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Grabar: The Gradgrinds of the Common Core

How good a player would Arne Duncan, former basketball pro and current secretary of Education, have been had he not been allowed to play a pickup game or idly bounce a ball? How many great players would there be had they not been able to play at the corner lot, instead forced through endless drills?

Kids would not have learned the lingo and mannerisms of basketball, or imagined themselves shooting jump shots next to Shaquille O’Neal or Larry Bird. The sport would have become a serious business; no longer would it be about the love of the game.

In short, the culture of basketball, so cherished by fans and players alike, would never have developed.

Yet Duncan proposes standards that make reading and writing a drill-like business. In the new Common Core guidelines, high-school English teachers would have to spend more than 50 percent of their time on nonfiction and informational texts such as court opinions, Federal Reserve bulletins and computer manuals!

As a college English instructor, I am dismayed by how much we have already lost of our literary heritage. During the past 20 years, I’ve found each successive entering class to be less familiar with cultural and literary concepts. Often trained to parse imaginative works for political messages, students are rendered incapable of understanding the pathos of tragedy and the delight of humor evoked from sentences that build up complexly. They think that only facts are needed.

It is impossible to convey to them the delight at encountering a passage that evokes laughter at a character’s self-delusion. Few appreciate irony. Nearly all stare at me quizzically when I ask whether they’d ever gotten “lost” in a good novel. They see writing as a chore. As a result, writing skills have deteriorated to the level of, well, a computer manual.

Nor do they find solace in reading and writing, as do many who turn to books when growing up in trying circumstances. Today’s children will have less opportunity to escape difficulties through good stories and obtain the sense of accomplishment in crafting a well-turned sentence.

The situation promises to get worse, for the Common Core standards, adopted by 45 states, will make teachers into Mr. Gradgrinds, the utilitarian schoolmaster of Charles Dickens’ novel “Hard Times.”

Emphasizing “nothing but facts,” he evokes laughter with his “square wall of a forehead,” a “square forefinger,” an “obstinate carriage, square coat, square legs, square shoulders” and hair that “bristled on the skirts of his bald head, a plantation of firs to keep the wind from its shining surface, all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie, as if the head had scarcely warehouse-room for the hard facts stored inside.”

He calls on one of the hapless inmates of the “plain, bare monotonous vault of a schoolroom,” Sissy Jupe, to define a horse. When she is unable to, another boy gives a satisfactory definition: “Quadriped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in spring,” etc. It’s a far cry from the ponies of Marguerite Henry’s children’s books.

Sissy Jupe, understandably, has a breakdown.

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