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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

What Do They Know?

So, Friends, Here We Are Again.

The New York Times reports that a new survey shows 17-year-olds know less than nothing about history and literature, (if you have trouble using that link, search under "Survey Finds Teenagers Ignorant on Basic History and Literature Questions"). What are we, the community that creates nonfiction for kids up to 17, to make of this?

Every time I mention a study such as this here, we fall into the same arguments: NCLB is at fault — a view echoed by those who conducted the survey in the Times article; I cite other surveys showing teachers do not have enough advanced training in history; Monica objects that I am speaking from outside the classroom; there is a flurry of comments back and forth; and then a new survey comes out.

I can’t help thinking of a song we used to sing at summer camp, Putting on the Style;ttPUTONSTY.html The point being that young people are always  "putting on the agony, putting on the style." The fact that tweeners and teenagers are self-involved is hardly a news flash. The 17 year olds today who are fuzzy on what happened in 1492 are no different from the
 "Sweet sixteen, she goes to church, just to see the boys
She laughs and she giggles at every little noise"
in the song. 

The difference is not the teenagers, it is us. We are not figuring out how to break into their world and make their past: the art, the history, the literature that is their heritage, important to them (important meaning either that they care about it, or that they know they need to be aware of it). In the survey, the one thing almost all of the teenagers get right is the I Have a Dream Speech. But what value is knowing that, if you know nothing about the history of race relations? 

I again appeal to all of you who come here to take this question seriously: how can our books break into the self-involved worlds of our readers, when schools are under NCLB pressure — so our subjects may not be covered in class? What can we do to command the attention of those teenagers? 

As I have said before, I think that by expressing our own judgments we can challenge young people; by writing books that are cognizant of other forms of technology, we can give them many ways to enter our subjects; we need to be bold and experimental. I find that, when we are, those teenagers are grateful. When we break into their world, we also offer them a way out, a pathway to a past that they did not know, and which is full of unexpected riches.


  1. Monica Edinger says:

    I’ve just posted about this on my blog. Comments here don’t allow for links, but the post is titled, “Whad’Ya Know? (with Apologies to Michael Feldman)”