ELLICOTT CITY, Md. – If anything screams that American education needs more emphasis on classic Western literature, not less, it’s a recent episode of the game show “Wheel of Fortune.”

wheel of fortune achillesContestant Julian Batts, a freshman honor student from Indiana University, spun for every single letter of a puzzle. All that was left to do is read the answer out loud.

“Mythological hero Achilles!” he said confidently.

Except the way he pronounced the name – “Ah-chill-us” –  sounded neither Greek nor English, so he lost the round. The media quickly tagged him the “worst Wheel of Fortune player ever,” but the Indianapolis Star assured readers that Batts knows who Achilles is and “he knows what the Achilles tendon is.”

The jury’s still out on whether Batts actually connects the tendon in the heel to the Trojan War hero of Homer’s The Iliad. We can’t even be sure if he is knows the difference between that Homer and the slightly more modern Homer Simpson.

It wouldn’t be terribly surprising if he didn’t.

But it’s all good; despite missing two more easy puzzles, he won the episode and went home with nearly $12,000.  So he’s way ahead of his two College Week challengers as far as mastery of English Language Arts (ELA) prior to Common Core.

Parents hoping Common Core ELA standards will save their college-bound children the kind of national embarrassment suffered by Batts shouldn’t hold their breaths.

Dr. Sandra Stotsky, the only ELA expert on the Common Core validation committee, recently told the audience at a PTA sponsored forum in my home county that the new standards will do the exact opposite.  She said Common Core dilutes reading requirements to half literature and “at least half of something called ‘instructional texts.”

“It is through this portal called ‘informational text’ that we are being flooded with inappropriate reading materials in every single classroom, and the resulting academic horror stories have yet to be compiled and made available in any systemic way.”

Among the serious flaws is that Common Core emphasizes content-free skills, according to Stotsky.

“Content-free skills are kinds of statements that can be applied to from anything from The Three Little Pigs to Moby Dick.  They contain nothing that indicates level of reading difficulty or critical content.”

They also emphasize writing over reading at every grade level. The problem is “you must have exposure to well-written English prose to become a good writer,” she said, adding that the standards lack a built-in quality control to “ensure we will have a Classical curriculum of any kind available.”

“Deep learning,” whatever that is, is one of the Common Core buzzwords and part of the national sales spiel claiming the standards are “deeper.”  But according to Stotsky:

“They are certainly not deeper because now we now have teachers teaching excerpts from Romeo and Juliet or The Iliad and the Odyssey, because there’s not enough time to spend reading the entire work.  So there is no depth coming into the English class, whatever was there before — and there were lots of problems before — they have now been aggravated and we have even less.”

School years K-12 should be the time to expose children to the rich detail and artful prose of the past, when the written word was considered the preeminent way of communicating ideas and commenting on the human condition.

The school library should serve as refuge where children can explore only the best in classic children’s literature; instead, it’s become redundant.  It’s nothing but a clone of the local public library branch and contemporary commercial marketplace.

At the elementary level shelves are filled with too many book series like the Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events, and Captain Underpants that pander to whatever adult authors of fiction think kids will find “cool.  It’s the equivalent of literary junk food.  Books used in classroom instruction are selected based on their value for teaching diversity, inclusion and multiculturalism.  Common Core lesson plans focus on group role-playing to teach conflict resolution skills instead of the principles of good story telling.

At the middle and higher grades the school libraries and books used in class reflect the youth market of novels that “validate the real and terrible experiences of teenagers who have been abused, addicted, or raped–among other things,” according to Meghan Cox Gurdon, children’s book reviewer for The Wall Street Journal, in a speech last year.  She said, they “act like funhouse mirrors, reflecting hideously distorted portrayals of life” in a first-person narrative style that keep them in the “turmoil of the moment” with “ever-greater explicitness in depictions of sex and violence.”  Common Core’s list of “Exemplars of Reading Text” complexity and quality include sexually explicit novels The Bluest Eye and Dreaming in Cuban, which EAGnews previously reported have become assigned reading.

Common Core’s list of “Exemplars of Reading Text” complexity and quality include sexually explicit novels The Bluest Eye and Dreaming in Cuban, which EAGnews previously reported have become assigned reading.

Children would be better served by books that allow them to forge emotional and philosophical connections with characters from the literary past, than by books that initiate them into the coarse and vulgar language and moral relativism of contemporary culture.

Classic fairy tales and works like Beowulf may be scary and gruesome, but are approached “at a kind of arm’s length, almost as allegory,” said Gurdon. The darker children’s offerings of today lack the transforming and uplifting qualities inherent to the literary classics of the past, something she attributes to the modern “flight from beauty” in contemporary arts.

In other words, the good guy doesn’t always win and a wholesome lesson is not always learned.

“They take difficult subjects and wallow in them in a gluttonous way” with “an orgiastic lack of restraint that is the mark of bad taste,” Gurdon said. “Good taste matters so much when it comes to books for children and young adults. Books tell children what to expect, what life is, what culture is, how we are expected to behave.”

Books don’t just cater to tastes; they form tastes and create norms.

So as the Wheel of Fortune spins in favor of Common Core, the ancient Greek poet Homer seems destined to fade from memory along with the rest of the Western Canon.

Heroes of literature will be drawn from more contemporary works like The Bluest Eye or The Hunger Games, and “Homer Simpson” will be the answer to some future graduate’s Wheel of Fortune puzzle.

At least that name won’t be so easy to mispronounce.

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