Should fiction be cut from education? Critics claim that’s the direction “common core” is going. If so, is it the right direction? While there is disagreement on the degree of shift, there will certainly be some sort of a shift toward more technical reading instead of fiction. Is this a good idea?
Should students be able to understand technical reading? Naturally. Strong critical thinking and vocabulary should itself be preparation for that. And incorporating that vocabulary and critical thinking into the curriculum is important.
There are, however, key aspects of education that extend beyond today’s technical knowledge emphasis. Areas where critical thinking, and problem solving are only the beginning.
It would be foolish to ignore the historical importance of stories in their role of teaching, enriching, unifying, and elevating us on intellectual, social, ethical, and emotional levels.
Think of Greece with Homer, Aesop, and their playwrights, or Israel with Passover. Consider the culturally unifying effect of England’s Book of Common Prayer, and Shakespeare, or the Scottish identity anchored in stories of heroes like William Wallace, and their poets like Robbie Burns. A necessary part of culture involves reminding ourselves about who we are; stories provide a key vehicle for that.
I saw this stark contrast living as a Canadian in the States. In Canada, it is widely acknowledged that one province (Quebec) has specific defining characteristics that set it apart from its neighbors, including things like language, music and food. But try to get a Canadian in any other part of Canada to define their culture, and you will probably get a superficial caricature, a rant, or a shrug. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, because we don’t have a unified voice, culture, or shared story (“Melting Pot”) like our Southern neighbors.
American culture, on the other hand IS clearly defined. You have a shared history of known defining moments. You have Plymouth Rock; The Great Awakening; your Founding Fathers and Independance. You have the Alamo and Gettysburg, MLK and the Moon Landing. You have moments of triumph and tragedy in your history that generate a shared experience and American vocabulary. It defines you — or more properly, you define yourselves within that context. It’s echoes can be noticed in your founding documents, the songs you sing, in Independance Day, marching bands and Thanksgiving, but it goes deeper than those things, and supports them from beneath.
Strip away the stories, and their shared history, and tradition will be hollowed out until it is forgotten. (Exactly what some revisionists are now attempting to accomplish.) We need these touchstones to define ourselves. For example, “why is this night different than all others,” is the Passover question that leads into a formal yearly explanation of Jewish shared heritage.
Conversely, by studying these same stories, even a foreigner can enter into and learn to appreciate these experiences, like I did. I got my hands on a series of landmark historical American speeches. They furnished me with a backdrop of the colonial period, the lead up to Independence, and some of the big issues that shaped American life and culture well into the 1800s. That shared historical story is important and useful, in education — especially when looking for something to unify a culture in danger of dissolving into its regional and ethnic fiefdoms.