Commentary

'None-Too-Subtle Danger' Lurking Within New Report

No 'Veiled Attempt' To Reject Literature, Say Authors

| Corrected: March 18, 1987
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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, continue' 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 unacquainted 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. Venezky, 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.

Cordially,

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

Dear Mr. Secretary: Thanks for your thoughtful letter. Educational Testing Service (not the National Assessment of Educational Progress) sponsored the publication of "The Subtle Danger" to encourage debate of these important issues.

We are proud of the small role we played in providing a platform for its three distinguished authors as they elaborated their own secondary analysis of NAEP'S young-adult literacy data. They will more appropriately address your questions, and their letter follows. It has not been censored by NAEP, nor has it been granted an imprimatur.

Your kind words for NAEP itself are appreciated.

Warmest regards,

Archie E. Lapoint
Executive Director
National Assessment of Educational Progress

Dear Mr. Finn,

In the preface to our report, ''The Subtle Danger: Reflections on the Literacy Abilities of America's Young Adults," we stated that "it is urgent for serious debate to begin on the issue raised by [the NEAP Young Adult Literacy] assessment and for national and local attention to be paid to the literacy problems of young adults." In this spirit we welcome the participation of Mr. Finn in this discussion. We regret, however, that Mr. Finn took this occasion to criticize NAEP rather than simply disagreeing with our ideas. NAEP exercised no influence over the content of our monograph before or after it was written.

In ''The Subtle Danger" we emphasized both the relatively low levels of literacy found in the young adult population and the strikingly poor performance of some minority groups. We discussed the implications of the strong relationship found between literacy ability and such civic and social behaviors as voting, keeping up with national events, and participating in community organizations. We further pointed out that, with projected increases in the percentage of minorities in the young-adult population, present literacy trends could yield even more serious inadequacies in future labor pools.

In our report we suggested that responsibility for improving literacy skills lay principally with the family, the schools, employers, and the media. When we examined the reading curriculum of the schools, we found a mismatch between the reading skills currently taught and those that young people so often lacked. To redress this imbalance we suggested that "in addition to the skills for understanding and enjoying fiction and poetry, [the schools] should emphasize those skills and strategies that underlie the processing of expository prose and non-continuous documents like bureaucratic forms.”

Mr. Finn imagines that our interest in "balance" is a veiled attempt to supplant the study of literature, and he condemns us for what he admits we did not say. With distorted logic he defines our intentions not by the text we wrote, but by comments taken from recent press coverage of a symposium held on our report. He transforms our call for balance into his vision of total imbalance and then attacks us for the extreme that he created. It is not our intention to remove great literature from the K-12 reading and English curriculums nor would it be the necessary effect of our recommendation.

When we criticized the literary emphasis of the reading curriculum, we directed our attention mainly to the elementary school, where very little great literature is presently taught, but where nonetheless the curriculum focuses primarily on concepts appropriate for analyzing literature and poetry, like plot, characterization, and main idea.

This distinction between the literary basis of the reading curriculum and the actual reading of great works of literature explains how we can think there is too much literary emphasis in the schools and Mr. Finn can reply in horror that there is too little literature taught.

Although Mr. Finn says he is "as distressed as anyone" about young adult literacy levels, the only assistance he offers to people struggling to interpret simple everyday prose is more literature. For those whose life chances may be restricted by inadequate literacy skills, Finn offers nothing but a rich diet of Odysseus, Lear, and Raskolnikov.

In doing this he reveals a confusion between learning to read and reading to learn. For the millions who read below the 4thgrade level, assignments on the relentless malice of Poseidon or the disinheriting of Cordelia will provide neither increased ability nor, unfortunately, any meaningful appreciation of our cultural heritage. 'There is room for exemplary literature at the lower levels of instruction, but when learning to read is the central goal, the selection of reading material must be guided primarily by the skills and strategies we want children to learn. 'Thus, if we care about the skills surveyed by the Young Adults Study, the elementary reading curriculum should include more expository prose and documents.

Mr. Finn charges that we would track children, reserving literature for the bright kids and dead-ending the rest in functional literacy tasks. Or, he speculates, maybe we just don't want literature for anyone. 'The reason he has trouble divining our attitude on this matter is that nowhere do we suggest either. Never in our summer of conferences and writing, and nowhere in "The Subtle Danger," did we suggest a different curriculum for different kids. There may be some room for elective courses in English at the high-school level, but otherwise all children, K-12, should have the same curriculum in reading and English, including both the study of great literature and the development of a high level of reading and writing skills. It is entirely feasible to do both.

Decades of research on instruction and learning have demonstrated that Mr. Finn's immense faith in transfer of learning is misplaced. If we teach literature in the reading curriculum, he believes, students will induce the skills they need to analyze and apply complex concepts in other forms of writing, without practice or application.

He also seems to think that specifying the content for reading is sufficient, that the skills take care of themselves, and that those who talk about skills lack a commitment to the cultural content he cherishes and want1 to reassert. He is sure that we don't share that commitment, and he rejects our statement about the necessary role of the schools in cultural conservation as a "pious" slogan.

Apparently, we are too flabby on that score to get under his banner. He ritually cites E. D. Hirsch, who is under his banner, and who is somewhat more subtle on this content-skills question than Mr. Finn. But Mr. Hirsch's essays should not be taken to mean that the mere presence of major works of literature in the curriculum will guarantee that students acquire the rich set of interpretations, experiences, and emotions that these works offer.

Mr. Finn seems to have no remedy for the present inability of many students to read critically, other than to expo 'e them to even more texts that they have difficulty comprehending. In their earnest repudiation of people who think that skills can be taught without teaching content, advocates of cultural literacy sometimes forget that the problem cuts both ways.

We will not abandon our recommendation that schools should give more attention to teaching prose literacy skills just because Mr. Finn says we're attacking literature; we are not. Nor do we accept the accusation that we want to build a curriculum on tax forms and parking tickets, or track different kids for different reading futures.

We reject the denigration of adult prose skills as trivial or merely practical, when in fact the skills we are talking about range from moderately difficult to sophisticated, are necessary for a deep understanding of our world, can be the entree to elegant and satisfying activities, and are not learned automatically through the reading of great literature. Indeed, the problem-solving base that we suggest is as essential for the interpretation of fiction as it is for non-fiction and everyday documents. Its orientation is towards critical-thinking skills--the same skills that have been found to be lacking in students at all reading levels.

We do not want to abandon the millions who struggle to acquire adequate literacy I skills, We want teachers across the entire curriculum to teach the skills and concepts that will help children become more intelligent workers, more intelligent citizens, and more intelligent future learners-flexible, critically equipped, and ready to participate in complex literacy tasks. We believe that the schools are failing to identify and emphasize these skills which are a necessary complement to knowledge of our cultural heritage. Mr. Finn sees only part of this part of this picture. He says that we "want to have it both ways." You bet we do.

Sincerely,

Richard L, Venezky
University of Delaware
Carl F, Kaestle
University of Wisconsin
Andrew M. Sum
Northeastern University

Vol. 06, Issue 24, Page 23-24

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Correction: 
The penultimate paragraph in the letter from Chester E. Finn Jr. to Archie Lapointe, "'None-Too-Subtle Danger' Lurking Within New Riport," should have read:
You and NAEP and the Educational Testing Service are, of course, within your rights to send any message you like. Similarly, Messrs. Venezky, 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 grantmonitoring; 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.
And the word "not' was omitted from the following sentence of Messrs. Venezky, Kaestle, and Sum's letter of response:
But Mr. Hirsch's essays should not be taken to mean that the mere presence of major works ofliterature in the curriculum will guarantee that students acquire the rich set ofinterpretations, experiences, and emotions that these works offer.

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