How to Keep All of Huck Finn in the Classroom

Common Core, the new national standards for math and English language arts, is a rarity in U.S. public life: a federal undertaking with bipartisan support.

Developed by the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, it has been adopted by 45 states. It has the support of the Barack Obama administration and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers.

Top research groups such as the Fordham Institute and Achieve Inc. are involved, and consortia financed by the U.S. Department of Education have formed to assess the standards from state to state.

But a battle may break out once states and districts develop curricula and administer tests that align with Common Core’s standards on English language arts. The clash revives the so-called canon wars from 25 years ago, when multiculturalists in high school and college demanded an end to the dead-white-male dominance of the humanities. Less Hawthorne and Melville and more Toni Morrison and popular culture, they said.

Common Core’s standards weigh in on the side of classics. The language in the document is unambiguous: “The standards mandate certain critical types of content for all students, including classic myths and stories from around the world, foundational U.S. documents, seminal works of American literature, and the writings of Shakespeare.”

One standard decrees that 11th- and 12th-graders “Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature.”

Mandate Burden

These are sure dictates, commendable and rigorous (although “seminal works of English literature” is, sadly, absent). To measure them, tests will have to include passages from “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin,” Henry Thoreau’s “Walden,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” and Emily Dickinson’s verse.

That mandate is a problem for test developers. One advantage of Common Core is that it enables similar assessments across states, providing uniform measures of the standards adopted by everyone. As test developers select passages and craft questions, however, they must heed “bias and sensitivity guidelines” that rule out race and sex imbalances, stereotypes and pretty much anything that might upset or disserve any particular group of students.

They dispel criteria of historical standing and literary quality, emphasizing but one thing: how questions affect test-takers. Is this passage geared more to boys than girls? Will an absence of passages with black characters discourage black test-takers?

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, for instance, applies that criterion with a hammer. A consortium of 23 states, PARCC, as it is referred to, develops assessments that purport to “measure the full range of Common Core State Standards.” But it also maintains that they must be “free of offensive, demeaning or emotionally-charged language.”

Any test must be “Reflective of a balance of authors by gender, race, and ethnicity,” too. Responding to PARCC’s call for items, Pearson Plc, the leading textbook publisher, guaranteed that its passages would avoid stereotypes and be “free from religious references.” The Educational Testing Service did the same, promising to omit “subject matter that is controversial or emotionally charged” or that “reflects a gender, racial or ethnic bias.”

But in trying to make the experience of every test-taker free of conflict, in removing virtually all racial, sexual or religious elements from the readings, test developers can’t properly assess Common Core’s literary-historical mandates. A full sample of the classics would upset the balance demanded of bias review -- too many white men -- and many canonical works display scenes charged with racism and sexism.

Shylock Censored

Think of all the central episodes that wouldn’t survive -- Shylock’s speech, Hester Prynne emerging from her cell brandishing a sparkling golden “A,” Douglass fighting back against the sadistic slave-breaker Mr. Covey, and hundreds more. If reading tests genuinely addressed the classics, bias and sensitivity reviewers would denounce them outright.

What will happen? Developers will probably collect some neutral words from Shakespeare, a few sentences from Poe, a paragraph from John Locke and so on, and mix them with contemporary writings that fit sensitivity benchmarks, producing a sanitized, ahistorical exam that fails the spirit of Common Core.

This is what Common Core’s architects wished to circumvent when they inserted language of “foundational texts” and “American classics” in the standards. They aimed to preserve our literary inheritance, including works that don’t reflect today’s social values.

Rather than rehearing the canon wars circa 1989, we have an alternative. Test developers can create two tests: one, a general test of reading skills that meets bias stipulations and ignores Common Core’s literary-historical standards; the other, a test on literary-historical knowledge, including open questions that make students draw on Twain, Shakespeare, ancient myths, Edith Wharton and so on.

The general reading test would look much like other reading assessments, relying on multiple choice and short-answer responses to passages selected in such a way that they don’t presume knowledge of the material in advance.

The literary-history exam would be an essay test, raising a theme, style, genre or other topic and asking students to draw copiously from literary history, for instance, asking students to address the theme of individualism in six foundational works of American literature.

The first test is being developed; the second must be added. With the latter, we retain literary history as a field of its own, with specific material that students study in the same way they study history and chemistry. This test would not be a skill measure or a literacy assessment. It would test how much knowledge students have of the best works of American civilization, a special duty of public schooling necessary to the formation of responsible, independent and informed citizens.

(Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory University and the author of “The Dumbest Generation.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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