Read Catcher in the Rye. Please.


Feb 07, 2013
What does all of the misinformation swirling around the Common Core say about our ability to explicate complex texts and use evidence to support our arguments? What might it say about the ability of the ELA Standards writers to express their objectives clearly? If we can’t get this right, how will students ever succeed? In December, London’s Telegraph ran an article that could have been lifted straight from the Onion: “Schools in America are to drop classic books such as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye from their curriculum in favour of ‘informational texts.” What are Americans being forced to read/teach now? “California’s Invasive Plant Inventory.” If you’re planning to be a homeowner, I guess you could do worse. To Kill a Mockingbird is actually an exemplar in Appendix B, the Core’s now infamous list of “sample” texts that everyone is reading and rereading. California’s plant inventory, by the way, is judiciously placed in the “Science, Mathematics, and Technical Subjects” category. Details, details. The Telegraph quotes an Arkansas teacher as saying, “In the end, education has to be about more than simply ensuring that kids can get a job. Isn’t it supposed to be about making well-rounded citizens?” Say what you will about the crafters of the Standards, they seem desperate to turn out well-rounded citizens. Why else would they place such an emphasis on reading historical documents? They don’t just want kids to be told things. They want them to scrutinize texts, especially primary sources, for syntax, bias, and motive. The Standards writers are not alone. Has anyone noticed Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and historian David McCullough practically begging us to teach young people about the past? They are pained by our ignorance of centuries-old events and decisions that still shape our world in profound ways. They know the consequences of an uninformed citizenry. To paraphrase Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, we’re a bunch of morons. Yes, I speak for myself. I read many of the “classics” in school. That has served me quite well. I can read and write, and I know David Remnick from David Carr—a big plus, in my view. But I have no idea how to rewire a house or analyze an investment portfolio. If you have a ruptured appendix, you don’t want me to remove it. I can’t even find a right angle in a quadrilateral. These strike me as incredibly useful, if not essential, skills for the 21st century. I wish I had them. And that’s what the Standards are getting at, however incompletely. Unless some young person sitting in a classroom today can figure out how to reverse climate change, it won’t matter how many kids read Catcher in the Rye. But have them read it anyway. It’s hilarious.