Some months ago I posted skeptically about the idea of requiring schoolkids to spend 50% of their time reading bureaucratic white papers of the "Chicken production and transportation issues in Willamette County" variety.  Maggie's Farm linked to an American Thinker article today that does the idea more justice.  Although I have real doubts how the program would be carried out in actual schools, the notion started by David Coleman is to introduce students to evidence-based argument using texts like de Toqueville's Democracy in America.  As he puts it:
It is rare in a working environment that someone says, "Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday, but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood."
Not that I'm crazy about the idea of all students aiming for jobs in which they have to churn out market analyses, but the same principle applies to a request for an analysis of any proposal or policy.  Why do you believe this is true?  And come up with something more powerful than the more-or-less grownup equivalent of "all the cool kids think it."  It's the rare corporation or government bureau -- or any other human endeavor -- that couldn't use more of that skill.

The author of the American Thinker article does have a funny approach to categorizing writing as fiction or non-fiction, though.  This is a list of what he describes as the proposed "fiction standards":
Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales; F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby; William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying; Thomas Paine's Common Sense; The Declaration of Independence; Frederick Douglass's "What to the Slave is the 4th of July?"; Allen Paulo's Innumeracy:  Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences; Mark Fischetti's Working Knowledge:  Electronic Stability Control; and George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language."
I'm listening to a series of lectures about Winston Churchill.  He was an indifferent student who hated Greek and classics.  In some dismay and contempt, his father sent him off to a kind of military or administrative professional school, where he was given practical works to study; he loved them and excelled.  Without being at all in the "special snowflake" school of thought, I do believe that the task of education is to develop the different strengths of different students.  Especially as they get older, students should be offered a wide variety of higher-level materials that will challenge whatever their talents happen to be.  There will be some who can be nourished by Working Knowledge:  Electronic Stability Control in a way they never could have been by War and Peace.


Grim said...

I suppose Churchill developed a taste later; he doesn't demonstrate himself to be entirely ignorant of the Classics in his histories!

E Hines said...

I think the material used is, within broad limits, not that important in what we used to call "English class." What should be getting taught here is not just an appreciation of literature, but another approach to critical thinking. Well taught science and arithmetic classes do this, but only with one type of critical thinking--where everything starts out cut and dried.

Things are pretty fuzzy in English classes. We read everything from Chaucer (nobody worried about the dirty parts then) to cheesy science fiction (so cheesy, I can't recall any of the titles we used). But these were just vehicles for learning how to analyze stuff that began, grew, and ended fuzzy in outline and substance.

Of course, some of our English teachers were better at that kind of teaching than others, and some of use took pleasure in taking advantage of some of those teachers'...weaknesses. But there was an exercise in thinking that had its own value.

In the "practical reading for thinking" category, I'd be tempted to add "pick a current bill before Congress or just passed and signed into law." But that might overwhelm even the most skilled teachers or the most fun-loving students.

Eric Hines

douglas said...

I'm sure it would. Legal texts of any kind now are essentially written in an unfamiliar dialect to those of us who speak English. Our local planning code is so clear, the planners have a manual for explaining it (Zoning Code Manual and Commentary- 227 pages). It's ridiculous to expect the citizenry to be able to cope with compliance with a code that even those who work with it daily can't know fully, and understand even if they do know it.

Texan99 said...

I'd be interested to see students try to translate a code into comprehensible English. If it could be done at all, it would be a valuable exercise in composition. I vividly remember a reverse exercise in which beautiful, clear language from Ecclesiastes was turned into impenetrable bureaucratese.

If the students found they couldn't translate the code into meaningful English, it would be a valuable lesson about the tyrannical tactic of vague laws enforced by unelected functionaries at their whim.

Texan99 said...

Re Churchill and the classics: He may well have come to them later in life. Some students can't easily approach a subject until they can put it into context. I detest the usual cry to make school "relevant" for students, unless it refers to the sensible effort to get across something difficult and useful by showing the student why and how it matters. As long as you're trying to drill kids in reading, for instance, why not give them a story whose ending they're eager to learn? If you want them to learn about probability, why not teach them how poker or craps work?

At some point after Churchill began a military and administrative career, it must have become clear what the classics had to do with that.

tyree said...

I was an average mathematics student until I started studying engineering. I passed the Engineering portion of the Architects Licensing exam on the first try. My father always said he never pushed me for high grades because "when you find something you want to learn, you learn it".