Monday, December 20, 2010

Good Grief, Grant: Wiggins's Immodest Proposal to "Rid the Curriculum of Fiction"

Grant Wiggins, creator of Backward Design (Understanding by Design) proposes that fiction be banned from the curriculum: "I think it is absurd that the bulk of reading making up the ELA curriculum involves fiction. There are few good reasons for retaining so much literature and many good reasons for dumping most of it." 

Wrong. There are many excellent reasons for keeping fiction at the core of ELA instruction. Writing about one of the earliest texts in the Western cannon, Charles Beye says this about the role of fiction in The Odyssey: "In using the themes of reality and unreality the poet is trying to bring out the paradox that fiction is often more truthful than reality, or that unreality can be a means to truth" (Ancient Epic Poetry 175).

Fast forward to the 21st century and these words from Canadian writer Yann Martel, who believes literature holds the key to global survival: "The empathetic imagination is the great solution. . . .Such an approach will not only make the universe more peaceful." Imaginative literature allows us to gauge the political, social, and economic realities of a global world. We find solutions to the world's problems in literature. 

Yet, Wiggins indicts reading fiction as a "leisure activity," noting that " for long stretches of time in our history, fiction-reading was the province of the leisure class - and most readers were women." So? "Leisure class" is code for "rich." I would think that Wiggins would celebrate the egalitarianism inherent in reading among the masses, which speaks to the success of public education. It's a bit amusing that Wiggins turns to texts from the 1800's to find fault with fiction. 

Wiggins blames teachers who don't assign nonfiction for the decline in boys' interest in reading. Although he has a point about " the kinds of fiction that boys love - namely, science fiction and war-themed sagas," he's wrong to claim that reading in ELA classes is skewed toward female preferences. In my senior classes, we read many texts that have more appeal for boys than for girls: Beowulf, Macbeth, Life of Pi, MAUS.

 Indeed, a classic cause/effect fallacy is at work in Wiggins laying the blame for boys not reading at the feet of female teachers, and he combines this with anecdotal evidence provided by his son. Many teachers increasingly offer reading choice to their students, and the Guys Read website devotes all book recommendations to the male gender. 

I agree that many fantastic nonfiction writers, such as John McPhee, Malcolm Gladwell, Stephen Jay Gould, and Roger Angell can offer much depth and perspective to the ELA curriculum. I'll even add a few others to Wiggins's list: Sue Hubbell, Michael Lewis, and Bill Bryson. 

"So, let’s make a concerted effort to rid the curriculum of most fiction. At least half the population will thank you," writes Wiggins at the end of his post. Perhaps I should be grateful for the qualifier most, but I just can't help but notice the way Wiggins discounts the other half of the population in his immodest proposal. 

1 comment:

  1. Just read the bullshit blog.

    Hello sir, Nathaniel Hawthorne was my high school boyfriend!

    Maybe my literary interests were less "war-saga" than other teenage boys. But my heterosexual brother can befriend the Brontes just as easily as I can sit through Star Wars!

    If Wiggins had his way, you would tell your students what Hester told Pearl: "Thou must gather thine own sunshine, for I have none to give thee."