What Do You Read?

It started with this editorial alarming us as to changes in the education standards linked to Federal funding that will have high school students reading policy documents and political editorials rather than literature.  

Curious, I decided to look at the actual standards to the best of my ability.  If you need trouble sleeping, you can read this site.  Of course, in saying that, I appear to be validating the very concerns that the new core competency standards are trying to address – teaching young people to read complicated documents for understanding.  The effort to reform education towards this end has elicited quite a bit of controversy – not that you’d know it by scanning Internet headlines.  
This Washington Post article from two years ago indicates mixed reviews at best for the new standards.  This pre-election Washington Post article discusses the controversy further.  And this article last week on the topic continues to see a great deal of unhappiness with the standards.  
Having taught in a college for the last 12 years, I can vouch that there is a need for students to be able to read complicated material and discern meaning as well as formulate critical evaluations and questions to interact with the material.  Frankly, this need is the same whether I was teaching a course on Shakespeare or biometric security, on the Crusades or on logic.  The majority of students find complicated material to be rather boring, with the exception of complicated material relevant (or perceived as relevant) to their own interests or aspirations.  I routinely ask my students each semester what they’ve been reading, and I routinely receive responses that indicate that they either don’t read, or only read textbooks and other technical manuals.
I don’t think that the issue is one of what texts we use to teach kids how to read complex articles for understanding.  I disagree with using policy documents for that because understanding what something says is different from being able to see that document and what it says with a broader perspective that can equip you to question whether what it says is true, or beneficial, or necessary.  Literature can do both.  Policy documents can’t.
The larger question is how to teach students to value these skills, to see them as both personally and societally beneficial.  How do we teach them to analyze a bureaucratic edifice that functions in large part precisely by being incomprehensible and overwhelming – not just to the average citizen but to the men and women charged with passing legislation.  How do we teach them to begin demanding that this sort of documentation ought to be made more readily available and more easily understood?  Or that drafting legislation that is thousands of pages long ought to be the first red flag that something fishy is about to happen?  
You can do that with great literature.  I don’t think you can do it with policy documentation, unless you’re going to equip kids with proper logic skills and then provide them with documentation representative of both sides of an issue.  Are you going to teach them to be conversant with the web sites and other resources where primary source documentation is accessible?  Are we developing apps for that, let alone teaching why using such apps ought to be common sense?
You can change what the kids read, but this isn’t going to magically make them into better informed citizens.  Having elected leaders unable to compromise, unwilling to make personal sacrifices in order to fix big problems, and generally ignoring their own directives to themselves as well as the directives they promised to their electorate is not a recipe for cultivating new generations of politically astute and engaged students.  

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