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(including several snow days in the cold states), there really is not much time to whittle away at the content in outdated books.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”.