Is our children’s education really getting as self-referential as I think it is?

I’ve been nostalgic lately, and have been thinking a lot about my favorite stories and books from my elementary school days in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  One story I particularly remember from my time as a 4th grader was about a teacher who had in her class a girl from a very run down neighborhood.  If I remember correctly, the girl had very dirty, shabby clothes, so the teacher gave her either a bar of soap or a new pinafore, I forget which.  The child, inspired by the teacher, went home and cleaned herself up.  Her family members, seeing her look clean, were impressed, and they too began to wash themselves and wear nice clothes.  Looking and smelling as good as they did, her parents realized that their house was dirty, so they cleaned it.  Then they painted it — inside.  With the inside immaculate, they were embarrassed by the exterior, so they cleaned and painted that too.  The neighbors, impressed by this single shiny house in the neighborhood, decided that they, too, wanted to live that way.  And so, because of a bar of soap (or a pinafore), an entire community was transformed.  I just loved that story.

Other books I vividly remember were the Laura Ingalls Wilder stories, which first made me aware of the wonders of our modern civilization and the extraordinary courage of our pioneer ancestors.  (Well, my ancestors weren’t exactly pioneers, living either in the shtetls or grand houses of Europe, but I’m talking our collective American ancestors.)  I also recall a marvelous book about a young woman in Colonial America who was kidnapped by Indians.  It was not a politically correct book, but I happen to know, now, that it was based upon an actual memoir written by a young woman in Colonial America who was, in fact, kidnapped by Indians.  In other words, it wasn’t PC, but it was factually accurate.  As for me, I didn’t take away any negative lessons about Indians  en masse.  I was simply impressed by the young woman’s courage and fortitude.

Another story that’s lived with me was one about a soldier in a fox hole somewhere in the Pacific.  With bullets whizzing overhead, he discovered that he was sharing his fox hole with a poisonous snake, which promptly bit him.  The story told about his desperate fight for survival, as he put a tourniquet on the wound and tried to outlast the poison.  He did survive (of course, since the story was told in the first person), but the last line informed us, the riveted 4th grade readers, that he still had a hole the size of a teacup in his thigh.

In other words, the stories I remember reading as a child were outward looking.  They were about grand adventures, and heroism, and courage, and good and evil, and moral obligations.  They took me outside of myself.  My peers, when pressed, remember similar stories.

And what all of us have noticed, but only I remark upon, is the fact that so many of the stories our children read in their schools are what I call navel-gazing stories.  They’re about kids who are bullied at school, or who have an eating disorder, or who have an alcoholic parent, or who are shy, or any number of other Oprah-esque scenarios of somebody’s personal soap opera.  The child protagonist always triumphs in the end, whether that means s/he tuns the table on the bullies, eats healthy food, forces the alcoholic parent into a rehab facility, or makes a big speech, but I don’t see my kids feeling inspired.

There’s nothing big in these books.  They’re about ordinary people with problems.  Ho-hum.  Neighborhoods aren’t changing, frontiers aren’t opening, external forces (war, snakes, Indians) aren’t requiring people to act with fortitude.

Even Anne Frank, the perennial Holocaust book, isn’t outward looking.  It is, instead, a remarkably claustrophic book about people who are not coping with the Holocaust, but are struggling to cope with each other.  I don’t mean to insult the book.   I truly think it’s one of the great masterpeices of adolescent writing, and one of the great works of the Holocaust.  Nor do I mean to denigrate the suffering of those in the Secret Annex, only one of whom survived the war.  And I really weep every time I think of the appalling suffering that accompanied Anne’s death.  Although the children’s versions of the book tend to have Anne dying peacefully of typhus, she didn’t.  Anne died alone, with her dad having vanished, and her mother and sister having preceded her to death.  It was winter, she was starved, she had no clothes, and typhus is not a lovely disease from which to die.  But they don’t tell that to the children.  As taught, there’s nothing epic about Anne’s suffering and ending.  It’s all about getting along with people in the attic.  (For my one other, very big, problem with the message from Anne Frank’s book, go here.)

The books are children read tell them morality is dictated by feelings.  If it makes the adolescent narrator or protagonist unhappy, it’s bad.   And yes, eating disorders, and drinking problems, and bullying are bad, but these are details.  They’re not about the larger scope, the bigger pictures.  The kids don’t look at epic struggles, whether physical, as in war, or moral.  Everything is just another soap opera in the lives of the citizens of a pampered nation.

I’m sorry for my kids, and I’m not surprised that they grumble a lot about the stuff they have to read.  All that navel gazing can get mighty dull.

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  • SADIE

    All that navel gazing can get mighty dull.

    Which probably explains why they pierce [them].

  • http://photoncourier.blogspot.com David Foster

    I think the selection of this literature involves a lot of projection on the part of the people doing the selecting. Public school administrators in this country are not, generally speaking, a very intellectual or intellectually-curious lot….most of them are probably not very interested in the external world, and assume that their students suffer from the same deficiency.

    This also explains why they keep trying to connect subjects together in ways that don’t make sense, like teaching algebra via folk dancing or combining the study of graphing with the study of the Holocaust by plotting the number killed on a year-by-year basis. (I actually saw a lesson plan that called for doing just that.)..They don’t think *any* subject is *really* interesting by itself, so maybe by hooking them together they will get something that *is*….

  • binadaat

    I think the selection of this literature involves a lot of projection on the part of the people doing the selecting. Public school administrators in this country are not, generally speaking, a very intellectual or intellectually-curious lot….most of them are probably not very interested in the external world, and assume that their students suffer from the same deficiency

    The “people” doing the selecting are the publishers, the reviewers, and the librarians all of whom have agendas and a definite multicultural, moral relativism value system.

    I subscribe to Powellsbooks.com for two different sets of daily book reviews. Sign up yourself for a while to see what I’m talking about here. the books are all from a certain mindset, and it doesn’t matter who the reviewers are, if it’s “lefty” it’s good and they’ll give you 350+ words why. If it’s somewhere to the right of left, but needs to discredited, they occasionally do it. It usually takes a lot less than 350 words.

    Then there is Amazon.com which provides reviews by the American Library Association.

    Google for their selection of notable books- nothing has changed much since 1996.

    Bottom line: don’t think. Feel your way to answer of life’s meaning.

  • Gringo

    Children reading more self-referential books is a trend that is at least a generation old. IOW, the childrens’ books that they read on their own have been more self-referential than for previous generations. How this correlates with what they are directed to read in school, I don’t know.

  • http://photoncourier.blogspot.com David Foster

    It’s good for kids to learn about Anne Frank, but I’d also like them to learn about somebody like Violette Szabo…a British girl who volunteered for underground operations with Special Operations Executive, parachuted into occupied France, and, after twisting her ankle, held off German troops with her submachine gun to allow her partner to make his escape.

    Probably not a story that would be very interesting to the average public K-12 school administrator or to the proxies that binadaat mentions.

  • dianemadeline

    As an elementary school librarian, I felt challenged by your post. I was determined to provide you with a list of current titles that would change your opinion.

    However, in looking over the list of books I’ve read over the past two years, many of the books are self-referential with a young protagonist as the center of the world. Young adult lit is especially prone to individual drama. Also, there is an appalling lack of male protagonists. Girl characters are everywhere doing amazing things. Not sure what boy characters are doing…

    The best place to experience and think about the big issues is science fiction/ fantasy. It is a genre I particularly love, but not one often assigned for classroom reading.

    As librarian, I have no role in selecting what classroom teachers/school districts chose to use with classes for novel studies. I do give suggestions to individual teachers in my school to read aloud.

    I have complained for a number of years to my colleagues that children’s books published today do not allow kids to be kids. Often there is a minor plot detail about alcoholism or abuse or death or a reference to sex that does not move the plot or significantly impact the characters but is thrown in to be modern or edgy (I guess). The journals I use for selection often don’t highlight such points, and I wind up sending books to the middle school because they don’t suit my population.

  • http://bookwormroom.com Bookworm

    Dianemadeline:

    Thanks for confirming my sense about the books my kids are reading. Interestingly, my kids prefer sci fi/fantasy books. They want epic experiences and big issues. They think big, even as the school teaches small.

    And you’re right too about how books are centered on girls in crisis. There aren’t any old-fashioned boy adventure books, and boys don’t fit well in “feeling” books.

    I don’t know where all this will end. I’m toying with a bigger post or even an article on the subject, but I found the inclusive conclusions I’ve reached so disturbing I almost don’t want to touch them.

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com/ Ymarsakar

    Becareful they don’t read any of the military science fiction books I have read, Book. They may turn out the same way!

    There aren’t any old-fashioned boy adventure books, and boys don’t fit well in “feeling” books.

    Au contraire Book. Remember my previous mention of the Alcatraze series by Brandon Sanderson, published by Scholastic? That one has the goods on both old fashioned heroic male personals adventuring amidst world changing events, while still being a ‘feeling’ book!

    True modern art only comes by grace of individual talent and verve. Too oftentimes the Left and their ideological parasites attempt to simulate individual ability through their ideological rigamore. Doesn’t quite work, as you may have noticed, Book. A committee of 5 isn’t better than a lone wolf.

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com/ Ymarsakar

    And, of course, when I say ‘feeling’, I am speaking from a modern political, psychological, and propaganda/informational warfare perspective. So you know that simple or mysteriusly stupid works would not qualify under my perspective for anything but disposal.

    There is also the “Tale of the Samurai”. Not sure if I spelled the title correctly or not. It is a juvenile book centered around feudal Japan and it was very engrossing, for a work designed for those in their teens. A feudal Japanese work about honor, courage, duty, loyalty, and social achievement.

    They don’t think *any* subject is *really* interesting by itself, so maybe by hooking them together they will get something that *is*….

    Well, David,, I wouldn’t say it is really the Left’s fault. I mean, they could be born with a genius level intellect, but when they spend most of their life using it to think in double, triple, quintuple contradictory matrixes, even geniuses can start looking dumb when they’ve invested such brainpower and energy into convoluted logic puzzles.

    Idiots can’t hold two contradictory beliefs at once. Idiots have trouble holding one belief and then another one afterwards, linking the two, let alone linking a 2by2 matrix together, serially. (2 by 2 as in if a is true, then b is true, if a is true, be is false, if a is false, b is true, etc)

    So they can’t be intellectual. Their energy is used up elsewhere.

  • http://photoncourier.blogspot.com David Foster

    Book: “I’m toying with a bigger post or even an article on the subject, but I found the inclusive conclusions I’ve reached so disturbing I almost don’t want to touch them”…hey, you can’t leave us hanging like that! Just take a couple of stiff drinks and go ahead and write it!

    Ymar: “they could be born with a genius level intellect, but when they spend most of their life using it to think in double, triple, quintuple contradictory matrixes, even geniuses can start looking dumb”…this may well be the case with many college professors, but I think it rarely applies to K-12 public school administrators–the nature of the job will generally select against anyone who has a genius level IQ or serious intellectual interests of any kind.

    It strikes me that I don’t think I’ve *ever* seen a blog or a blog comment by someone who identifies himself as a K-12 public school administrator…I’ve seen teachers, businesspeople, air traffic controllers, military officers, librarians, carpenters, venture capitalists…a very wide array of professions…but public school administrators are making themselves pretty scarce in the blogosphere.

  • Jose

    I once read that “big” people talk about ideas. “Mediocre” people talk about things. “Small” people talk about people. What could be smaller than reading about yourself?

    Here is an interesting article on a related topic:
    http://spectator.org/archives/2009/09/28/who-is-college-material

    The article discusses intellectual curiosity. The writer proposes (half seriously) that college placement be determined by whether the applicant knows who Charles Lindbergh was. Surely exposure to something above the mundane inspires at least some children to learn.

    However, there is always the danger a child could grow up to be bored when their peers only want to talk about cars, football, or themselves.