huxley novel, Brave New World, in which infants are conditioned to dislike books so that their attention will not be diverted from producing and consuming the products of industry.

Basic-Skills Movement Questioned

Mr. Squires and others argued that the basic-skills movement that has swept across the country in recent years, while helping students at the very lowest rung of the academic ladder, cannot be said to produce “educated” students.

As evidence, they pointed to a recently released survey of student reading and literature skills, revealing that the vast majority of American schoolchildren do not develop adequate reasoning skills or the ability to interpret what they read beyond a minimum level.

Anthony R. Petrosky, a University of Pittsburgh professor who helped assemble the recent reading and literature findings for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (naep), said during a panel discussion that the study of the reading, writing, and thinking skills of more than 100,000 9-, 13-, and 17-year-olds tested during the last two years reveals that “we have been extremely good at teaching students to make quick, easy, superficial responses [as on multiple choice tests], but we have failed to develop their critical-thinking skills.”

In addition, critics of the “job-oriented curriculum” pointed to a study of writing produced by students in all subject areas at two Illinois high schools during the 1979-80 school year. Released last week, Writing in the Secondary School: English and the Content Area, was conducted by Arthur N. Applebee, a Stanford University researcher who also contributed to the naep study.

The study, which included surveys of some 750 teachers nationwide, reports that of the writing required in the classrooms observed, only 3 percent was one paragraph or more in length.

Mr. Applebee’s study concludes, as does the National Assessment research, that most teachers rely on a narrow range of tactics that require students to do little more than “parrot back” facts.

More than 30 percent of the nearly 200 workshop and panel sessions held during the five-day ncte convention focused on the teaching of writing--a substantially higher percentage than at past conventions.

Some observers explained that as a ''reaction to the ‘multiple-choice mentality’ of the minimum-competency movement” and “possible embarrassment” over the neap findings.

Attitude Toward Literature

Louise Rosenblatt, professor of English at New York University, told a meeting of several hundred secondary-school English teachers that “those [in society today] who think literature is a frill really worry me.

“It is an extremely dangerous situation, and the number of people who hold this attitude is increasing.

“Unfortunately,” Ms. Rosenblatt said, “the values of society today are such that, inescapably, we are drawn to simple retention of literal facts.”

Ms. Rosenblatt’s sentiments were echoed by the Harvard University psychiatrist Robert Coles, who in an impassioned defense of the humanities before the convention asked: “Is this what literature has come to, memorizing names to get A’s on multiple-choice tests?

‘The Life and the Soul’

“Please attend to our writers,” he urged. “They are not icing on the cake, a pleasant diversion for the rich. They are the life and the soul of the country.”

The ncte also passed three resolutions at the meeting. These expressed the organization’s opposition to court-mandated curriculum decisions, censorship, and the Reagan Administration’s decision to dismantle the Department of Education.

A version of this article appeared in the December 07, 1981 edition of Education Week as English Teachers Say Teaching of Literature Is in Jeopardy


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