Education Opinion

How To Create a Generation of ‘Aliterates’

By Susan Ohanian — October 12, 1988 9 min read

Despite a promise that he wouldn’t “be putting out Bill Bennett’s list of books for the American people,” William J . Bennett does indeed have a little list. In his model curriculum " James Madison Elementary School"--his last hurrah as U .S. Secretary of Education--Mr. Bennett suggests reading materials to accompany English instruction from kindergarten through 8th grade. (See Education Week , Sept. 14, 1988.)

What good news! Pilgrim’s Progress missed the cut. What bad news! So did Paddington, George and Martha, Miss Nelson, the Stupids, Anastasia Krupnik, Ginger Pye, Homer Price, Louis the trumpeter swan, and Dorothy.

What good news! The poet Jack Prelutsky made the list. What bad news! Shel Silverstein, whom children and teachers adore, did not. Myra Cohn Livingston missed the cut, too , as did Eve Merriam, Beatrice Schenk de Regniers, Charlotte Zolotow, Mary Ann Hoberman, Ted Hughes, X.J. Kennedy, Arnold Adoff, and many other poets loved by youngsters and their teachers.

A list--any list--is such a paltry thing. And in the hands of cultural elitists and their followers, a list can be terribly dangerous. Rather than including children in some sort of common cultural foundation, it excludes them from the rich possibilities of language and literature.

Force Mr. Bennett’s curriculum on schoolchildren, and we will train a generation of aliterates: people who can read but choose not to.

When I look at Mr. Bennett’s recommendations, I think of Sylvia. Dubbed the Zulu chief by many teachers, Sylvia was probably the toughest, most belligerent 7th grader in our urban school. But she read--with pleasure--Langston Hughes, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Christina Rossetti, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Basho.

Mr. Bennett’s list avoids charges of ethnic bias by offering the contemporary poet Nikki Giovanni along with the traditional canon of Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Edgar Allan Poe, and Shakespeare. That’s his entire poetry list for 7th and 8th grade.

I doubt that Sylvia ever read “The Raven,” but I remember that foul-mouthed, hostile child sneaking into my room in times of great stress to listen to a tape of John Ciardi reading poems with his son Benn.

Sylvia gained 18 months in her reading scores during 7th grade, finishing above grade level, but she failed every class except reading. Occasionally, she cursed teachers, threw chairs, and fought with other kids. Finally, the authorities labeled her incorrigible, and at age 14 she was permanently excluded from the city school system.

During her final week at school, Sylvia gathered up some of the books she had enjoyed: His Eye Is on the Sparrow, I Want To Be Somebody, Nigger, Autobiography of Malcolm X, Manchild in the Promised Land, Soul Brothers and Sister Lou. Needless to say, none of these titles made Mr. Bennett’s list. But Sylvia ran her hands over the books and said, “You know, it just proves that people who start out bad can do O.K. for themselves.”

It has been my sustaining belief as a teacher that Sylvia is right. And such people need books to help them do O.K. Powerful literature enhances children’s lives, showing them a world of possibility.

I know that Ethel Waters and Claude Brown showed Sylvia possibilities that would have eluded her in Mr. Bennett’s list, featuring such authors as Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, Sir Walter Scott, Jules Verne, Alexander Dumas.

Sylvia was a unique student, and in the nearly 20 years since I was her teacher I have never given the stack of books she devoured to any other 7th grader. Others needed different books, and it was my job--my sacred calling--both to help each child discover books he needed and to find books the entire class could explore together.

Teaching grades 7 through 9 for more than 10 years, I never came up with a “must read” list. Because the makeup of a classroom changes from year to year, a teacher’s resources for orchestrating the magical connection between kids and books are ever-changing.

But lists, once we let them in our doorways, have an insidious way of becoming entrenched and intransigent. They end up driving the curriculum, making us forget that the needs of individual students must be more important than the demands of any prescribed set of titles.

Mr. Bennett’s little list is demeaning to children, their teachers, and the whole wonderful world of children’s literature. As one might expect, it is heavily weighted toward the classics: Aesop, Heidi, Kipling, Robinson Crusoe. I wish there were some way of conducting an honest poll at the Education Department and finding out how many of its functionaries have managed to work their way through Great Expectations, The Three Musketeers, Frankenstein, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea within the last 10 or 20 or 30 years.

As I study these recommendations, I am reminded of Mr. Bennett’s observation in a recent speech: Acknowledging that he felt aggrieved when he heard that his old high school no longer required Latin, he said, “I went through it; I want them to suffer, too.”

But is having suffered through Ivanhoe ourselves any reason to drag 11- and 12-year-olds of the 1990’s through it? I would suggest that educators dust off Scott’s novel and try to read it before rushing out to photocopy Mr. Bennett’s recommendations.

If we are to educate for genuine literacy, then we must help children find pleasure in books, not push them through a committee’s notion of the classics.

I would ask you to consider Mildred, a 15-year-oid 7th grader. She was, as she told me, “a little slow in reading.” On standardized tests, she scored on a 2nd-grade level. And her recorded I.Q. of 76 made her ineligible for the special help designed for “underachievers.”

The choice is simple. Do you pretend that Mildred is going to read The House of the Seven Gables or The Red Badge of Courage? Do you make her feel inferior because she can’t? Or do you help her find something she can read and enjoy?

Mildred was a basketball fan, able to quote all the rebounding and free-throw data about her favorite teams. I gave her a book of basketball biographies, each chapter profiling a current pro. The book was written on a 4th-grade level, and that child worked very hard to decipher its pages. After three weeks, she handed the book back with tears in her eyes. “The best book I ever read,” she affirmed. “And I read it. I really did. The whole thing.” And then came the magic words, “Do you have any more?”

How many 8th graders at Mr. Bennett’s James Madison Elementary and its spawn woufd, upon finishing Ivanhoe, have the strength or spirit left to ask, “Do you have any more?” Mildred did not read a single title from Mr. Bennett’s list while she was in my care, but she and I were successful: She left our school confident that she could find pleasure in books.

We teachers must ever ask ourselves, reading for what! The culturalists are long on tradition but terribly short on pleasure.

Mr. Bennett exhorts educators to ‘jealously retain and guard” the goals of “mastery of a core curriculum of worthwhile knowledge, important skills, and sound ideals.” Not once does he state that children must find joy in words if they are to become literate.

If a student leaves 8th grade knowing Dickens but detesting reading, is he a winner or a loser? If we want children to read these books so their scores will improve on another national scorecard, we are participating in a deceitful sham. We are cheating and dishonoring both the children and our calling.

Another annoying flaw of Mr. Bennett’s list is its specificity. It would be sufficient to recommend that children read fairy tales. But the list insists that it must be Paul O. Zelinsky’s Rumpelstiltskin, and it must be read before the 4th grade. I have nothing against Zelinsky’s version; I just remember 11- year-old Charles, who read Edith H. Tarcov’s Rumpelstiltskin (illustrations by Edward Gorey) for 16 straight reading periods before I stopped counting.

(And because I get my pedagogical advice from people like the literacy researcher Frank Smith rather than list makers, I know that a child has important reasons for ..... reading the same book over and over again.)

Mr. Bennett is also dogmatic about the Mother Goose Rhymes teachers should use: the Marguerite de Angeli version. Surely the supreme bureaucrats in Washington are aware that when this list gets translated by the local district, some functionary is going to insist, “No, you can’t order Mother Goose by Arnold Lobel or Thmie de Paola.”

Mr. Bennett suggests just one book each by the prolific Beatrix Potter, Leo Lionni, Steven Kellogg, Sid Fleischman, and Jane Yolen, but recommends all of Curious George, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Edgar Allan Poe, O. Henry, and Shakespeare. All of Dr. Seuss is included in Mr. Bennett’s ideal curriculum, but only one of Arnold Lobel’s books makes the list (Frog and Toad Together).

And kids are missing a lot when they miss out on good friends like the acorn people, Pinkerton, Nate the Great, Squirrel Nutkin, McBroom, Mrs. Frisby, Mr. Hen’ haw, Taran, Jesse Bollier, M.C. Higgins, and Dicey.

It seems bizarre and silly to recommend three novels by Jules Verne but to ignore entirely fiction by such authors as Virginia Hamilton, Lois Lowry, and Paula Fox.

Is there any adult alive who would limit his reading matter for the next two years to Robinson Crusoe, Great Expectations, Captains Courageous, The Three Musketeers, Rip Van Winkle, Mutiny on the Bounty, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Frankenstein, Shane, and The Virginian?

Yes, Virginia, The Virginian.

Then why would we inflict this on our 7th graders for the next two years? Is this the culturalist version of survival of the fittest? And Mr. Bennett is not saying merely that these books should be available on the shelves; he is saying they should be part of the official curriculum.

Certainly there is something to be said for teachers sharing with their students literature they themselves love. I read Kipling’s tales, for example, to students of every age.

If a teacher loves, say, The Three Musketeers, I can conceive that she could guide her students to finding pleasure in its 658 pages. But the choice must be the teacher’s- and the children’s. It cannot be left to politicians and professors.

I have shown Mr. Bennett’s recommendations to a number of junior-high teachers, and their reaction is that although a number of his choices are far too difficult for junior high, “Yes, we do that one ... and that one.”

When probed, they admit that “doing” may in fact mean watching the movie, staging puppet shows of chapters, listening to the teachers read three-fourths of the book aloud. Teachers agree that their students can be persuaded to “do” the classics; actually reading them is another matter.

I am by no means advocating a curriculum consisting of rock -star biographies and teen romances. I simply know that it is time we consider moving beyond Shane and The Yearling-and, yes, maybe even The Old Man and the Sea-to make way for a few contemporary works in our curriculum.

When I took the oral exams for my master’s degree, professorial modern literature ended with William Wordsworth. For our 7th and 8th graders, it should not end with The Red Pony. It is to our shame and dishonor if we allow children to leave our schools convinced that the only good author is a dead one.

A version of this article appeared in the October 12, 1988 edition of Education Week