If great lit is eliminated, what’s left?

Oct 16, 2013 by

jamie_gassBy Jamie Gass –

‘Kids don’t wonder about these things,” College Board president and Common Core national standards architect David Coleman told an audience of 300 public school English teachers. “It is you as teachers who have this obligation [to teach students] to read like a detective and write like an investigative reporter.”

Thankfully teachers and parents already know young imaginations need practice reading timeless stories with compelling characters to uncover the world’s great crimes and mysteries.

>From 2005 to 2011, Massachusetts students topped their counterparts from every other state on each administration of the reading portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as “the nation’s report card.” The Bay State’s students excelled by reading classic fiction, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s gripping detective cases, which feature the immortal Sherlock Holmes.

Conan Doyle came from a poverty-stricken, mid-19th century Scottish family. His mother found solace in storytelling circles, where she read books by the Boston-Brahmin physician and man-of-letters, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

According to Arthur Conan Doyle’s biographer, this is the source of the surname for his fictitious detective, while “Sherlock” was probably derived from Patrick Sherlock, a childhood classmate. When the struggling young doctor, Conan Doyle, became an internationally renowned author, he visited Dr. Holmes’ grave at Cambridge’s Mount Auburn Cemetery on his American tours.

Conan Doyle credited another Boston-born writer, Edgar Allan Poe, and his fictional detective, C. Auguste Dupin, with creating his genre. “Where was the detective story,” Conan Doyle noted, “until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?” But apparently, it was Dr. Joseph Bell, his University of Edinburgh medical school professor and pioneer of forensic science, who was the template for Sherlock Holmes’ exacting method of deductive reasoning.

“All emotions … were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind,” is how Holmes is described. “He was … the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen.” A highly analytic “consulting detective,” Sherlock Holmes, and his assistant, Dr. James Watson, inhabited a Victorian office at 221B Baker Street in London with their dutiful landlady, Mrs. Hudson.

Largely narrated by Watson, the 56 Holmes adventure stories and four novels first appeared in 1887 and are set between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The best known cases are: “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1901-02), “The Speckled Band” (1892), “The Red-Headed League” (1891), and “A Scandal in Bohemia” (1891).

In these tales, readers join Holmes in his deerstalker hat, Inverness cape, and pipe; with magnifying glass and chemistry set in hand; observing the science of detective work; and collecting building blocks of clues — “Data! Data! Data!” he crie[s] impatiently, “I can’t make bricks without clay.”

But even Holmes can be outsmarted, as in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” where he is bested by the enchanting femme fatale, Irene Adler. “To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman,” Watson explains, and ever after Holmes treasures her photograph.

Nobody challenges Holmes’ talents more than his archenemy, the mastermind of London’s underworld, and “Napoleon of crime,” Professor James Moriarty. When tracking criminality, “Eliminate all other factors,” Holmes advises, “and the one which remains must be the truth.”

Children love these cases for their mysterious adventures, twisting plots, and complex characters.

The academic results Massachusetts students have achieved are a tribute to the higher-level vocabulary found in great fiction, including Sherlock Holmes. It’s qualitatively superior to the language found in the “informational texts” prominently featured in nationalized K-12 standards known as Common Core.

As Holmes said when mulling a difficult case, “These are deep waters … deep and rather dirty.” Because even though three federal laws explicitly prohibit the federal government’s involvement in nationalizing school standards, state officials sold us out to Beltway bureaucrats.

In 2010, Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration peddled Massachusetts’ proven, literature-rich English standards for $250 million in federal grant money to adopt Common Core and national testing, which cut the classic texts Bay State students will read by 60 percent.

“Behind every great fortune,” wrote the 19th-century French novelist Honoré de Balzac, “there is a great crime.” Deval Patrick graduated cum laude in literature from Harvard College and David Coleman studied literature at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, so both should easily grasp why schoolchildren must not be robbed of the richness of classic stories.

Jamie Gass directs the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.

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