Never Mind Algebra. Is Literature Necessary?

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A recent opinion essay in The New York Times by Andrew Hacker, asking the question "Is Algebra Necessary?", drew hundreds of comments. Some of SchoolBook's contributors went further and have written their own essays in response. What's your opinion? Respond to our query below. (We would especially love to hear from students or recent graduates.)

I know it's summer, but it's time for a pop quiz. Read the following quote:

Now, what I want is facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root everything else out.

Who said the above?

  • a. Bill Gates, Microsoft founder and educational gadfly
  • b. Michelle Rhee, staunch proponent of standardized testing
  • c. David Coleman, author of the Common Core standards

Of course, any one of the above could have made that statement, but the correct answer is:

  • d) Thomas Gradgrind, a fictional character created by Charles Dickens in the 1854 novel "Hard Times."
Tim Clifford Tim Clifford

Dickens created Gradgrind to satirize the emphasis on practicality and reason over imagination that prevailed during the Industrial Revolution and beyond. Dickens rebelled against the idea that people should be treated as machines, filled only with the facts needed to perform the tasks required of them.

How little we have learned of that lesson in the intervening 158 years.

A recently published opinion piece in The Times, called "Is Algebra Necessary?," generated much hubbub in education circles. Its premise -- that we should at least consider jettisoning algebra course requirements because many students who fail algebra eventually drop out of college -- was met with cries of derision. Yet` nary a word has been said about the continuing erosion of English instruction in our schools.

Bit by bit, the body of English language instruction has been dismembered over the last 15 years or so.

First to be lopped off was spelling. Other than in elementary schools, spelling tests are all but forgotten, apparently on the premise that word processors will do the trick.

Then vocabulary was subjected to the ax. Gone are the vocabulary lists of old, to be replaced with vocabulary in context, which is, not coincidentally, the way vocabulary is assessed on standardized tests.

Next to be hacked off was grammar, which must also be taught in context rather than systematically. Students don't know their there from their they're (I'll wager that no more than 1 in 10 students today can parse that sentence).

Finally, creative writing has been chopped clean away, to be replaced with unending persuasive essays that are the darlings of the Common Core standards.

Even reading has not been left unscathed. Many schools teach reading as a set of skills to be mastered rather than as a journey to be embarked upon. Children are taught how to predict, to connect, to draw inferences, and so forth, but they are rarely allowed the leisure to savor what they read or to reflect on the art of good writing.

I personally felt the effects of the Common Core keenly last year. As part of our sixth grade curriculum in my school, we analyze novels in light of the Joseph Campbell's hero's journey in "The Hero with a Thousand Faces."

Our culminating project for the past three years has been to have students write and illustrate their own graphic novels. Each child created his or her own hero, and guided that hero along the steps of the journey through words and illustrations.

At the end, students had crafted a 20-page novel with their own hands and imaginations. One student was extremely proud that I took his novel to use as a model for students the following year -- so proud that he actually came back before his graduation two years later to reclaim his book as a memento.

Despite the fact that this project engaged students on many levels and taught them story structure, characterization, use of dialogue, and exposition, it was jettisoned last year because of the national shift to the Common Core. It was replaced with an eight-page (for sixth graders!) research project.

The results were predictably dull and uninspired, but Gradgrind certainly would have approved. The papers were filled with facts but devoid of imagination.

The Common Core has already veered many schools away from narrative writing, or almost any type of creative writing at all. So what's left to be picked from the remains of English study?


Starting this year, at least half of all reading in our schools is supposed to be non-fiction. And that includes kindergarten.

What makes matters even worse for later grades is that students already read non-fiction almost exclusively in all their other courses, so if you take science, social studies, and math into account, only one-eighth of student reading will be literary. And that fraction is likely to shrink in the future.

So the question looms: Is literature necessary? If algebra can be tossed by the wayside, why not Austen?

The same rationale can be applied to both. They can both be difficult for some students and cause children to fail. Neither algebra nor literature is really prerequisite for most of the jobs available in the 21st century. Ditching these subjects will increase graduation rates because students will no longer have to struggle with classes they find difficult.

We can teach students what they need to know, and send them off to toil in whatever career they can find. So why not be practical, like the "eminently practical" Mr. Thomas Gradgrind, and only teach sonnets to English geeks and polynomials to math nerds?

While ripping "The Cat in the Hat" from the hands of kindergarteners and replacing it with "How Factories Work" may, in the long run, produce better factory workers, it is unlikely to produce better citizens. I don't know about you, but I don't want to be operated on by a doctor who couldn't master "Dr. Zhivago," nor do I want to be defended by a lawyer who thinks Sydney Carton is a box of Australian cigarettes.

In truth, we should be encouraging students to read more literature, not less. Literature allows us to see how all humans are connected through common experiences and emotions. It allows us to examine our past and plan for our future. It can help make us more empathetic to our fellows. Perhaps most importantly literature exposes us to new ideas and forces us to think in new ways.

If our goal is to improve education, what could be more practical than that? Even Mr. Gradgrind might agree.