I’ve donned my boots and leggings, and done what I had no desire to do. I am examining, with tedious scrutiny, the so-called Common Core Curriculum for literature and English, a new’n’improved set of standards for reading and writing in our schools from kindergarten to twelfth grade. I have read the essays, written by students, which the authors of the curriculum recommend as just the kinds of things that every student ought to produce.
The best essay by far, for both style and organization, is a report on the economic effects of the Spanish Flu, in the United States after the First World War. No other essay in the set comes close. To read the others, after this one, is to stumble down the side of a ravine. Yet I would not want one of my students to have written this essay, not in a hundred years.
I’ll get to the paper’s troubles in due course, saving the most disappointing and troubling for another time. First I must show where the battle lines are. For battle lines there indeed are; it is not that the authors and I disagree about how best to teach students how to read poetry or to write well about the Spanish Flu. We are not quarreling colonels on the same side in a war. We are enemies. The authors believe that the humanities are subordinate to rhetoric. We read a poem by Keats in order to see, or to pretend that we see, how he uses images or odd words or a cunning series of expressions to persuade us of some peculiar point of view. The authors do not read poems at all, really. They read texts, or, as they put it with the air of technicians, text. When you read a passage by Dostoyevsky, or a poem by Donne, or the maunderings of a politically correct doyen, you are reading text, and reading text requires the same techniques, always and ever, just as there is a correct way to dissect a dead cat on the laboratory table. But I and my comrades believe that rhetoric is subordinate to the humanities. We attend to Keats’ words and metaphors so that we will better see what he is saying to us about what it means to be human. We do not invert the order of ends. We care ultimately about the good, the true, and the beautiful, and what vision of those that Keats was granted to see. We read poetry as poetry, and we rejoice in its truth and its beauty, nor do we presume to know all about it.
The authors of the curriculum read and write by formula. It is deadly. For writing is an art, not a science. It cannot be taught by rule. It cannot be divided into component parts, like the levers and hammers of a machine. It is at once too familiar to us, because we see it around us all the time, as we see weeds, dirt, litter, rubble, and all the other debris of common and unconsidered life; and not at all familiar, since so little of what we do see is worthy of our attention, much less our love. Writing can let the truth shine out for even the simplest, or it can sow the seeds of lies under such thick mud of verbiage that even the wisest may miss them. And the more it is taught as if it were a science, especially a mechanical one, the more likely will it be put in the service of lies.
Here I needn’t turn to the first inventors of the checklist for linguistic invention, the Sophists, who purported to teach young Greek men how to speak persuasively in the assembly, regardless of the truth of their claims or the wisdom of their recommendations. All I need to do is to note that a machine is neither honest nor dishonest. It is a dead thing. But good writing is not a dead thing. It is the honest expression of what the writer knows or sees or believes or feels. Excellent writing may sear that knowledge or vision in the reader’s mind. Any careful observer, for example, may note that spiritual callousness, not touchiness, is the more common malady of the young student in our schools. But it takes a John Ruskin to say of that trained and inbred callousness that “it is in the blunt hand and the dead heart, in the diseased habit, in the hardened conscience, that men become vulgar.” It takes a C. S. Lewis to assert that “the task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.” So from the masters. We may emulate them, learning from them the knack for finding the illuminating turn of phrase, or the right word for the just thought. Not everyone can be a Giotto; many thousands of us must be content with taking our lead from Giotto, and mingling with his instruction whatever measure of talent we may possess, so that we may merit to stand alongside those humble but accomplished Pictores Ignoti whose work was beautiful because it was ordinary, the ordinary glory of thousands of village churches and priories and chapels and monasteries that couldn’t afford a Giotto.
Most students cannot rise even to that level. That is still no bar against their learning to write well, so long as we remember what good writing is. Grammar aside, good writing is as I have said, the honest expression of what the writer knows or sees or believes or feels. Its first rule is truth. Set aside bad grammar and maladroit style. Good writing is honest and possesses those traits that are the common companions of honesty: clarity, modesty, plainness, good humor. Bad writing is dishonest and keeps company with ruffians and fools: vagueness, muddle, ostentation, self-promotion, and concealment. We cannot teach every student to be John Ruskin. We cannot teach more than a few of them to be worthy imitators of John Ruskin. But we can teach them to be honest. We cannot raise every boy to be Lord Nelson or every woman to be Florence Nightingale. But we can raise every boy to be a man and every girl to be a woman.
So, when I don my robe as the Unteacher, I never say to my students, “Follow these steps and you will be a great writer,” as if I were imparting the secret ingredients of an infallible potion. I say, “Never pretend to know what you do not really know. Never pretend to believe what you do not believe. Never affect a certainty you cannot reasonably claim. Never affect uncertainty so as not to offend the muddled. Never use a word whose meaning and usage you are unclear about. Never open a thesaurus unless you are looking for a word you know quite well but cannot at the moment remember. Never put on airs.”
Yet the writer of the best essay in the CCC lot violates these moral directives all the time. He pretends to know what he cannot possibly know. He affects certainty without actually troubling to look at what he is certain about. He puts on airs.
Let me give an example. In the space of a very few sentences, the writer makes these claims:
• America was as vulnerable to the deadly grip of influenza that would befall it in 1918 as Medieval Europe had been to the Bubonic Plague of the fourteenth century. [No source given]
• More people died of the Spanish Flu in the 10 months that it devastated the world than had died of any other disease or war in history. [Source is unclear; probably A]
• A commonly cited estimate of deaths is 21 million worldwide, yet prominent demographer Kingsley Davis estimates that the disease killed approximately 20 million in the Indian subcontinent alone. [Source A]
• The actual number of deaths will never be known, but the modern estimate is somewhere between 50 and 100 million. [Source B]
• If an equal percentage of the world population died today, that would be close to 2 billion victims. [Source C]
• A bare minimum of 550,000 Americans, or .5 percent of the American population, died in the apocalyptic pandemic. [Source C]
• In comparison to the .1 percent of infected who die of the annual flu, it killed 2.5 percent of those who contracted it. [Source D]
• The [Black Death] that killed approximately one-third of Europe allowed formerly impoverished and powerless serfs to assert their independence. [Source E, a few pages later]
Now, the thing about these claims is that they cannot all be true at once. The writer hasn’t noticed it, because he’s doing a cut-and-paste job, pretending to know what he doesn’t know and to have examined what he hasn’t examined. If every single person alive right now were infected with the Spanish Flu, and if the mortality rate were as high as Source D says it was in 1918, and if 2 billion people were to die of it, as Source C says, then the world’s population would have to be 80 billion.
But every single person was not infected. Most people were not infected. Source C says that 1 American in 200 died of the Spanish Flu. If the mortality rate were 1 in 40, as Source D says, that means that 1 in 5 Americans were infected. If 1 in 5 people worldwide were infected—a generous supposition, since the author notes elsewhere that Americans during the war were especially susceptible to the infection, because of crowding at military bases, camps, and hospitals—then there would have had to be 20 billion people alive at the time. That is not even close to the truth.
The first claim is that America was just as vulnerable to the flu as Europe had been to the Black Death. Source E says that the Black Death killed a third of the population of Europe. But according to Source C, the population of America in 1918 was roughly 110 million. One third of 110 million is about 37 million. Then it is quite ridiculous to assert equivalence: a man in Europe when the Black Death struck was more than 60 times as likely to die as was a man in America when the Spanish Flu hit. It is also, therefore, misleading in the extreme to imply that the Spanish Flu was the worst pandemic in history. Even in absolute numbers, it is not true. And the essay is not about absolute numbers. It purports to be about the damage done to the American economy by the Spanish Flu; and for that we need relative numbers, not absolute numbers.
These problems, which do not have to do with the style of the essay, are pretty easy to notice. They are boulders in the reader’s path. All you have to do is to pause and look. But the author did not do that, nor did his teacher, nor did the mechanics of the Common Core Curriculum. For the mechanics, the crucial thing is that the author presents “evidence” for his claims, and not whether the evidence is really evidence, or whether the pieces of evidence are consistent with one another, or whether the author draws just conclusions from the evidence. They apply the rubric of their very badly written checklist: the author “develops the topic thoroughly by selecting the most significant and relevant facts, extended definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples appropriate to the audience’s knowledge of the topic.” Again, this is their model essay, and it is the best of them all, written with no time constraints and with opportunity for “feedback” (note the mechanical term) from the teacher.
More to come.