Giving Students Something to Build on

IN a recent program on the too familiar theme of what American school children do not know, Barbara Walters showed us a procession of fine looking American high school students who regard the study of history and literature as boring ``stuff'' that has nothing to do with them. In my eighth-grade English classes, I deal with such students every day. They come to me in little cages of historical ignorance. And they exhibit remarkable ingenuity and strength of will in keeping the doors on their cages locked. Assigning them a biography to read reveals just how narrow the thinking of these children is after seven years of American public education.

Brian, who is white, doesn't want to read about anyone who isn't an American. Freddy, who is black, doesn't want to read about anyone who isn't black. Amy will report only on women, while Mark will report only on sports figures, as long as they are still alive. Just about all of the children I teach resist learning about people who lived in the past. To them, dead is not relevant.

American children are the slaves of immediate relevancy. They seem to fear the unfamiliar, exhibiting a xenophobia that would be more understandable in children from a less developed nation.

Some argue that this American ``cultural illiteracy'' is somehow the result of the ethnic mix in our heterogeneous public school classrooms. That's not it. American schools, at least in our big cities, have always been heterogeneous. It is not what the children bring to our classrooms that is keeping them culturally illiterate. It is what they find when they get there.

Children come to kindergarten at various stages of readiness, of course. Those who have had a lot of positive attention are readier to learn than those who have been ignored or abused. Once in school, however, all children are at the mercy of the curriculum. This curriculum, as regards history and literature, has been in decay since the progressive education reforms of the 1920s introduced the idea of ``life adjustment'' programs that would teach ``socialization'' skills.

That's where the devaluing of academic courses in American schools began. The outcry against racial and sexual stereotypes in the '60s furthered the decay as texts and libraries were purged of any ``racist'' or ``sexist'' stories. In some parts of the country, that included ``Huckleberry Finn'' and ``Peter Rabbit.''

The result of these attacks on the traditional curriculum has been watered down instruction for all children. Before the reforms of the '20s, American first- and second-graders read about Joan of Arc, Henry V, Napoleon, Paul Bunyan, Horatio at the Bridge, the Bushmen of Africa, and the ancient Greeks. Now they read about Ms. Jones the mail carrier and trips to the grocery store.

What biographical subjects they are exposed to in their basal readers are almost exclusively American, mostly contemporary, and usually drawn from the fields of politics, entertainment, or sports.

School librarians stock their shelves with more of the same: biographies of American athletes, politicians, and entertainers, usually written at a very low reading level. When a child asks for help in finding a biography, it's a rare librarian who doesn't search out female subjects for the girls and males for the boys; black heroes for the black children, and white ones for the white children.

Year by year, from first grade to sixth, American children of every origin grow in the conviction that anything not current, not easy, not contemporary, not familiar, not like themselves, is not worth their time.

After half a lifetime of an education centered on what is familiar and ordinary and easy, the average American 13-year-old is not only bored with school, he has as narrow a mind-set about the world and his place in it as any 19th-century factory child. From the ranks of these children will come our future leaders.

It is time to put history and literature back into the early grades. Children can learn about the grocery store on their own time.

If we want high school students who appreciate such ``stuff'' as history and literature, we have to give them something to build on.

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