The Common Core: Disabling Compassion

James Baldwin, author of "The Fire Next Time" and "Another Country", at his home, June 3, 1963, New York. (AP Photo/Dave Pick
James Baldwin, author of "The Fire Next Time" and "Another Country", at his home, June 3, 1963, New York. (AP Photo/Dave Pickoff)

What would James Baldwin, one of America's greatest non-fiction writers, have to say about the Common Core expectation that a high school senior's reading diet be 70 percent non-fiction text?

First, on the topic of standards, Baldwin might restate what he once told a group of teachers, his belief that "there are currently very few standards in this country which are worth a man's respect," and that it is up to our young people "to change these standards for the sake of the life and the health of the country."

Baldwin might then remind us -- on the question of fiction vs non-fiction -- about the importance of literature in his own life:

"You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me the most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive."

I was reminded of Baldwin's affirmation of the power of literature this June, at a graduation ceremony for 8th graders at the school where I'm Co-Principal. The heart of the ceremony was when students shared their "This I Believe" statements with the audience, after which three high school seniors came to the stage to respond. Shannon (not her real name), who would graduate four days later, told her younger peers:

"When I read your This I Believe statements... I was struck by how diverse your beliefs were. This is sort of what I want to talk to you about -- diversity and the ability to express it through writing. John Green, author of The Fault In Our Stars... gave a powerful interview about reading. He says it is so important to read, because through reading you can understand that another's reality is just as vivid and real to them as yours is to you. This helps you develop empathy, and a better understanding of other human beings."

I peeked out from backstage to see whether the 8th graders were listening. They were. Shannon continued:

"During high school it is very easy to feel overwhelmed with what is going on in your immediate life. Becoming focused on yourself is an easy trap to slip into. I call it a trap because when you only focus on you, it becomes much easier to treat those around you as less than human, and not recognize that they might be suffering too. Reading is a chance to slip into the mind of another and experience the way they live in the world."

I was grateful for Shannon's words, how she cautioned the younger kids about slipping into the trap of self-absorption, and how she advocated the antidote of literature: slip instead into the mind of another. Her reflections -- like the words of James Baldwin -- offer an implicit critique of the Common Core's emphasis on non-fiction over literary works.

I hear this same implicit critique in Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, an account of the broadening reach of empathy and declining violence in human society. In one chapter, Pinker argues that the proliferation of the novel may have been a key catalyst in the humanitarian revolutions of the 18th Century, including movements to abolish slavery and to protect the rights of children.

These rights revolutions, of course, are unfinished -- and I believe that public schools must be engines moving this unfinished work forward. Unfortunately, the current emphasis on non-fiction, at the expense of reading literature, may slow the pace of our progress.

Proponents of the Common Core have argued that reading non-fiction texts must be a responsibility of science and social studies classes also, leaving English classes with space for literature aplenty. That may be the vision, but we need to consider the practical reality that there has been a high stakes testing regime umbilically tied to these standards since their inception.

The Common Core tests are supposedly a "smarter" and more "balanced" breed, but in terms of how these tests function in the school reform environment, their DNA is NCLB. We need to remember that if you use a Common Core literacy test in a high stakes way -- to determine student promotion and decide whether teachers, schools and principals are failures -- then test prep is going to drive instruction throughout the school, especially in English classes. With only a 30 percent share of what matters on the test, literature will matter less and less.

I wonder what Shannon would have said to our 8th graders had she endured 12 years of schooling that was more thoroughly shaped by the Common Core Standards and the high stakes tests. What if she had read many fewer novels in her education, or read them more superficially? Would she have been able to make so convincing an appeal to the better angels of our nature? Would she still have affirmed the importance of reading, and implored her community's young people to step outside themselves, recognize the suffering of others and honor the humanity of all? What would be the chances...?

Probably somewhere around 30 percent.