Complex Texts: Are Students Too Dumb?

Recently, the National Council of Teacher Educators (NCTE) posted an article to their Facebook page that was published by ASCD in 2011 with the attention-grabbing line that students were “too dumb for complex texts”.

Really? Students are too dumb for complex texts? The last time I checked, the human brain had not changed its mental capacity in the last 30 years in order to render it incapable of comprehending complex texts.

While I agree that complex texts are a struggle to teach in English classes, students being “to dumb” is not the cause. The most common reasons are: (a) lack of time due to the volume of content that must be studied, (b) the lengthy re-teaching of concepts that were not fully mastered in the prior course, (c) the frequent preparation for standardized testing, and (d) the numerous standardized testing dates. Add in some useless days before a break when everyone has cabin fever and other school functions (including several snow days in the cold states), there really is not much time to whittle away at the content in outdated books.

Intrigued by the author’s conclusion, I skimmed the ASCD article to figure out by what measure the author, Mark Bauerlein, used to establish “dumbness” for complex texts. One example that really jumped out at me was that of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, since I recently taught an excerpt from Walden shortly before the holiday break.

Bauerlein stated that students do not take enough time to thoroughly read texts, to digest them, and ponder sentences. In fact, he believes, “readers may need to sit down with them for several hours of concentration.”

Really? Hours of picking apart sentences…for what purpose?

While I do agree that his often-quoted lines should be examined, after all, that is why we still read Walden, I question Bauerlein’s conclusion of hours. What value is there in reading the entirety of a near stream-of-consciousness text written in the mid-1800s by a recluse who may have needed a little bit more human interaction?

Is there a better way to teach the meaning in classics without forcing students to sit and read through pages of old grammar structures, out-dated vocabulary, and fluff to find the 5 minute nugget of information that is still valuable?

Do we read Walden because we “should”? Because it has been deemed a “classic”? Or do we read it because it is applicable to students’ lives and will help them become productive members of society? After all, that is the end goal of public education…to invest in all youth so that every person has the ability to become a positive member of society.

There are too many students who are failing their English classes because they cannot recall facts or apply concepts from Pride & Prejudice to their current life, let alone their future. Students who legitimately want to be a productive member of society, but find that school is teaching them that if you can’t memorize the names of the major characters along with three facts about each one of them, well then, why bother with learning at all? You might as well be in a gang.

Why are students having so much difficulty comprehending difficult texts? Is it because they are “too dumb for complex texts”? Is it the fault of embracing technology? Or, as one commenter in the ASCD article pointed out, the fault of short passages in high-stakes testing? Bauerlein cites technology and skimming text to find essential meaning (just the bullet points) as the cause of “screenagers” being too dumb understand complex texts. However, I think it is not the method of transmission that is the problem, rather the problem is the content itself no longer has a value and purpose in the classroom.

I mean really, how often do you use the knowledge from studying classic literature in your everyday life (professors aside)? In other words, how well did reading complex, classic fiction (and a little non-fiction prose) prepare you to read and digest complex business contracts like lease agreements?

I bet your answer was “very little” or “not at all”.

National Banned Books Week

September 30-October 6 is National Banned Books Week.  And although it may seem like a ruse by English teachers to force students into reading “old” or “classic” books that appear to have surpassed their societal relevance, it most definitely is more than that.  This week is about celebrating the freedom to read and drawing attention to the problem of censorship.

Banned (or challenged) books are books that have come under controversy for their content.  Someone somewhere did not approve of the story line, the symbolism, or the underlying message written on the pages.  That person found some friends that agreed with them and essentially, made a stink about it.  People have complained to the media, to online forums, to school boards, and curriculum directors that not only should this book not be taught in school, but it should be eliminated from existence.

Any district can remove a book from their curriculum, however, only the official complaints to the American Library Association or articles from newspapers determine if a book should be put on the “banned book” list.  Books are only put on the list after they’ve received so many complaints (more info on how the list is tabulated).  But its listing doesn’t make the book, reading book, possession of the book, or the teaching of the book illegal.  The banned book list is artificial.  It doesn’t mean much.  In fact, there isn’t even one list.

The American Library Association has several types of lists available depending on years, race of the author, book title, and more.  One list is a PDF of Books Banned or Challenged in 2010-2011 that includes such books as The Hunger Games, Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank), and The Koran with explanations of who challenged them and for what reason.  I wasn’t surprised by some of the classics, but definitely by The Hunger Games.  Another one of their lists, the Banned and Challenged Classics has many books that most people know to be as the banned book list.

The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) has a PDF list on their website entitled Challenged Books from 2004-2011.  It seems they’ve listed nearly every books that has some literary content and worthy of study in an English class.  Books such as Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, and Hamlet(yes, Shakespeare!) are listed amongst Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, The Lovely Bones, and A Christmas Carol.

People will continue to object to books as long as authors continually exercise their right to free speech and freedom of the press.  Books that make readers think, reflect, and change their mind on how they view the world will always have to fight against those who want to control the message. How influential are they?  The Library of Congress has assembled a list of Banned Books That Shaped America (published on www.bannedbooksweek.org).

Students are always asking, “why do I have to learn this?” or “why do I need to read this?”  Sometimes, the questions need to be, “why can’t I read this?” or “how will I change by reading this?”.  I’m all for trash novels that keep people reading or motivating them to walk into a bookstore (or whatever method of obtaining books they prefer), but there are books people need to read because that author had something to say.  And 50, 100, 400 years later, that message still is important.

So this week, go read some Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Kurt Vonnegut, or Mark Twain.  You could also read The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger), 1984 (George Orwell), Catch-22 (Joseph Heller), The Jungle (Upton Sinclair), A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess), Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury), To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee), or even The Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien).

And if you really like one, there is a website, OutofPrintClothing.com where you can buy shirts inspired by classic book covers.

Lastly, dare others to read banned books with website badges and Facebook cover art.

But don’t let me tell you what to read or not to read, go find out what these rebels with a cause wrote about.  I triple-dog dare you.