To the Editor:
A fair-minded reader must respect Will Fitzhugh’s dedication to the encouragement of high school students’ research and writing on history (“Bibliophobia,” Commentary, Oct. 4, 2006). But one can only hope that the narrow-mindedness and gratuitous assumptions set forth in Mr. Fitzhugh’s essay have not been molded by a reading background that consists exclusively of nonfiction pieces concerning history, that he has not been “hoist with his own petard,” so to speak.
It is noteworthy that Mr. Fitzhugh cherry-picks support for his position, mixing a few well-known names (Diane Ravitch, E.D. Hirsch Jr.) with anonymous folks who provide “anecdotal evidence.” “Common sense,” also cited, might take umbrage at being credited
for his arriving at the conclusion that “one reason so many students need remedial work in college and don’t return for sophomore year is that they have never read a nonfiction book, and thus have so little knowledge that they don’t know what their professors are talking about.”
In fact, nonfiction is a hydra-headed thing, and reading a book or two of this type may not put students on speaking terms with their professors, unless the professors are into quirky autobiographies, slanted political screeds, or revelations about the Iraq situation. Indeed, the truth Mr. Fitzhugh seeks in nonfiction has been tainted recently by memoir writers whose facts proved to have sprung from their imaginations.
He takes a couple of passing swipes at that old whipping boy, the five-paragraph essay, speculating that Michelle Wie, the golfing phenom, has been limited to writing in that format in her Hawaiian high school. The point he misses is that the five-paragraph paper is admittedly limiting; its purpose, like that of the rockets that propel astronauts into space, is to provide developing writers with the basic organizational skills that will enable them to soar comfortably into that vast amount of white space to be filled in their future writing.
Mr. Fitzhugh also implicitly chastises English departments for failing to assign nonfiction books. If he had done a little research, however, he would have discovered that for several years John Hersey’s Hiroshima was regularly assigned in English classes, and, more recently, Elie Wiesel’s Night has enjoyed the same status. Moreover, there is no rule that says social studies teachers can’t assign a nonfiction book.
American-literature textbooks tend to devote their first hundred or so pages to nonfiction. Not until Rip Van Winkle appears is imaginative writing included. Further, English teachers commonly assign students background reading on World War II to provide a context for the events that take place in A Separate Peace. Similarly, there is ongoing information to be assembled to document the endless battles between creationists (now known as advocates of “intelligent design”) and evolutionists. Students often are assigned to brief themselves on this dispute before reading the play “Inherit the Wind.”
Mr. Fitzhugh does a service to the profession in supporting more research and writing about history. But his arguments become self-defeating when he bludgeons a number of straw men to make his case.
Henry B. Maloney
A version of this article appeared in the October 25, 2006 edition of Education Week as Bibliophobia Revisited