Here’s novel wisdom: birds of a feather flock together. And so it goes in the Common Core battles among our English teaching brethren. On one side we have the hawks. Of a more conservative bent, they approve of the new Common Core State Standards as described, pithily enough, here. At this point, 45 states (holdouts: Nebraska, Minnesota, Virginia, Alaska, and — surprise! — Texas) are on board, giving hawks an awful lot of open sky. On the other side we have the doves. More liberal, overall, they resist the constraints and shortcomings inherent in any document that tries to bottle so elusive a thing as “education.” Like so many Walt Whitmans, they sing the individual electric and resist nostrums and ledgers drawn up by one-size-fits-all types in the name of college and career.
Let’s zoom in on one of the many skirmishes going on in this wide-ranging, philosophical battle — the debate over what students should be writing. While we can teach many types of writing, the CCSU prescribes just three: persuasive, informative/explanatory, and narrative.
In their public statements, the hawks have a favorite straw man: reflective writing. This type of writing has become popular under the writing workshop-style school, where dovish proponents insist that writing about oneself provides motivation and easily-accessed material for student writers. Chief among the genres in personal writing? The memoir. Coincidentally, in book-length form, memoirs have been one of the top sellers for publishers in recent decades. As St. Augustine, Rousseau, and De Quincey — reflective confessors all — proved long ago, mulling over “me” has its charms and appeals to other surveyors of the soul.
That said, reflective writing is an easy target, especially given the times we live in. How often do we hear wails and laments over the Me Generation? As evidence, one need only visit Facebook, Pinterest, or Twitter, where people are as liable to post that they just scratched their left elbow, had mac and cheese for dinner, and are watching the Celtics-Lakers game (all together now: “Who cares?”) as write anything of import. Does this mean reflective writing has no place in our schools?
Mark Bauerlein, Professor of English at Emory University and author of — take a deep breath — The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30), says that’s exactly what it means. His rant against reflective writing, provocatively coined “The Me Curriculum,” argues that colleges and future employers couldn’t care less about the written equivalent of navel gazing. (This struck me as odd, given the fact that many employers demand passwords to social sites so they can reflect upon prospective employees’ penny-ante reflections on life.)
Doing his homework, Bauerlein provides some examples of what he means. From Georgia, he offers two 11th grade prompts:
The characters in Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” are all seeking a home, a place of refuge, a place that is “clean and pleasant.” Describe your own “clean, well-lighted place,” the place where you feel safe, secure, and most “at home.”
In her essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” Zora Neale Hurston defines her personal experience as an African-American female in early 20th century America. Using Hurston’s essay as a model, define how it feels to be yourself (as a male, as a female, as a member of any group) in early 21st century America.
Do student responses to such questions matter? The hawks would say no, not in the least. Instead, students should be analyzing Hemingway’s and Hurston’s works. This would actually require some thinking, as opposed to all of this introspective claptrap.
To further support his case, Bauerlein invokes the name of David Coleman, one of the chief architects of the Common Core. Here he quotes Coleman’s rather frank rebuke of personal and reflective writing in schools:
The only problem, forgive me for saying this so bluntly, the only problem with those two forms of writing is as you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a sh– about what you feel or what you think. What they instead care about is can you make an argument with evidence, is there something verifiable behind what you’re saying or what you think or feel that you can demonstrate to me. It is rare in a working environment that someone says, “Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.” That is rare. It is equally rare in college by the way.
With the dropping of that “sh- bomb,” one can see the white feathers flying, reducing visibility in some middle and high school English classrooms to zero. Clearly the hawks and the doves mean business, but for the rest of us in the aviary, it is cause for — dare I say it? — reflection. In my 8th-grade classroom, for instance, the memoir has been a staple and, admittedly, we have not stressed its narrative, sequential aspects as much as its abstract-concrete angles. We want students to trace the role experience plays in one’s personal code. But maybe teaching ethics is suspect, too, who knows?
No matter what your personal beliefs in this matter, the good of the students should be what matters most. How will they best learn what you have to teach? If some reflection is motivational in the teaching of writing, why not? Businessmen have to reflect, too (or, given the track record of many politicians and corporations, should have to reflect). As for college, the other holy of holies to CCSU hawks, I often reflect on how I could have used a little more reflection during my rocky tenure there.
That said, we must give fair and equal consideration to both sides. Are we sacrificing narrative, informative/explanatory, and persuasive on the altar of personal writing? Has our teaching become lopsided and a little too inward- vs. outward-looking for its own good? To answer those questions, a hard look in the mirror might be in order.
As we move to 2014′s implementation of the Common Core, the hawk vs. dove aerial swoops and feints serve as a wake-up call. Our curricula needs more depth and less breadth, meaning cuts are in order. In the interest of fairness to our students, then, we need to inventory our writing instruction and ask if it is equitable and rigorous. Have we drifted too far into the reflective pond? On the other side of the coin, are we willing to blindly forsake personal writing due to the some initiative that holds college and career on a higher plane than what it means to be human?
Tough questions. But it’s time English teachers started discussing them on a grassroots level.