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Ray Bradbury and literature in schools: RIP

Posted by Jim Stergios  June 21, 2012 01:16 PM

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In recent weeks, there was sad news in the literary world: science-fiction writer and author of Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury died, at age 91.

People often inaccurately thought his masterwork, Fahrenheit 451 (the temperature at which paper supposedly burns), a novel about futuristic firemen being enlisted to burn books, was about government censorship. In point of fact, Ray Bradbury was trying to caution us about something else far more relevant to American readers.

Exasperated by the constant misinterpretation of his book, Bradbury used a 2007 L.A. Times interview to clear up his book’s true meaning, which is this dystopian future: TV would kill peoples’ interest in books, and, in particular -- literature.

Bradbury still has a lot to say, especially about how people do not understand his most literary work, Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953. It is widely taught in junior high and high schools and is for many students the first time they learn the names Aristotle, Dickens, and Tolstoy…

Now, Bradbury has decided to make news about the writing of his iconographic work and what he really meant. Fahrenheit 451 is not, he says firmly, a story about government censorship…

His fear in 1953 that television would kill books has, he says, been partially confirmed by television’s effect on substance in the news. The front page of that day’s L.A. Times reported on the weekend box-office receipts for the third in the Spider-Man series of movies, seeming to prove his point.

“Useless,” Bradbury says. “They stuff you with so much useless information, you feel full.” He bristles when others tell him what his stories mean, and once walked out of a class at UCLA where students insisted his book was about government censorship…

In the 1950s, when Bradbury wrote the novel there was a legitimate concern, as there is today, that people's attention spans would be stunted by TV and that consequently people (and young people in particular) might not develop the intellectual stamina, or discipline, to devote hours to reading difficult books.

But these days, TV has some allies in its war against peoples’ attention and affection for classic literature. As noted previously, Bill Gates has frequently expressed misgivings about the centrality of the liberal arts in the American education system. He has principally made public comments about higher education, but with the Gates Foundation's support for the new national K-12 education standards, he has brought his focus on workforce development to our public schools.

It's sad to see Bradbury's passing at the same time that role of literature and the time and resources committed to literature are being diminished in our K-12 schools.

A recent opinion piece by Jamie Gass notes:

Architects of the landmark [Massachusetts] 1993 education reform law understood and appreciated our literary heritage; that's why Massachusetts public school students were reading much of the work produced by these and other ancient and modern poets.

The results of our students' grounding in poetry, literature and higher-level vocabulary have been outstanding. In 2005, the commonwealth's fourth- and eighth-graders came out tops in the reading component of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation's report card. In 2007, 2009 and 2011, each time the test was administered, they repeated that feat.

But recently, our students started learning 60 percent less about the many great Massachusetts poets and literary figures. That's because the commonwealth ditched its nation-leading English standards for inferior national standards that will have students reading far less poetry, fiction, and drama, particularly in high school…

Is the Fahrenheit 451 - national standards analogy a bit overwrought? Consider the following comments from the architect of the national standards/Common Core (and now the head of the College Board, which develops and administers the SAT and AP tests) David Coleman. In delivering the core pedagogy of the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) to educators gathered at the New York State Department of Education in April 2011, Coleman made clear that he believes emphasizing so-called “informational texts” (whatever that means in the hands of ed school types, DC trade groups, and educrats) is the way to go:

Number one, it begins in the earliest grades. We in America in K-5 assessment and curriculum focus 80% of our time on stories, on literature. That is the dominant work that is done in the elementary school and that’s what’s tested on exams and that’s what’s in our textbooks…

So the core standards for the first time demand that 50% of the text students encounter in kindergarten through 5th grade is informational text…That is a major shift and if you think about what’s happening in this country unintentionally literature and stories dominated the elementary curriculum…

Then, he goes on to say:

“[A]s you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a s%$* about what you feel or what you think.” [Please note: I have replaced Coleman's wording with a "symbol swear" to conform with community standards at]

A wise person once said: “There are people who burn books and then there are people who sit down and carefully revise away the reading lists to exclude what they don’t like, don’t think is useful, or don’t find fashionable anymore.”

The educationally reductive proponents of national standards (the Gates Foundation, Achieve, Inc., the Council of Chief State Schools Officers, and the National Governors Association) with their orientation towards K-12 schooling as mere workforce development training, while advancing empty so-called 21st century skills, are among this latter group.

What Ray Bradbury might say is that TV’s dumbed-down culture helped pave the way for limited attention spans and respect for imaginative texts, which make possible national K-12 education standards committed to vague, ill-defined “informational texts” and softy “21st century skills” related to the more mundane and demotic aspects of daily life. Oh yeah, the kids will really find that intellectually engaging.

RIP the farsighted Ray Bradbury.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Before joining Pioneer, he was Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy in the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, where More »

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