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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

A Fascinating, Depressing, and Call to Action Report

The excellent author and librarian Leda Schubert sent me the following survey, which you all should read — not just in its headline points, but in its revealing details: The authors set out to look at why reading ability (not reading choices, but the actual skill in reading carefull) is declining in America. They chose to focus on what it is that high school English students are reading and are required to read — the “broad middle” of students, not AP, not IB, but the generic student body. As you will see, the key concusions are — the reading is an ecclectic mix, defined by teachers here and there; the reading does not get progressively more challenging grade by grade; the responses students are asked to give to the books do not require close, careful reading but are often either personal/impressionistic or biographical social-cultural; and — you need to read further into the actual study to see this — there is almost no non-fiction, and if there is any it is either biography/memoir, or bits from some larger anthology, often enough one of a very small number of speeches by Dr. King or President Lincoln.

This new report is a cross-section of reading in high school today, and it shows a significant shift from the last such report — undertaken in 1993. Then the issue was the the books required were still very often the hoary old standards of a curriculum based on English Literature Classica — Silas Marner was still frequently required in High School, and the report was urging a more diverse selection of books, authors, and subjects. Well we got that — but as this survey shows, the price of opening up the curriculum is that it lost not only coherence but in a sense purpose. If students are not required to read books carefully, if they do not have the cultural and historical background to bring to books — and do not get that from their teachers, and if books (poems, plays, speeches, non-fiction) do not increasingly tax their knowledge and require them to grow in skill and understanding, then it really doesn’t matter if they read the phone book, or a website, or a YA novel, or Shakespeare — it is all just stuff on a page to get through.

I see this paper as a Call to Action because while my cause is non-fiction, I share the view of the paper’s authors that we need to use High School reading to develop student’s thinking skills. I would submit that non-fiction is particularly good for that, since the students can be taught to consider literary craft issues, point of view, and the subjects themselves — the there are at least those three different opportunities for critical thinking (looking carefully at art and illustration would make a fourth, a kind of visual literacy). If we can agree with English teachers that the skill of close reading is crucial to what you need to learn in High School, then it should be easy enough to suggest non-fiction book that they might assign.

But whether we wave the flag of nonfiction, or merely listen in as the fiction folks speak, this study is a portrait of a chaotic and personalistic approach to teaching English in High School — and anyone who works with high school or college students can  easily recognize the unfortunate results it produces.


  1. Shirley Budhos says:

    With all due respect to their taking attendance, keeping records, planning work, and the many responsibilities teachers have, I’d like a survey on what the teachers are reading. As a member of several English Departments (never wanted to be chairperson because I liked the classroom more than shuffling reports & attending boring conferences) I gave up discussing or recommending anything for my peers, for the Best Seller lists were their inspiration, but I’m out of touch (retired in 1995), and now that all the gadgets are winning the race, I doubt whether teachers read much, if at all. As a teacher, I also “went my own way” selected paperbacks, made my own reading lists for my students, and demonstrated that reading is a lifetime venture, not only to pass tests.

    However, nowadays, book reviews in literary magazines and well as in newspapers are often personal accounts of the critics’ experience, not about the book being reviewed. We’re living in an age of no-thinking, easy reading, quick fixes–instant gratification.

    How about getting the school administrators to read more than financial reports?

  2. Excellent post and comments. I see this situation play out very powerfully when I teach the Holocaust to my sixth graders. They are all very interested to study this period of time and they are very put out when I tell them that we will be studying political history with primary sources rather than anecdotal accounts. They insist that they want to read ” stories about real people who escaped or hid .” We have excellent materials that are informative and age appropriate. For the most part, they remain committed to reading highly sentimentalized , anecdotal accounts of the period. To date, the best I have been able to do is direct them
    to a conversation about the differnce between history and journalism and constantly redirect them to the primary documents. These primary documents are timelines, transcripts of the Nuremburg Trials, maps, etc. By force of personality and hours of preparation , I can usually
    keep them open minded and engaged. They are sometimes very shaken by the political science approach – it is quite different from the ideas they have formed. Personally, I think that Anne Frank is still the most powerful , articulate voice of the period and we come to love her before we understand what is happening in the world. But reading Anne Frank does not
    teach anyone about the slow, steady consolidation of power or the complicity of other governments or the military industrial complex. Actually reading the Nuremburg Laws is a very enlightening experience.

  3. Marc Aronson says:

    Mira: This fits with a trend I’d heard of, then experienced: kids (but even adults) speaking of all books as “novels.” As in, Mr. Aronson, what kind of novels do you write?” The speaker could simply not know what the word means, but even so, the misuse suggests that reading books is so equated with reading works of fiction that any book becomes a “novel.” Your approach — making kids aware of political history — is so right and needed. When I teach 7-8th graders about the Salem Witch Trials it is relatively easy to get them to think about individual motivation and behavior — why would a group of kids your age attack someone in court, even at the cost of that person’s life — but the larger point that Salem was really about the judges, the community, the alignment of needs and beliefs that made the trials go forward, is harder to get across. As I’ve been writing about J. Edgar Hoover and the 1950s it is that idea of al;ignment which keeps coming back — it is not that you had one demagogic Senator, or one devious FBI director — it was the overlap of political needs, small town organizations, FBI plots, media coverage, fear of homosexuality, fear of the bomb, the fact that there actually had been Soviet spies in Washington — that overlap and alignment which created the Age of Fear. And, of course, it is alignment we need to be aware of today — someone will always be xenophobic, populist, angry, but when that bile is confirmed by the media, fanned by opportunistic politicians, and then enshrined in law — we as a society freeze. And we need to show young people that the alignment can be broken — it is not inevitable — if they see it forming and speak out. Just as a clique in school that includes and excludes can be exposed and resisted.

  4. Thank you.