Of Literacy and Democracy
Is access to literacy a constitutional right?
by Eileen Wedegartner
On July 5, 2018, Thomas Birmingham and William Weld co-authored an opinion piece in the Boston Globe titled, “Mass. has to return to its high standards for education.” The former governor and senate president re-visited the 1993 Education Reform Act on its 25th anniversary, praising its successes and making an argument to raise the ante and not relax the push for high standards that has brought Massachusetts success in education.
As an educator, I welcome arguments for education improvement. But there was one clause in the Birmingham/Weld brief that gave me uneasy pause:
“In 2010, the Commonwealth replaced its best-in-the-nation English and math standards with national versions that cut the amount of classic literature and poetry that students learn by more than half and extend the time it takes to reach Algebra I, which is the key to higher math study.”
In my years in education, many people have argued that using the same old books from the same old canon is not teaching kids the skills they need for the workforce. To a degree, I can appreciate that. Romeo and Juliet may not teach how to be an electrical engineer or conduct biomedical research or write computer code. But it does teach how to use words effectively to create vivid images and convey complex ideas. Studying a classic text teaches word choice, argument and rhetorical strategies, skills that have everyday applications in life.
In order to be informed and productive citizens, students need to be critical readers who can tackle challenging texts and derive meaning from them. This includes understanding laws, examining ballot questions and parsing political rhetoric in debates and commercials. By this measure, it is vital to have classic literature and poetry in the classroom. Not only does it help students develop the skills to extract meaning out of difficult texts, but it also contributes to the traditional goal of being a well-read person.
Abandoning classic literature and poetry would actually be a subversion of the Massachusetts Constitution. Chapter V, Section II reads:
“Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them. . . .”
I do not dispute that the literature curriculum can make room for non-fiction. Non-fiction can be challenging; but beyond literary criticism, finding appropriate non-fiction materials for teachers to add to the curriculum can be difficult. The software program JFY uses enable teachers to access non-fiction texts that are relevant to the curriculum and to classic literature but are current and adaptable to different student reading levels.
Teaching Romeo and Juliet, a teacher can log into the program after reading Friar Lawrence’s speech on the use of medicines (2.2) and find articles about pharmacology. Or if she wants to look at the culture of groups or families and their antagonisms, she can find articles on gangs. She can tie in Laurents/Bernstein/Sondheim/Robins’s West Side Story, another work of dramatic fiction with ties to Romeo and Juliet.
There are ways to integrate non-fiction into the literature curriculum without abandoning a dedication to ensuring that our students are well-read and have exposure to the finest literature. Our software offers one convenient way to do that.
We also have access to non-fiction readings that can be included in a science class, and even a math class. For another option, the New York Times offers a great collection of math articles that can be integrated into the classroom. Non-fiction readings can easily supplement history, anthropology, psychology, sociology and other humanities classes.
While I appreciate that Birmingham and Weld want students to have rigorous curriculum that includes challenging readings and higher-level math, I don’t want to lose sight of the value of ensuring that students are literate in all subject areas. The traditional, even classical, breadth of liberal education is essential to our democracy. The Founding Fathers wrote about it. The need for a broadly educated citizenry capable of critical thinking grounded by historical awareness has never been more acute. We should demand it of our education system.
In these days when the Michigan Supreme Court declines to uphold access to literacy as a constitutional right, Massachusetts needs to insist that literacy in all its dimensions is paramount. And we need to deliver it.
Eileen Wedegartner is a Blended Learning Specialist with JFYNetWorks.