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Common Core and American Nonfiction: Some Thoughts
by Michael Clay Thompson
The Common Core standards have been adopted in the majority of states, to our relief or disappointment, depending upon our understanding of the standards. My impression is that some of the negative reactions to Common Core have not so much to do with the standards themselves as with how they are interpreted or implemented. Let me make a few observations about them with reference to classics of American nonfiction.
First, Common Core refers to nonfiction as informational texts, a horrid term that cannot vanish fast enough. The word nonfiction is perfectly adequate and scholarly and needs no substitute.
That aside, what we see in Common Core is not a curriculum but a collection of guidelines that indicate a direction, and the direction is toward serious academics. Common Core did not arise in a vacuum. It is a restoration of “real” school—an attempt to restore scholarly studies of grammar, vocabulary, academic writing, poetry, and classic literature to the classroom in the desolate wake of the whole language and middle school movements that abandoned or even banished those studies. Common Core is a statement that enough is enough, that it is time to bring back those wonderful components of language arts to their honored places in the English curriculum, and to that extent, Common Core is excellent news.
One of the most salient recommendations of Common Core is that we dramatically increase the presence of rigorous nonfiction—so much so that during the high school years, nonfiction would actually surpass fiction as the predominant genre of reading. This must come as a shock to many because serious nonfiction has never had the prominence that fiction has had. Students think of textbooks as nonfiction, but textbooks have been grossly dumbed down and do not quality as nonfiction in the sense we mean.
Think about it: What percentage of graduating high school seniors have ever read, in full, Thoreau’s Walden, or Douglass’s Narrative? What percentage have even read a decent 500-page history or biography? And yet it is nonfiction that is the connecting fiber of college academics.
Because Common Core elevates nonfiction, we might expect that Common Core’s recommendations about nonfiction would be sophisticated and impressive, but actually that is not the case. Common Core treats nonfiction as a kind of blank cognitive experience and invites us to analyze and delineate the topics and themes of each text. Common Core seems not to realize that literary nonfiction is literature and that there is a great deal to learn from applying grammar and especially poetics to great works of prose nonfiction.
This is almost shocking. No one ever says, when asked about Jefferson’s Declaration, “Yes, I can delineate its topics.” The great works of nonfiction have changed lives, changed continents, incited wars, altered history. They are no less human or passionate than the greatest works of fiction. It is just that they do not have characters or plots.
What we must do if we allow Common Core to influence our approach is to supplement the Common Core types of nonfiction questions with the part they leave out. We must treat great nonfiction as great and apply our full arsenal of language arts to disclosing the language power of the documents. That is the rigor that our children deserve.
Give me rigor, or give me mortis.