Why Literature?

Member Group : From the Kitchen Table

Common Core requires that our schools increase the amount of informational text they teach, and decrease the amount of literature. The rationale is that informational text is more closely aligned to what they will need in a career, and literature is not, so schools need to focus curriculum content on what is important.

The unstated, and unexamined, assumption is that literature is not important, and can therefore be jettisoned without any negative repercussions to our children.

Is that assumption correct?

Most of us are familiar with the lifeboat exercise. Ten people are in a lifeboat that can only hold nine people. The students are given descriptions of each of the ten people and then given the assignment of deciding which one must be tossed out of the lifeboat so the other nine can survive. They must justify their choice of sacrifice using the information in the biographical information provided.

Although the situation is fictional, the presentation is designed to make it appear factual. The text is informational in nature, and the assignment asks the student to analyze the information and draw conclusions from its contents. It is exactly the kind of task that one would confront in a career situation, making the assignment "college-and-career-ready".

Most students report discomfort with the assignment, but they complete it and choose the person who must be sacrificed based on the information presented to them.

Now, let’s use literature to complete the same exercise, with the novel A Night to Remember by Walter Lord. The book examines the events on the night the Titanic sank. The book is non-fiction, but the author…

presents the information as a story so the readers can actually experience the situation, as though they were present on the decks of the dying ship on that fateful night.

Readers meet the wealthy man who disguises himself as a woman to sneak onto one of the lifeboats. When he is unmasked, he tries to justify himself by using the same biographical information given to our students in their "informational" lifeboat assignment, information that most of the students used to justify keeping him on their imaginary lifeboat.

But now that man’s net worth is stacked against his selfishness and cowardice, and it does not look quite so important. In fact, it becomes meaningless.

And we meet the English Dame, whose biographical information made her one of those worth saving, but who decides to remain by the side of her husband of over half a century, gives her seat to a poor young mother with a wee child, and even removes her warm fur coat to swaddle the little one against the cold.

Once again, the biographical information was essentially meaningless, since it did not allow for the love, generosity and courage of the person it described.

We feel the unyielding commitment to duty displayed by band members who played without pause to help the passengers deal with the feelings of panic, and the ship’s crew who helped others into lifeboat seats instead of jumping into those seats themselves. None of those folks would have had impressive biographical information sheets, but each of them was actually quite an impressive human being.

A Night to Remember IS the lifeboat exercise. For real. And its reality makes the "college-and-career ready" lifeboat informational assignment not just meaningless, but shameful.

Because life is real, and it is so much more than just informational. Literature connects us to that reality. It reminds us that we have hearts and souls as well as minds– and that the qualities that cannot be dryly analyzed are often the most important.