The case of the missing modern literature

While at work today, I had to look up the Common Core State Standards. For those that don’t know (I wouldn’t, if I didn’t have the job I do), they are pretty much what they sound like—common education standards designed to be used across the states (see the specific standards here). According to the website, the standards

define the knowledge and skills students should have within their K-12 education careers so that they will graduate high school able to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in workforce training programs.

They are supposed to be a framework that teachers work within—flexible, and all that. But if you’re like me, you wonder if a national guidance standard doesn’t soon become, well, a requirement. It was this feeling that resulted in my complete and total dismay after seeing the list of exemplar English Language Arts texts (PDF).

I jumped immediately to page 101 in the PDF since I figured I’d be most familiar with the high school texts. And I was right, in a way. I’ve heard of almost everything on the list, because it’s all so predictable. Almost nothing published within the past 30 years, and I think I only counted 2 novels from the past 20 (The Book Thief and The Namesake). I asked one of my coworkers about it (she taught language arts not too many years gone) and she said it’s an example of the pendulum swinging the other way, that in the past fifteen or twenty years (I made that number up; she only said recently, but included the time of my high school education in “recent”) the push had been toward modern literature and that this had created a sort of backlash. People kept wondering why students (why their children) weren’t being exposed to the “classics.”

Now, I don’t know about my readers, but this surprised me. I can’t recall reading a single modern work during my K-12 education. The only thing I can really think of is when I read Homecoming (1981) in sixth grade, which would have been about 15 years after it was published. Other than that, it was classics all the way. Catch-22, Brave New World, 1984, Shakespeare, Their Eyes Were Watching God, A Doll’s House, The Awakening, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Lord of the Flies, Antigone, etc. As for poetry and short stories, I don’t think we read anything written after World War II, with most of the work pre-1900s. When I got to graduate school, I was shocked that so many of my peers were so familiar with modern writers, though that seems silly to me now.

My coworker tells me my school might have been an exception.

While advancing through my pre-college education, I had mostly good things to say about it. I enjoyed reading the classics, because I thought that was what book lovers were supposed to do (never mind that even I could tell that most of my enjoyment for these works was feigned, with a few exceptions, of course). When I got the AP English reading list, I set a goal to read through the whole of it (I never did get very far). But now I wonder why we don’t have a more balanced curriculum for our students, why we aren’t exposing them to writers with whom they can still interact: send letters to, have a book signed, eagerly await a new release. Surely there is value to be found in older work as well, but to ignore an entire generation of readers seems to me like we are failing our students, depriving them of the stories set in a world they can recognize, written in language they don’t have to translate. These are books their friends might pick up, their parents. Why should school literature feel like a genre of its own?

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