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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Realities

I spent yesterday teaching four blocks of 10th graders at a Massachusetts High School, followed by a professional development session with teachers from around the district. The sessions took place in the new and spacious library and I took advantage of the nearby shelves: when talking about Sugar, I scooped up all the books on obesity and diabetes to show. As I carried the impressive pile over the librarian said — those are good, but I no longer buy reference books in print, all of that is now online. That is the first reality — reference books of the sort I was carrying: issue books, for and against books, all of the library-oriented-series on diseases, weather, social problems, etc — are migrating out of print and into the database. I still see the popular/current teen biographies — latest music star or sports hero — displayed in schools, but that is about it. I’m sure this varies from school to school, but the trend is clear: the space, indeed the only space, for NF in the school library is the single author, individual take on an individual topic — not the “good for reports” backup, but the nonfiction as literature — as the kind of books that hook readers, that presents a fresh and indivdiual approach, and that can be read as Language Arts information literaracy just as well as Social Studies/History knowledge formation.

The second reality is what Myra and I have been posting about — the extreme pressure on Social Studies. This article in Education Week helped me to make sense of the strange absence of SS from testing and standards: “Updated: May 18, 2011 Specialists Weigh Common Social Studies Standards By Catherine Gewertz” (I am having trouble copying the url, but you should be able to find it with this information). The key point is that there had been an effort to create national SS standards, but that fell apart in political bickering. In other words, we are so at odds — politically, regionally — on what preparation for citizenship means that we gave the whole thing up as a national priority, just at the moment where national testing and standards took over. Now that finally makes sense — it is terrible, tragic, and needs to be addressed, but at least there is a historical logic: because we refuse to agree on what a critical thinking, engaged, citizen-in-formation should look like, we gave up. anbd that left it to people teaching apparently value-neutral topics such as reading and math to command the field. The Culture Wars linger on to ruin education, even after truces have been worked out everywhere else. But the truce has basically be accomplished by splintering — you have your Founding Fathers and I have mine. That is fine for adults, but leaves schools adrift. No one will say anything, b/c whatever you say will offend someone.

That, friends, calls for courage. We as authors, editors, librarians, teachers, parents need to stand up for ideas the way we have all supported banned books and challenged books. B/c the silencing of SS is a different kind of banning — not by removing one book from a shelf, but by keeping quiet about the whole center of what it means to be an American citizen. Our books need room to yell, to scream, to challenge and to engage young people — to cause them to care. If our schools are too scared, our books cannot be. That is the space on the library shelf we need to protect — the place where engage young people to think, even when school system prefer them simply to practice for tests.


  1. Teresa Finn says:

    Hi Mr Aronson– I tried to send you a “fan” letter and a couple of pictures of my Academic Decathlon team here in Benicia California, but twice the email was returned from your
    email address. If you’d still like the note and pictures, maybe you could send me one!
    Teresa Finn

  2. Myra Zarnowski says:

    As you have reported, the current state of social studies is dire. But, it should also be acknowledged that teachers are not willingly and happily agreeing with this no-social studies or bland social studies curriculum. They want something that they can dig their teeth (and brains) into and so do the children. Here’s what’s most dire to me: They don’t have the background to deal with controversial issues and big problems that we face as citizens. What we all need is the green light to pursue topics in depth. Right now we don’t have it.

    I myself have spent two hours this week entering “data” into a computer to indicate to our college accrediting agency that my college students–future elementary social studies teachers–are meeting standards. But…even if they are meeting standards in their preparation as teachers, what will they be able to do with this preparation? That’s my big worry.