The Dying Breath of Fiction in the High School Classroom?

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November 22, 2011 by Ray Yanek

On June 26, 1948, Shirley Jackson published her short story “The Lottery” in the New Yorker.  It was the story of a village that held a mandated lottery once a year, every year, to decide who in the community would be stoned to death.

Reader response was not good.

Hate mail flooded the magazine’s offices.  Subscriptions were cancelled.  Sherry was spilled in disbelief, and no doubt more than one watercress sandwich was smashed against the wall in outrage.

“Why give us a story like that?” readers asked.  “Insulting,” they said, for modern society is not so barbaric as to accept and condone ritualistic murder.

Valid arguments—perhaps.   Regardless, I believe their anger was misguided.  I think their anger stemmed instead from the story’s other common theme.

The theme that magnifies the inherent danger of blindly following tradition simply because it is tradition.

*           *            *

At a conference for high school English teachers I attended recently, the presenter stated that 70% of texts taught in high school classrooms are fictional. Only 30% are non-fictional, or what they now refer to as ‘informational’ texts.

No one was suprised.  Teaching fiction in the English classroom has always been the stalwart pillar in a field were policies waffle, reforms come and go, and state-mandated tests change overnight.  That the student will be exposed to a variety of fictional texts is a given.  Teachers will teach short stories, novels, plays and as a result, students will learn to analyze plot and structure.  Students will evaluate themes and support their conclusions with textual evidence.  And maybe, if a teacher gets lucky, a student will trip over his saggy drawers and fall headlong into the magic of reading.  A teacher might actually win a lottery of his own and transform a student into a life-long reader.

So teachers shrugged.  Teaching fiction is what we do.

Some might go as far to say that it’s a tradition.

*            *            *

Illinois, where I live and work, is one of the 45 states to have adopted the Common Core Curriculum—a  progressive system of learning aimed at better preparing students for college and career.  The Common Core “raises the standards” and focuses on the higher order thinking skills rigorous college study demands.  Another goal is to make the student responsible for his or her learning.  Teacher directed questions end in the fourth grade, for example.  After that, the student is required to formulate and ask relevant questions to aid in his or her understanding.

Again teachers shrugged.  For most of us, that’s what we’ve been trying to do for years.

But there was more.

While no one was looking, the Common Core standards sucker-punched fiction and knocked it from its pedestal.  Now, no more than 30% of texts covered can be fictional.  Information texts get that hallowed 70%.

At that, no shoulders shrugged.

In the silence that ensued, if you would have listened very, very carefully, you would have heard an English teacher loose her wings.

*           *            *

I also teach English at an area community college. At this college, almost 50% of in-coming students lack the ability to test into English 101 because of low reading scores.  The tests measure the student’s ability to read non-fiction. These students are then required to enroll in ‘remedial’ courses that focus on reading, you guessed it, non-fiction.

That doesn’t make me feel very good.

Even more disturbing was the dismay expressed by a philosophy professor that many of his students often could not differentiate between persuasive and expository writings.  He said, and I agree, the political ramifications of this are tremendous.

What he feared was that we are churning out students who will become like the Roman citizens in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, citizens who will follow the charismatic, the powerful, or the political flavor of the week with no logical vetting.  Future citizens will not be able to differentiate between the logos and the pathos embedded in a Marc Antony speech, for example.

Students are bombarded with various forms of Antony’s speech every day.  Orators preach on every corner pulpit of this world.  Advertisements are everywhere.  Political rhetoric dominates.  Logical fallacies and emotional appeals abound. News services are motivated not by objectivity but political agendas.  The list goes on.

If my students enter the world as no more than the above Roman citizen, I’ve failed.

And I can’t accept that.

So if the powers that be are telling me that teaching 70% fiction in the classroom is an outdated tradition, I’ll listen.  I won’t shroud myself in a shell of resistance.  I’ll apply to the real world what I’ve learned over the years.  And what I have learned is that traditions, like many other things, are not to be followed blindly.  Just because something worked in the past doesn’t mean it will work in the future.  Traditions, like reforms, need to be scrutinized and evaluated.

I know this about traditions.

I know this because, once upon a time, I read a short piece of fiction titled “The Lottery.”

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3 thoughts on “The Dying Breath of Fiction in the High School Classroom?

  1. Sara Grambusch says:

    Ok now I want to read The Lottery. I can probably find it online somewhere right?
    I like this post, but I am so disillusioned by higher education, you’re preachin’ to the choir.

  2. JSell says:

    So long as they keep “The Lottery” in the curriculum, I’ll be content with that. There are certain works of fiction that I took nothing from (e.g. most of Shakespeare’s works) except for an appreciation of literature, however, there are many that held very potent and important meanings that I’m very grateful for. I hope that the 30% that remains in our Core Curriculum is that good stuff, and that those that wish to find an appreciation of literature, may do some in Literature Appreciation.

  3. Mark Astle says:

    Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater (if I may abuse an overused cliche) and decide that fiction is the reason that the Roman Citizens were taken in. Look at the power of the fictional story “The Lottery.” Could Jackson have made her point with non-fiction? Probably. Would there have been the reaction? Probably not. People are at base emotional. And it’s telling that you use Anthony, a fictional character speaking to a fictional crowd, to make your point about people not thinking critically for themselves. As an orator, he pushes all the emotional buttons. What better example to use to teach students to listen to real speeches (which they don’t) skeptically.

    My point is not that we should maintain the tradition of teaching literature simply to maintain the tradition. My point is that those who would curtail the teaching of fiction aren’t understanding the truths fiction teaches. They remind me of Dicken’s misguided teacher Mr. Gradgrind in Hard Times; he sees students as empty vessels to be filled up, as sponges who soak up facts, as though the facts of life are its essence.

    I, like Ray, am a high school and junior college English teacher. I have the same students he has. We have little choice regarding the common core standards — they are now the law, and so I am hopeful that these new standards will help our students. Still, I view them skeptically and worry that they are a false panacea that will drive students away from the truths that only fiction can reveal.

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