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The following exchange of open letters deals with a follow-up study of young-adult illiteracy released by the Educational Testing Service which administers NAEP

Dear Archie:

"The Subtle Danger: Reflections on the Literacy Abilities of America's Young Adults,'' is a classic example of a well-meaning attempt to solve one education problem that, if carried out, would create another problem at least equally grave. This study is so profoundly wrong-headed on an issue so important to education reform that I am dismayed to see it published under the National Assessment of Educational Progress imprimatur. (See Education Week, Feb. 4, 1987).

In effect, the authors would have the nation's schools replace Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird with instruction designed to foster "those skills and strategies that would lead to finding an entry in a tax table, or to summarizing information in an article on economics.'' I don't know anybody who is opposed to improving these sorts of "skills and strategies.'' I certainly am not. You may recall, from my participation in the public unveiling of your exemplary study of literacy levels among young adults, that I am as distressed as anyone by the woebegone average performance levels on all three of your literacy scales. Indeed, we do need to attend to these matters, and of course schools have a large role to play.

But the authors of "The Subtle Danger'' are suggesting that systematic instruction in literacy skills ought to supplant the study of literature. They do not admit to doing this--and that perhaps is the most insidious aspect of the publication. Indeed, the document piously acknowledges the school's responsibility to "continue the difficult task of preserving traditional Western culture and political ideas.'' But the fact is that changing school curricula or practices in the way suggested by the study would instantly cut down on the amount of literature that is taught and read.

The authors try to have it both ways. On the one hand, they say that their recommended emphasis on literacy skills is not "incompatible with insistence on a shared cultural literacy, a common core of reading experience in excellent texts.'' Yet in the very same paragraph they acknowledge that their main message is "in contrast with those who have recently reasserted the importance of a cultural tradition in the teaching of literacy skills.'' And on the next page, they intend this statement to be both factual and critical: "[T]he primary emphasis of elementary reading programs, particularly in the middle and secondary levels, continues to be on the comprehension and enjoyment of fine literature.''

Would that it were so! But I challenge you to name anyone who has looked at the American reading curriculum or at the most-used basal-reader series who would concur that today these are dominated by "fine literature.'' Rather, they are dominated by readability formulas, "Dick and Jane'' stories, and well-meaning efforts to vary the ethnicity, race, and gender of the authors whose works are included.

Nor do our youngsters come out of school knowing much literature. As you know, Archie, the early returns from NAEP's 1986 "probe'' of rudimentary literary knowledge among 17-year-olds show them largely unaquainted with most of the major works of Western (and non-Western) literature that can be said to form much of their cultural heritage. E.D. Hirsch Jr. has found much the same thing in his research. So have countless college English professors who were reckless enough to suppose that their entering students might have a passing acquaintance with Odysseus, Lear, Robinson Crusoe, Anne Frank, Raskolnikov, or Lady Brett Ashley.

A massive revival of attention to literature within the English curriculum is one of the reforms that American education most urgently needs. Yet "The Subtle Danger'' says nothing doing. Its authors instead urge the schools to "reconsider the literary emphasis in the K-12 curriculum'' and "emphasize those skills and strategies that underlie the processing of expository prose and non-continuous documents like bureaucratic forms.''

The authors may retort that they want both emphases and that I err in thinking they would substitute the one for the other. I wish that were the case. But the audience simply isn't going to read their words that way. Consider two recent press accounts of their reports. In the Feb. 4 issue of Education Week, it is explained that "specifically, the report recommends, schools should move from a literature-oriented reading curriculum to one that stresses problem-solving skills.'' And in a Jan. 29 account in Education Daily, we encounter this paragraph: "Changes in language-arts curricula would go hand in hand with a change in definition: from an emphasis on comprehension of fictional literature to a focus on understanding expository writing that includes use of data presented in tables, graphs, and labels.''

"We need a curriculum built around problem-solving,'' one of the authors of the report, Richard Venezky, said in an interview with Education Daily. And he said something else in that interview, something that distresses me greatly. Here is the pertinent passage:

"Venezky, a reading expert who has written 'traditional' texts, said literature-based curricula embody 'elitist concepts,' excluding students who need more 'functional' training and 'have almost no applicability to everyday tasks.'''

Is this the real message, Archie, that literature is elitist and that, therefore, not everybody should be exposed to what Matthew Arnold called "the best that has been thought and written''? Are we back to tracking, confining literature to the college-bound and consigning less academically-motivated students to puzzling out "everyday tasks''? Is that the kind of society we want to live in and the kinds of citizens and parents and voters we want to raise? Or, in a fit of totally misguided egalitarianism, will we purge everybody's curriculum of literature on the grounds that it is only relevant to elites and we wouldn't want the schools to teach anything of that sort?

Shall nobody, then, read "Paradise Lost'' or My Antonia or "Macbeth'' or 1984 or The Snows of Kilimanjaro or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Wuthering Heights or the poems of Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost because they aren't "applicable to everyday tasks''? Please recall that it was a similar push for "relevance'' in the curriculum about two decades ago that helped shove American education down the slippery slope of mediocrity. It was a similar revolt against serious culture and academic learning that ushered in the age of electives, of soft, trivial subjects, and of diluted standards, an age from which we are only just beginning to emerge.

Are we now to repeat that regrettable sequence? Is that how NAEP would have us solve the problems of illiteracy and semi-literacy among young (and not-so-young) Americans? Is that the message you want to send? It is surely the message that is being received.

You and NAEP and the Educational Testing Service are, of course, within your rights to send any message you like. Similarly, Messrs. Venezkey, Kaestle, and Sum are free to write what they like, just as I--and other readers--are at liberty to disagree. This isn't censorship, and I know you don't take it as such. It isn't even grant-monitoring; NAEP has other sources of income besides the Education Department, and I understand that publication of "The Subtle Danger'' wasn't paid for with government funds. But that isn't really the point. The point is that lots of people, myself included, take NAEP very seriously. We heed your reports. We count on you not only for valid and timely data but also for insightful and responsible analysis.

This time, in my opinion, you let us all down. It's not that "The Subtle Danger'' doesn't have good points. It has many. On some issues, its authors make fine sense. Too bad, then, that one of its principal conclusions is misguided, indeed so totally off base that I fear a none-too-subtle danger to American education lurks within the pages of this earnest, well-intended, nicely written but fatally flawed volume.

Chester E. Finn Jr.
Assisant Secretary and Counselor to the Secretary
U.S. Education Department, Washington, D.C.

Vol. 06, Issue 24

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