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Jewish World Review March 24, 2000/ 17 Adar II, 5760

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker
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Consumer Reports



No 'Great Expectations' when schools shun the classics --
CALL ME A GROUCH. Call me a fuddy-duddy.

Call me when it's over.

I'm talking about the latest fad of shelving literary classics in favor of contemporary, more fun-to-read books, which is now being advanced by the nation's oops-educationists.

Johnny can't read? It must be the books.

Thus, teachers in growing numbers are tossing literature's old fogies -- Shakespeare, Chaucer, Faulkner, that ilk -- from school curriculums, and substituting more "with-it" storytellers. You've never heard of these authors, and they won't be remembered long, even by the teens for whom they write.

This new move apparently is in response to middle school students' disdain for reading. What does "Ethan Frome" have to do with anything, anyway? What does "A Separate Peace" mean to a regular kid? Besides, the kids say, it's too hard. All those big words. Yuck.

I admit, I have to agree about Ethan. My father made me read that book once a year for reasons I will never understand. I think it was his way of imposing a little edge on our comfortable lives in prosperous, post-war America.

Absent snowdrifts and shoes without soles, how was a child to learn humility and the honor that comes from survival? I guess he figured that between chores on weekends and mandatory Frome, while other kids watched TV, we'd better appreciate the good times that generally characterized life in the '50s.

By comparison, life in 2000 is a 24-7 trip to the mall. Which explains what's wrong with us, and what's wrong with eliminating the hard stuff from school.

Like life, school is supposed to be hard sometimes. It's supposed to challenge little minds to think big thoughts. It's supposed to force us to use the dictionary to look up a word now and then.

Instead, The Washington Post reports that teens in some schools are reading about issues that matter to them - teen angst, teen love, teens on the lam, teens competing - rather than the themes and characters that illuminate the larger human condition.

At Carl Sandburg Middle School in Alexandria, Va., of all places, children in an eighth-grade English class read only one classic last year - an abridged version of "A Christmas Carol." An abridged version?

Dickens' classic is hardly a doorstop. The complete version is only about 100 pages, with pictures. Do the kids even know who poet Carl Sandburg was?

Teachers who've shifted to contemporary teen-friendly authors argue that their technique is working. Children who otherwise hate reading now can't stop. Take Poppy Bailey, 14. She just loves Ouida Sebestyen's "Out of Nowhere" about 13-year-old Harley, who takes off with a group of castaways after his mother abandons him.

Harley's milieu sounds rather Dickensian or Huck Finnish to the creaking-joint generation, many of whom are unhappy about the eviction of the classics from classrooms.

The Virginia-based Core Knowledge Foundation, for instance, is a consortium of schools that believe all students should learn a body of knowledge that includes works like "The Iliad" and "Twelfth Night." The foundation worries we're raising a generation that can't connect with anything from the past. I'm worried we're raising a generation that can't - or won't - think.

Meanwhile, we do children no favor by continually lowering the bar to accommodate their appetite for entertainment. Instead, we might teach them the concept of work and reward. Read "Great Expectations" first, and then you get to read "Out of Nowhere."

As a bonus, they'll get to make appropriate references to Dickens someday when their children start whining about how hard school is.

JWR contributor Kathleen Parker can be reached by clicking here.


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