U.S. BOOKLESS WONDERS

Feb 26, 2018 by

Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
I March 2018
American students are encouraged, and in some cases required, to achieve a “bookless” status before they receive their high school diplomas. Of course many do read novels, or parts of novels, and short stories, but their education, at least in school, does not include any nonfiction books, even History books popular with the general public, like The Wright Brothers or The Path Between the Seas, by David McCullough.
Zero experience in reading a nonfiction book is, of course dismal preparation for colleges which do require students to read a nonfiction book from time to time, so how did this happen in our high schools?
The main reason seems to be that both reading and writing have been assigned to the English Department, even though, as E.D. Hirsch points out in The Knowledge Deficit“The association of language arts mainly with fiction and poetry is an accident of recent intellectual history that is not inherent in the nature of things.”
Nevertheless, the English Departments rule reading and writing in American public schools. As a result, the writing is personal, creative, and the five-paragraph essay, and the reading is entirely fiction. Fine literature has an essential place in the reading assignments of American students, of course. But why does that mean that they are never assigned one good History book the whole time they are in school?
In a 1786 letter to his nephew, aged fifteen, Jefferson recommended that he read books (in the original languages and in this order) by the following authors: [History] Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Anabasis, Arian, Quintus Curtius, Diodorus Siculus, and Justin. On morality, Jefferson recommended books by Epictetus, Plato, Cicero, Antoninus, Seneca, and Xenophon’s Memorabilia, and in poetry Virgil, Terence, Horace, Anacreon, Theocritus, Homer, Euripides, Sophocles, Milton, Shakespeare, Ossian, Pope and Swift.” (from The Knowledge Deficit).
Some of these are literary suggestions (in Latin), but several are nonfiction History as well. Not only do we not ask our students to read books in Latin (or Greek), but we seem to have decided to shield them from History books written in English as well.
When I was teaching History in the Concord-Carlisle High School many years ago, I assigned a paper on the presidents. One student managed to get John Fitzgerald Kennedy for his topic, and I gave him my copy of One Thousand Days, by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. When he saw it, he said, “I can’t read this!” And I said, “Yes, you can.”
 
Anyway, he turned in a very good History paper, and I had no idea whether he had read the book or not. Six years later, when he was a Junior at Yale, he wrote me a letter, in which he thanked me for making him read his first History book. As it happens, he made himself read it, but it started me thinking about how few History books students in our high schools were being asked to read.
Sometimes, in our somewhat frantic pursuit of STEM opportunities for all our students, we forget that even engineers and scientists have to be able to read and write nonfiction. Whenever I have spoken to a professional in STEM fields in recent years, they immediately agree with me about how important those abilities are. Nevertheless, that insight has not penetrated to our STEM fanatics or to the English Departments in our schools. 
Reading History and doing academic expository writing had long been accepted as essential parts of a good education, but for many decades those have dropped from our educational goals. Partly as a result, we spend a great deal of money on remedial instruction in reading and writing at the college level, and it may have something to do with the very large percentage of our college freshpersons who now drop out instead of completing a degree. 
We would not dream of sending our high school basketball players to play on college teams if they did not know how to dribble, pass, and shoot. But we do indeed regularly send our high school graduates as “bookless wonders” off to college with no experience at all in reading nonfiction books or writing academic expository research papers. That is inexcusable.
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