Friday, July 6, 2012

Two curricula: one for the elite, another for the masses

     The elite are "nurtured"and "inspired" toward a "love" for reading

Like Barack Obama and Arne Duncan, Bill Gates did not go to a public high school.  Instead, Gates, a scion of an elite Seattle family, went to a fancy prep school called Lakeside.  Lakeside's English curriculum is quite different from the Common Core Standards that Gates paid millions to have created and is spending millions now to promote, and that Obama and Duncan are pushing as well, through their "Race to the Top" (sic) program.  The Common Core standards suggest long and detailed classroom analyses of extremely difficult texts, and offer absolutely nothing in the way of requiring extensive reading or encouraging a love of reading.  This curriculum is dramatically different from the ones offered at Lakeside, where Bill Gates's kids now go, but I wouldn't expect Lakeside to change its ways anytime soon.

Here are the mission statements for Lakeside's English programs at the middle school and high school levels:

    "The Middle School English Department is dedicated to nurturing a lifelong love of reading
    and writing. We strive to create a community of readers and writers that inspires students to
    experiment with a variety of written forms."

    "Lakeside’s [High School] English Department’s highest goals are to inspire in students a 
     love of literature and to help students become great writers."

Both the middle school and high school statements use the word "love" and emphasize writing in an "authentic voice" and "artistically."  The curriculum is notably literary and cultural, and not narrowly designed to ready students for the business or political world.

It's also notable that these English departments aren't afraid to talk about encouraging a love of reading.  Encouraging a love for reading might seem like an obvious goal of English class, but in the Orwellian world of the Education-Industrial-Complex that goal is controversial.

     The masses are given "instruction" aimed at "proficiency"

This Orwellian madness surfaced in 2006, when the new President of the International Reading Association came out against encouraging a love for reading.  Professor Tim Shanahan, one of the biggest names int he reading world, had already made clear that he was against natural reading: he was a prominent member of the "National Reading Panel" (2000) that after a cockeyed look at the evidence, argued at length for explicit instruction and dishonestly claimed that there was no evidence that independent silent reading was effective.  In 2006, he became President of the International Reading Association, which has as one of its three stated purposes, in addition to improving reading instruction and promote reading proficiency, to "encourage reading and an interest in reading" (Reading Today, June 2006). Shanahan's first move as President of the Association was to say that while he could support improved instruction and promoting proficiency, he was not in favor of "encouraging reading and an interest in reading."  Although Shanahan can be eloquent and passionate about why reading is important, he apparently thinks it's inappropriate and dangerous to encourage interest in it.

For this, Shanahan was not laughed out of the profession; he remains one of the big shots of the reading world. This past week, the thoughtful, intelligent instructor of my PD workshop referred to Shanahan in glowing terms and gave us a couple of his articles.  How could this be?  How could the President of the International Reading Association argue against teachers' trying to encourage "an interest in reading"?!  Bill Gates's kids have teachers that nurture a lifelong love of reading, but the rest of us can't even encourage an interest in reading?  Are there different rules for private and public schools?  Well, yes--according to Shanahan.

     Interest in reading and "freedom of choice"

For, although his central (if insane) argument is that encouraging an interest in reading is somehow inimical to effective teaching, and that we should be "jealous of instructional time" which would apparently be wasted by encouraging student interest in our subject, Shanahan also argues at length that it is beyond a public school teacher's mandate to encourage interest in his subject.  In order to make this argument, Shanahan shifts the terms of the debate from the words "interest" to "pleasure" and then to "desire" and then to "love", and argues suggests that as "institutional beings," teachers have no right to try to instill love or desire in anyone.  A teacher's "public responsibility," according to Shanahan, does not include "encouraging reading," which is, he says, a "personal goal" that might carry "danger."  What danger?  Apparently encouraging reading would limit "freedom of choice."

That encouraging an interest in reading could be considered as limiting to freedom of choice is obviously Orwellian.  As Bill Gates found when he went from public school to private school, and as Shanahan should know, given his explanation of why he is passionate about teaching reading, encouraging an interest in reading actually promotes freedom of choice, while merely teaching it dispassionately as a useful skill is usually a good way to limit freedom. For Shanahan public schools, although obligated to impose explicit instruction of the kind Bill Gates found so tedious when he went to public elementary school, are not allowed to offer students encouragement and nurturing of the very practices that will allow freedom.

     Conclusion: We need to create a culture of reading, even in public schools

Why is Shanahan so uncomfortable with the notion of encouraging interest in reading, even though he acknowledges that reading is important?  Why does Gates spend his billions to promote increased class size and increased testing, even though he sends his kids to a school that brags about its average class size of 16 and that manages to have 40% of its Seniors be National Merit Scholarship Finalists without having done any of the kind of high stakes testing Gates is working to impose on the rest of us?  The obvious answer for Shanahan is that he has spent his career promoting explicit skill instruction, and for Shanahan to admit that it's important to teach reading as an organic, pleasurable experience, or to admit that reading is largely a socially mediated activity, might seem to him to call into question his life's work.

As for Gates, perhaps he doesn't know how to address the social and cultural aspects of learning, or perhaps he thinks the changes he's pushing will lead indirectly to an improved cultural and social environment in the classroom.  My guess is that Gates sees public school as properly different from what he offers his own children. When Gates himself switched from public school to private school, he noticed a dramatic cultural shift.  As he recalls, "it was a change at first.  And the idea of just being kind of a goof-off wasn't the sort of high reward position like it had been in public schools." It seems possible that, partly based on this experience, Gates doesn't think it possible to change that culture.

But he should think so, for in the same interview I quoted before, he offers an excellent example of a public institution that encourages reading. Gates remembers that when he was a kid, the library would give you a gold star if you read ten books over the summer, and two stars if you read twenty.  According to Gates, he and "five or six girls" would compete to see who could read the most books.  For reading is a solitary activity, but reading is also a social activity, and it can be encouraged.

The first job of every high school English class should be creating a culture of reading.  This is difficult to do when many of our expert authorities don't believe that interest matters, and think that human beings are mechanisms that have only to be properly programmed for "proficiency." The best way make sure that our public schools are not like the one Bill Gates went to, where "being a goof-off was more socially rewarding," is to replace the interest in goofing off with an interest in reading and thinking, and that can only happen if we encourage that interest.  We must make sure that our public schools do "encourage reading"--even inspire a love for it.  If reading is, and has always been, strongly linked to social class, we don't have to accept the social class divisions that we are given.


  1. To add to your argument about policy makers selecting a different path for schooling of the masses: Arne Duncan was schooled at the University of Chicago Lab School (prestigious private school) and Barack Obama at Punahou (prestigious private school).


    1. Yes. The English Department at Punahou has a wonderful statement of its central goal in their course catalog: "to teach students to read compassionately." What a wonderful aim! They also want their students to "act with the compassion, exactitude, clarity and grace they derive from their engagement with the English language and with literature." Again, wow--and obviously teaching people to think and feel deeply before they act is a way to enable their freedom, not to limit it--but in order to do so, your aim has to go beyond instruction in mere proficiency.

  2. What a beautiful and amazing post! I am thrilled to have read it.
    I found it very concerning that Shanahan seems to believe that a teacher's civic duties don't include fostering a love or desire in anyone for anything. Isn't that the whole point of being a teacher? Shouldn't teaching be about inspiring students to love and appreciate learning? What does Shanahan really think teachers should do then? Maintain this darwinistic mentality that plagues much of the education system? Weeding out the "unfit" through senseless testing? Education is not a matter of fitness, but like you said in terms of reading, of love.
    I would like to know how people like Shanahan inhabit the positions they do.
    Really, a very wonderful post.

    1. Thank you for the details pointing out that what is good for policy-makers' kids is not good for most kids. (reminiscent of the movie "Waiting for Superman"). Could you give us the whole quote where Shanahan says he'snot in favor of "encouraging reading and an interest in reading"?

    2. Below is one paragraph of Shanahan's letter, which is pretty slippery and is reluctant to say anything straight out:

      "Teachers are institutional beings...they work for schools, governments, and societies. Teachers must carry out their responsibilities to the best of their abilities. But what about personal goals like encouraging reading? There are dangers--to an individual and to a democracy--when public institutions and public instruments try to dictate personal taste and individual choice. Institutionalizing efforts to encourage reading may even be self-defeating--as students may resist to protect their individual autonomy."

      The whole text is not easy to find online--it is quoted in full, as far as I can tell, only on the website of one of Shanahan's critics, Susan Ohanian:

  3. So schools are still separated into Academic and Vocational....