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National Review
National Review
18 Nov 2023
Daniel Buck


NextImg:The Decline and Fall of the Classroom Novel

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE {T} he book is dying. I don’t just mean that Americans are reading fewer books, opting instead for 240-character fragments or autoplay videos. Nor am I referencing a handful of parental prudes lamenting explicit materials or social-justice warriors crying foul anytime a child has to read Steinbeck.

Rather, fewer students are reading books — real, physical books with printed text — from start to finish, because fewer schools are requiring it.

When I taught high school, most of my colleagues assigned only excerpts from To Kill a Mockingbird or Romeo and Juliet, because reading the whole book just “wasn’t that important,” they told me. Instead, they supplemented the books with excerpts from the movies. Finishing a book was irrelevant so long as students could practice critical thinking skills — this gauzy phrase goes undefined but is nonetheless wielded against anything that whiffs of classical schooling.

And it’s not just my experience. The most popular English curricula use the “workshop model” in the classroom. In this approach, teachers don’t teach, analyze books, untangle the prose of great authors for students, expose their class to compelling arguments, or do much of anything that might stir the mind or initiate deep reflection. Instead, they offer bromides such as “good readers notice details” before setting the students loose to read their own self-selected book — invariably always young-adult fiction. Whole class texts are often excerpts from faddish contemporary fiction, articles from the news, or documentaries.

Early in my career, I used the workshop model. Students cloistered off to their own desks or corners. Discussions faltered as students could only retell what they’d read, but never respond to or consider a common idea. It always felt empty, directionless, atomized, lonely. Thankfully, even when I used the workshop model, I still read out loud a common book with my students for about ten minutes a day. For those ten minutes, misbehavior stopped, students asked me to read ahead, and discussions arose without prompting. Eventually, I made classic literature the framework on which I ran my class.

Compare my early career class to one day just last year. I assigned the final pages of Of Mice and Men to my students and provided a few minutes of silent reading time to finish. I watched a few eyes widen as the faster readers reached the ending where a man executes his friend. One student threw her book on her desk and exclaimed, “I hate this ending, Mr. Buck. Curly’s wife had it coming!” The slower readers looked up quizzically and then rushed to finish. When the bell rang, my students shuffled out of the room still discussing the ethics of the final scene. Was it a mercy killing or a shirking of responsibility? Would you rather die at the hands of your friend or chance the mercy of your enemies? Could they have pulled the trigger?

C. S. Lewis quips that all friendships begin with “What? You too?” This book had given my students their “you too?” moment — a shared culture, a common interest, a point of commonality. It was an urban school, and many of these students came from rival gangs or competing friend groups. But for one hour at least, they were friends.

Sadly, almost despairingly, the most influential institutions in American education want to remove the book from our classrooms. In a statement that could be mistaken as satire, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) proclaimed that it is time “to decenter book reading and essay writing as the pinnacle of English language arts class.” Apparently, they don’t teach irony anymore either. Instead, teachers should incorporate videos, memes, gifs, selfies, and contemporary news. Finishing books is less important than discussing “immigration, xenophobia, police brutality, racism, and environmental degradation.”

This statement represents a far more radical change than the canon wars of yesteryear. Chronicling those very canon wars of the ’80s, philosopher John Searle noted that many advocates wanted only to open up the canon — those who justified the replacement of Shakespeare with Langston Hughes on the basis of merit. Hughes’s poetry reaches the same aesthetic heights, contains the same freshness of imagery, and the same philosophical profundity. So he, too, deserves a place at the table.

But there was a more radical undercurrent, a coterie of professors for whom “the whole idea of the canon had to be abolished.” These radicals thought there should be no table. Any commitment to the idea of aesthetics itself — that some works of art are better than others — is “hegemonic.” Objectivity is a ruse, and so we must obliterate the canon, not just alter it.

It’s from this idea that we get the notion that students ought to select their own books. If there are no aesthetic ideals worth experiencing, discernible truths worth learning, or objective morals worth adhering to, teachers, and our education system more broadly, have nothing to offer. Reading becomes a solipsistic pursuit as students read only what immediately interests them.

Where districts still require teachers to read any classic literature, the NCTE encouraged educators in another statement to do so through “lenses” — feminist, Marxist, critical race, and others. Teachers must train students to read with a red pen in hand, deducting points from Longfellow or Dickens for racism, sexism, or transphobia, writing in the margins, scribbling over our past. Students become deaf to anything these authors have to offer, distorting these texts until they all repeat the same progressive pieties. When it’s their turn to join the great conversation, students shouldn’t approach great literature with any reverence for the past, our traditions, or our elders but rather with irreverence and contemporary arrogance.

The troubles with this approach to literature are manifold. From a utilitarian perspective, how will children improve their literacy when they spend their class time flipping through unchallenging books? And from society’s standpoint, how can we keep our nation from fraying when our public schools — one of our last remaining communal institutions — do nothing to build a common culture or shared values? But the greatest threat, I believe, is how this approach to literature shapes students.

Everything in a school communicates a message to students, inculcates a worldview in children. What behavior is rewarded or sanctioned, what books are on display, who selects curriculum — each decision has first principles undergirding it. As Lewis phrased it, “A boy who thinks he is doing his English prep has no notion that ethics, theology, and politics are all at stake.” What does this self-directed approach to books and texts communicate to students?

When I was a student, I expressed an adolescent distaste for most classic literature — Shakespeare, Joseph Conrad, and the poetry of the Romantics in particular. Nonetheless, my education impressed upon me that my dislike was a fault of my tastes, not the books themselves. Similarly, Lewis wrote, “I myself do not enjoy the society of small children” but, he continued, “I recognize this as a defect in myself.” There are certain things that deserve our admiration or protection because they are beautiful or innocent in themselves, regardless of how we personally feel about them.

In his seminal work Norms and Nobility, David Hicks argues that classical education sets before students an Ideal Type, the belief that a theoretical excellence in man and society existed even if we could never quite achieve it. It provides an ideal through which we can understand our current circumstances and find meaning and purpose in our actions. Where we ask questions, we know that answers are possible.

Conversely, this choose-your-own-adventure approach to literature communicates to students that their desires, passions, and perceptions are law. Man is the measure of all things. But desires and passions lack telos. We cannot follow our internal drives anywhere. They are mere vectors with magnitude but no direction. Where questions arise, there’s no belief in objective answers. Thus, serious thought never rises above cynicism.

Without objectivity, students are left without guidance. We cannot foster within them robust ethics that they can use to make sense of and find direction in this world. The dogmas within “It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” or “Be slow to anger” provide a framework that students can use to decide, choose, and thereby live. Instead, modern young adults approach two roads that diverge, and with cynicism, they sit at the crux and light up.

We already see such a listless existence: a generation of anxious and depressed girls who spend their lives dancing to TikTok trends or scrolling past selfies and a generation of boys who wile away their hours outside of the workforce, opting instead for video games and marijuana. A child-centered education creates self-centered adults without meaning or purpose. And as Hicks warns, “Neither science nor civilization can survive in an atmosphere opposed to real thought and tolerant only of moral ambiguities.”

It took generations to dismantle our civilizational commitment to classical education. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but neither did it fall in a day. And we cannot impose virtue ethics and Shakespeare on our schools by executive fiat tomorrow. But slowly we can rebuild a classical edifice. State-level legislatures can pass curricular reforms. Schools and even individual educators can teach class novels again. Pioneering spirits and institutions such as Hillsdale College and the Catholic Church can establish more classical schools.

These quibbles with literature instruction are not esoteric trifles. At the root of Plato’s Republic is the question of how to create a just society. And Socrates spends much of that book discussing the education of the young, not just what to teach students but how to teach; a just society depends on this formation of its citizens. It is through objective appeals that students parse falsity and truth, beauty and ugliness, the good and the abhorrent. To relativize them away is to leave future generations with a cynicism sufficient to dismantle our institutions but no ideal vision or desire to build something in their stead.