This recent opinion piece from the Wall Street Journal should spark some conversation.
The author asserts that English degrees, while often coming at a high cost, don’t provide enough return on investment because they don’t have the earning potential of, say, an engineering degree. He also asserts that most who major in English come to regret that decision.
What’s interesting from an education standpoint is his assertion that curriculum at the college level has been so dumbed-down that students graduating with liberal arts degrees don’t have the critical thinking and writing skills of earlier generations. This, because instead of Shakespeare they are reading Harry Potter. No engineering program, he asserts, would neglect to teach its students differential equations or bridges would be collapsing all over the place. So too, must colleges and universities infuse liberal arts degrees with the rigor necessary to make students skilled writers and interpreters of writing.
While there are a few things in this piece that are a little sketchy — gender studies are not an inconsequential area of study and not everyone uses earning potential as a yardstick for measuring job satisfaction — his thoughts on the necessity of rigor are spot on.
When CMSi goes into schools, we often find a lack of rigorous curriculum: students buried in worksheets with low cognitive demand, content and lessons that don’t engage, tests that require only minimum competence. In fact, state tests are sometimes to blame for low-level classroom work: teaching to a low-level test effectively makes the floor your ceiling. Often the students most in need of cognitively challenging, engaging curriculum are the ones relegated to “the basics.” Rigor is necessary to provide opportunities for productive struggle without creating impossible targets. This is as true for elementary and secondary school as it is for higher education.
Rigor — real rigor — combines cognitive engagement with cognitive demand. The work is relevant, applicable in the real world, of value to the student, challenging enough to be both interesting and satisfying to complete. Should English majors (or high schoolers) read Shakespeare? I think so, both because he is an acknowledged master of English expression and because reading him is difficult and therefore a worthy challenge. Should they also read Harry Potter? Maybe: any book has value if you use it for a clearly defined purpose. I used it with a reluctant readers class of high school juniors and seniors for the express purpose of getting them interested in a story when they were mostly too cool for stories. It was a gateway book into other, more difficult literature. BUT: that was way back in 1999. I wouldn’t use it like that now because Harry is a bit overdone, what with the movies and theme park and all. In any case, the argument is overly reductionist: literature is far more diverse than Shakespeare and Harry Potter. There are thousands of pieces that can serve a variety of purposes.
The most critical consideration is selecting literature that provides both engagement and cognitive demand for the student. A secondary consideration is how pieces can be used: to help illustrate genre, to study characterization, to discuss plot or setting, to understand word choice and how it affects the reader, and so much more. A third consideration is what sort of literature students will be expected to understand on external tests like PARCC or Smarter Balanced or the plethora of state tests. Many of these instruments employ 19th century literature: students need experience with the syntax and vocabulary of these pieces well in advance of the test in order to have success on the test. If they only read Harry Potter, they won’t be prepared for what they encounter on the test.
If you have time, scroll through the comments after the OpEd: English major after English major commenting on the value of their degrees and the satisfaction and joy they have gleaned from jobs in fields they love, that offered challenge, creativity, and scope for their skills. Many said studying literature made them better, more incisive thinkers and served as a springboard to other fields, particularly fields that required writing. I’d agree: #NoRegrets.
If you would like to make the student work in your classrooms more rigorous, contact us. We can help you evaluate the work that’s occurring and provide tools and training that will build teacher capacity and enable administrators to evaluate student work for cognitive demand and engagement. We can also help your district evaluate alignment of student work to the demands of external tests to ensure that students are being appropriately prepared for those challenges.