Nurturing the Dumbest Generation

Editor’s note: The Pope Center now welcomes readers’ comments, which may be added at the end of this article (and other articles).

If you’re a “Boomer” or somewhat younger, you probably remember the literature you had to read in high school. As you went from grade to grade, the books and plays became more difficult and so did the level of analysis you were supposed to give them. You probably had teachers who were sticklers for attentive reading of the works and polished writing about them.

But that was then. Now, teachers assign less challenging works. Do you remember reading plays like Hamlet and novels like Silas Marner? I do, but high school students are not likely to have to study such works in 2010. Far more common are books in the young adult fantasy genre, for example J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and books by Stephanie Meyer such as Twilight (which appears to be the most popular book in high school classrooms these days).

Evidence of this educational decline continues to accumulate. A recent illustration is Professor Sandra Stotsky’s report “Literary Study in Grades 9, 10, and 11” (Forum 4). Stotsky is a well-known critic of K-12 education who had an important role in turning around the underperforming Massachusetts public education system. In this report from the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers, she reveals that high school students are being assigned less demanding books and that the assignments regarding those books are being “dumbed down.”

From her survey, Stotsky observes that almost all the books assigned today are relatively easy. In restrained tones, she states, “It does not seem that the challenges and pleasures of reading mature works are being cultivated by the high school curriculum. Nor are advanced reading skills being developed.”

Why do teachers select books that are easy and probably already known to many of their students? That is a question the report doesn’t completely answer, and I have been considering the possibilities. One is that teachers are setting low expectations, knowing that many students are so used to  quick, light reading on their computers and Blackberrys that they’d rebel if required to delve into longer and more difficult books. That’s in harmony with Professor Mark Bauerlein’s argument in his book The Dumbest Generation.

But a big part of the explanation, I suspect, lies in the culture of education schools where most teachers earn their credentials. One of the dominant ideas pushed in education schools is that schools and classes should be “learner-centered” (rather than teacher- or subject-centered). That, supposedly, will help to make students feel good about education and turn them into “lifelong learners.”

East Tennessee State University education professor John Stone, one of the most severe critics of ed school fads, writes (scroll down to second article) that to education theorists “the only good way to engage students is by making education exciting, engaging, and fun.” They claim that if teaching is “enthusiastic, innovative, and creative, students will learn spontaneously, if not effortlessly.”

Having your English students read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, rather than, oh, Crime and Punishment is consistent with that notion. If schooling should be “learner-centered” why not choose books that most students will regard as pleasant and fun instead of ones they might find hard and boring? Furthermore, struggling with difficult books doesn’t make students “lifelong learners,” so don’t assign ones that might discourage them.

In addition to finding that high school students are often assigned easy books, Stotsky reports that the kinds of homework teachers now give to students demand little of them.

English teachers used to stress close, analytical reading of texts accompanied by assigned papers that required students to show their comprehension of the works. Teachers today are more likely to teach “around” a work by discussing the author’s life and times rather than focusing on the text and its meaning. And they often give assignments that call for the students to present their feelings about it. Such assignments are consistent with the “learner-centered” theory; they’re also easier to grade since there are no wrong answers.

Stotsky offers several reasons for the two trends, easy books and easy assignments. One is that English teachers have been discouraged by their education-school training from using analytical approaches. I’d like to dwell on that one, but, of course, there are others. A friend, who is a university English professor, says that teachers like the easy approach because it’s less work for them. (He asked not to be identified for fear that other educators might hold his uncollegial remarks against him.)

So back to education schools. There is abundant evidence that the “progressive” ethos dominant in ed schools discourages teachers from using old-fashioned, text-centered methods and encourages them to use supposedly modern, reader-centered methods. This surely inhibits traditional, analytical approaches to the teaching of literature.

Ed schools want their students to become facilitators. “[A]s a facilitator, the teacher is not required to know any of the answers,” write Lawrence Baines and Gregory Stanley in their article “Constructivism and the Rage Against Expertise” (Phi Delta Kappan, December 2000, not available online). “Even if a facilitator does know an answer, he or she is not supposed to communicate it to students. That would be a tyrannical imposition of the teacher’s will upon the minds of the students.”

It follows that the proper way to teach literature is to allow students free rein to “construct” the meaning of a text as they see fit and to give them easy assignments in which they discuss how the work affected them. That is so much better than insisting that the author had something specific in mind that the students should discern and explicate. Teachers steeped in constructivist theory in ed school would instinctively shy away from those “old-fashioned” approaches to literature.

In his 2008 Pope Center paper on education schools, retired professor George Cunningham confirmed this emphasis. He wrote that instead of learning the traditional methods, ed school students “are immersed in the progressive education culture, which turns out graduates who … favor constructive, student-centered pedagogy and the belief that the prime goal of schooling is to solve social problems.” The erosion of high school literature teaching is yet another symptom of this disease.

One of the many consequences of the dumbing down Stotsky has identified may well be low college graduation rates. Many incoming college students will be weak in reading and writing, a problem not only in their English classes, but throughout much of the curriculum. Once they encounter professors who don’t subscribe to the “feel good, be happy” approach to education that they’re used to, they may find that college is too hard and drop out. Students nurtured in the warm cocoon of “learner-centered” education eventually get the cold shower of reality—and if it doesn’t happen in college, then it will in the working world.

Thus there are many reasons why ed schools should change their approaches. And if the education schools cannot be changed—and they are very resistant to such efforts—we will have to find alternative means of training future teachers.