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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

First, Let’s Kill All the English Majors

By Guest Blogger — March 01, 2017 5 min read
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This week, Rick is off talking about his forthcoming book, Letters to a Young Education Reformer. Letters won’t be officially released until late April, but you can learn more about it here and order an advance copy here. While Rick is away, we’ve got an illustrious line-up of guest stars. This week, Ed Jones, head of the Hackable High Schools initiative, will be guest-blogging.

The allusion, of course, is to The Bard. (Henry VI, part 2, Act 4, Scene 2. I knew you’d ask.) Don’t actually kill anyone. It’s bad form, counter to the Ten Commandments & nearly every legal code ever written, and—subject to caveats like Just War Theory and the Legitimate Defense section (pp2263-2267) of the Catechism of the Catholic Faith—an act that will get you in trouble.

Thank you, again, Rick, for this amazing opportunity.

Sean Wheeler teaches English with power tools. When I last saw him, he’d gathered ten of Cleveland’s best architects into an abandoned factory to build with twenty of his more challenged teens. Their public school lies near the vast CMHA housing tracts.

Sean’s insight is that making stuff and writing about it fills a powerful need for many teens.

Something of a legend in the region’s professional development scene—I last joined him in a session he called “F*** Data! (A wholesome discussion of trust, risk, and faith in humanity)"—Sean sees the Common Core as giving him the freedom to experiment. Because he has lucent, quantifiable outcomes to be judged by, his non-traditional methods are more easily defendable.

Sean’s design of an entire MakerSpace School won a NGLC Breakthrough Model grant. We’ll come back to this.

The most imaginative teachers find ways around the constraints of the system. Halfway across the country in Maine, Dan Ryder uses Legos, Post-its, and LittleBits to teach AP Literature. Today, he used both Jenga and a Design Thinking method known as Empathy Maps to learn with his teens about Hamlet and Polonius. (Dubious, or curious, about his methods? He broadcasts regularly from his classes via Periscope.)

To our friends who insist that Common Core stifles local choice or innovation, I say look at Sean’s, Dan’s, and other innovative teachers’ work. For them, the CCSS are almost emboldening. It’s exciting to watch them experiment with learning.

If, then, I love what these English teachers are doing, why title this post with a stab at those who choose the pen over the sword, the spanner, or the ploughshare?

Too many of the nation’s teens remained burdened with work that runs between mindless, Byzantine, and excruciating. One example came out last month in the Huffington Post, “I Can’t Answer These Texas Standardized Test Questions About My Own Poems,” in which the author insists her own poem isn’t appropriate for teen reading, let alone assessing, in a school context. We know such lunacy crops up regularly in tests, and yet we know schools and teachers often teach to those tests anyway.

We know also that boys too often struggle in the modern classroom. This shows up in ways that are just strange, if not evil: for every 100 girls diagnosed with an “emotional disturbance,” 324 boys are so diagnosed. 12th grade boys are twice as likely as girls to score below basic on NAEP writing, and only 2/3 as likely to score proficient or above. It’s worse if the boys are minority or poor. College? Universities last year enrolled nearly 70% more black women than black men.

Why does English Language Arts discriminate against black boys?

This goes to personalization. Literature should certainly stretch young minds. But, can even true classics be used well beyond their efficacy to individual students? Of Mice and Men is required reading in many schools (including Dan Ryder’s AP Lit class). I read it; it left zero memory or impact. On the other hand, the amazing Out of This Furnace comes to mind every time I ponder some challenge of those who struggle in difficult labor. Why?

Then, there’s writing instruction. Books on writing aren’t worth a bucket of warm spit. Strunk & White excepted, they should all be burned; any moment young people spend with them is time they’re not doing useful learning.

At the college level, a fascinating comment on the state of English (and similar) departments came this month via one professor being celebrated for his success in literary analysis. Kevin Birmingham, on his receipt of the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism, spoke this in “The Great Shame of Our Profession": “All of this is to say that the profession of literary criticism depends upon exploitation. ... And the institutions supporting literary criticism are callous and morally incoherent.”

Reading Rick’s post “A Rorschach Test for Bias in Education Scholarship,” you might think Birmingham speaks to culturally broad exploitation. Yet he refers mainly to those grad students, adjunct professors, and post-docs who invest the prime of their lives in chasing unreachable careers: “We take the love that young people have for literature and use it to support the research of a tiny elite.”

Colleges produce 50,000 pure English graduates a year, and roughly 600,000 new humanities or social sciences majors. Are the knowledge and skill sets they’re acquiring designed for such a broad and sizeable chunk of the population? Do they over-influence what we teach in K-12?

John Steinbeck didn’t add value to the world by getting a PhD in English and then communicating about writing. He spent time with the masters of his craft at Stanford, dropped out, and joined the working people of California.

The amazing Peggy Noonan said of all the new communications grads she’d meet at commencements, “Did you learn anything to communicate about?” Dana Goya, former head of the NHS, liked to say “Give me more poets as foremen. (Or executives).” A good advisory, if we do both. Train them as poets AND foremen.

In redesigning high school, the challenge with innovations like Sean’s and Dan’s is scale. Sean’s methods work because he’s extremely high energy, loquacious, observant, and connected. As Deb Meier always says, children learn best in the company of interesting adults. Dan does improv comedy in his spare time. These are two interesting adults.

Curriculum is what we turn to when Aristotle and DaVinci and a Sean Wheeler or Dan Rider are not available in person. We’ll take up curriculum in the posts that follow.

—Ed Jones

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.