In the Moby Dick v. Marvel Comics debate that is breaking out, Panic at the Pondiscio is pretty spot-on with his parody of yesterday’s New York Times account of a new approach to teaching literature — let kids read whatever they want. (Times story here) It’s not that students shouldn’t read things they like and chose to — of course they should. Rather, the issue is whether that should augment or replace some defined curriculum. I’m pretty firmly in the augment camp. Here’s why: First, there is shared social and cultural capital that it’s important for all students to be exposed to. Ensuring that all students get this material is a key social equity and mobility strategy and it is intrinsically good: It simply helps a person better understand the world around them. Second, as a matter of teaching, there are ideas, themes, skills, and concepts we want students to learn in English-Language Arts and as a practical matter it’s more effective to teach those things built around common content than trying to do it across 20 or 25 books (or comics) all at once. And thankfully, within reason, we don’t have to choose between shared content and encouraging students to read on their own.
Kevin Carey stakes out something of an extreme position here. He’s right about the first mover advantage of some books now commonly used, but that’s an argument for making some tough calls here around curriculum, not just throwing it out.
We should also step back and ask for a moment whether many of today’s students who are disengaged are because of the substance of the material, the quality of the teaching, or because they haven’t been taught to read so encountering challenging literature is frustrating for them? Good stories have timeless appeal and as the Eduwife – a former high school literature teacher herself — likes to point out, if you can’t make many of the classics, with their sex, violence, and foul deeds exciting for students then you’re in the wrong line of work…As with most education questions this one is bound up in some larger issues facing the field.