Mar 15, 2012 by

Will Fitzhugh, The Concord Review

What happened on the Ides of March? Oh, something historical, I suppose—it doesn’t matter. But I want to take note of the huge breakthrough that is the introduction of nonfiction informational texts into American high school classrooms.

According to Education Week this week, “employers and college instructors found students weak at comprehending technical manuals, scientific and historical journals, and other texts pivotal to their work in those arenas.” So the decision was made to break the fiction monopoly in American high school classrooms, so that our high school graduates might have some knowledge of something or other when they move on to work or college.

To help me envision this huge change, I have tried to imagine a parallel educational universe, where, for example, high school students might read two or three complete history books each year, write a 5,000-word history research paper each year, and do their reading of novels on their own outside of school. But a problem in this universe would arise if college instructors and employers discovered that they knew nothing about science and/or technology.

So, perhaps like ours, their mammoth Educational Leviathan would move into action in that “dull, heavy, busy, bold and blind” way that ours does, to introduce those subjects into the schools. Of course they couldn’t jump right into math, chemistry and physics, any more than ours could jump into actual history books when considering nonfiction informational texts.

So they would have to start at the beginning, perhaps with curriculum development, assessment strategies, and teacher professional development programs to prepare for a unit in, perhaps, “small drying earth mounds.” This could introduce students to the ideas of water and earth and the processes of wetting and drying, and later perhaps the flaking of dried earth under pressure (aka “The Mudpie Curriculum”).

After a number of innovative units like this one, the curriculum could gradually venture into the ideas of preparing meals as a kind of chemistry, the bouncing of balls as a start on the idea of quantum physics, and of course the introduction of counting on fingers and toes as a start on advanced calculus.

As with our parallel ventures into nonfiction informational texts, the progress of students in science and math would be slow, easily blamed on demographics and insufficient funding for education, and students would graduate with only a smattering, if that is not too strong a word, of the rudiments, if that is not too strong a word, of math and the physical sciences. But the educational establishment in that other universe could honestly claim to have started to remedy the problems caused by the absence of science and math in the schools, and student ignorance in those areas.

Back in our universe, the nonfiction informational texts are planned to include, in addition to the all-important bus schedules, “brochures, catalogs, menus, and other text types” so that students and their parents can not, in all fairness, say that they had never seen any nonfiction offered in our schools.

Nevertheless, our nonfiction equivalent of that parallel universe’s breakthrough Mudpie Curriculum would leave our students in the future in the same spot they are in now, never having read a single nonfiction book in high school, knowing no more history than they did in the second grade, and completely unprepared for college nonfiction book reading lists, not to mention college term papers (also nonfiction).

But we would have been true to our anti-academic, anti-knowledge, anti-intellectual educational traditions, and we would once again have successfully defeated an attempt to introduce significant amounts of knowledge for our students into the schools and once again prevented them from acquiring any worthwhile degree of academic competence.

We will be criticized of course, but that will be, as usual, water off a duck’s back, and after all, it cannot be denied that we were asked to provide nonfiction informational texts and we provided them. Perhaps bus schedules, brochures and menus are not everyone’s idea of worthwhile nonfiction informational texts, but we made a start, and no doubt succeeded in blocking the introduction of complete history books into our nation’s public high schools for perhaps another generation. So don’t say we did nothing for all that extra money!

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