Given that only 39 percent of Minnesota eighth-graders score “proficient” in reading,according to the U.S. Department of Education, and that 40 percent of state college and university students need remedial or developmental coursework, we might assume that the University of Minnesota would applaud high school English classes that assign great literary works of the last 500 years.
What could be better for students to read than “Macbeth,” “Don Quixote,” “Paradise Lost,” and “Frankenstein,” or the works of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Wilde, Willa Cather, Camus, Orwell, and Toni Morrison?
Yet sadly, when a high school offered such a syllabus to the University of Minnesota’s College in the Schools program, it was turned down. CIS is a long-running initiative that helps high schools develop rigorous courses in different subjects and awards students university credits. According to Prof. Toni McNaron, who oversees the English course, participating schools undergo a painstaking review and training process. CIS provides a reading list of 86 titles, syllabi outlining assignments and policies, and professional development for high school teachers.
The texts that were rejected are some of the most brilliant, demanding and profound writings in history. But they aren’t on the reading list. The list signals a narrow conception of what 17-year-olds should study. The oldest works are Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 story “The Yellow Wallpaper” and two 1899 novels, Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” and Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Apart from a few midcentury texts, the rest of the list is entirely contemporary.
It doesn’t include Fitzgerald, Bellow or Flannery O’Connor — but it does have two works each by Amy Tan, Tim O’Brien and Leslie Silko. As for poetry, no Whitman or Dickinson; no Eliot, Stevens, Frost, Millay, Langston Hughes or Elizabeth Bishop — but June Jordan and Billy Collins are there. As for drama, no Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller — but Tony Kushner and August Wilson, yes.
The motives behind this restrictive corpus are indicated by the sample syllabi. One announces the goal of the course in terms common to multiculturalist instruction: “students will understand diverse experiences, languages,” and “understand information from … social practices (gender, sexuality, class, and more),” while gaining “awareness of themselves, other cultures and other individuals.” It favors literary theories that highlight social identities, including “Marxist, feminist, postcolonial and LGBT criticism.” The other syllabus declares: “Racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ageism and other forms of bigotry are inherent in our culture.”
Along these lines, “Gulliver’s Travels” and “Walden” are less important than “Becoming a Man,” Paul Monette’s 1992 memoir of a life spent suppressing and embracing his homosexuality, and Danzy Senna’s 1998 “Caucasia,” a novel about two multiracial sisters, one of whom can pass as white.
The point here is not to censure the course for its contemporary, multiculturalist focus. Prof. McNaron and CIS have, in fact, developed machinery to ensure college-level teacher and student performance. We needn’t judge the works on the reading list, either. Instead, what matters is the active exclusion of the great tradition from Chaucer to Austen to Joyce — from the Puritans to Frederick Douglass to Edith Wharton. If a school chooses to teach pre-1950s English and American literature, students can’t earn college credit. In effect, the university tells schools, “If you study Melville, Emily Bronte and Du Bois, not Boa Ninh, Cormac McCarthy and Julie Otsuka, you can’t participate.”
The criterion fails two tests. First, one goal of the course is knowledge of literary theory, including deconstruction. But the founder of deconstruction, Jacques Derrida, said 20 years ago: “I think that if what is called ‘deconstruction’ produces neglect of the classical authors, the canonical texts, and so on, we should fight it.” Derrida and other theorists consider a high school course that excludes the classics wrongheaded.
Second, the high school course fails Minnesota’s state reading standards for grades 11-12. One of them states unequivocally: “Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature …” By my count, only four works on the CIS list fit that category. In rejecting “foundational works,” CIS hinders students from meeting state requirements.
The solution is obvious. The university should no longer use the enticements of college credit to pressure schools to expel the precious inheritance of literary history, but should admit those influential works so crucial to the meaning of America, modernity and humanity.
Mark Bauerlein is an English professor at Emory University in Atlanta. He helped draft the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts.