As long as the English department controls reading and writing in schools, the reading will be fiction, and the writing will be personal, creative, or the five-paragraph essay.
The Boston Globe reported recently that Michelle Wie, the 16-year-old Korean-American golfing phenomenon, not only speaks Korean and English, but also has taken four years of Japanese and is beginning to study Mandarin Chinese. She is planning to apply early to Stanford University. I would be willing to bet, however, that in her high school academic writing has been limited to the five-paragraph essay, and outside reading assignments never include a complete nonfiction book.
For the last two years, and especially since the National Endowment for the Arts unveiled the findings of its large study of the reading of fiction in the United States, I have been seeking funding for a much smaller study of the assignment of complete nonfiction books in U.S. public high schools. This proposed study, which the education historian Diane Ravitch calls “timely and relevant,” has met with little interest, having so far been turned down by the National Endowment for the Humanities as well as a number of foundations and institutes both large and small.
Still, I have a fair amount of anecdotal evidence—some of it from people who would be quite shocked to hear that high school English departments were no longer assigning any complete novels—that the nonassignment of nonfiction books on subjects like history is unremarkable and, in fact, accepted.
A partner in a Boston law firm, for instance, told me there was no point in such a study, because everyone knows history books aren’t assigned in schools. This was the case, he said, even decades ago at his own alma mater, Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., where he was assigned only selections, readings, and the like, never a complete book. A senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, sometimes thought of as a conservative place, said when I lamented the fact that I couldn’t find anyone who agreed that high school students should be required to read at least one nonfiction book, “The only hope is parents introducing their kids to reading, and that’s a mighty slim hope.”
For the last two decades, I have been working to encourage the writing of history research papers by high school students. But it has become apparent to me that one of the problems involved in getting students to undertake such a task is that so many of them do not read any history, and so have little to write about. Even so, as I began to try to find out more about the reading of nonfiction books in high school generally, I found more and more apathy and acceptance of the situation. As long as the English department controls reading and writing in schools, the reading will be fiction, and the writing will be personal, creative, or the five-paragraph essay.
Why is this important? ACT Inc. found last spring that 49 percent of our high school graduates (half of the 70 percent who do graduate) cannot read at the level required by freshman college texts. Common sense, buttressed by such work as that of E.D. Hirsch Jr., would lead to the conclusion that perhaps 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.
These days, of course, there is a great deal of attention given to many educational issues, and one of the popular Edupundit maxims is that the most important variable in student academic achievement is teacher quality. So lots of attention and many millions of dollars go into teacher training, retraining, professional development, and the like.
The truth may lie elsewhere. The most important variable in student academic achievement is, in my view, student academic work. Those who concern themselves with teacher quality only assume that better teachers will lead to more student work. If they would care to look, however, examples of both lousy teachers with diligent students who do well and superior teachers with students who do no academic work are everywhere to be found.
Ignoring academic writing and the reading of nonfiction books at the high school level can only prolong our national bout of remediation and failure in college. Let’s find out whether our high school students are indeed discouraged from reading a history book and writing a serious term paper. Then we may be able to turn more of our attention to assigning the kind of academic work that leads to the levels of achievement we wish for students.
A version of this article appeared in the October 04, 2006 edition of Education Week as Bibliophobia