How to Incentivize the Classics

Actors perform a scene from William Shakepeare’s Henry VIII at the Globe Theatre in London, England, in 2010. (Luke MacGregor/Reuters)
The trend in modern education is to abandon classical literature. But students like and benefit from it. Here’s how to get it back into classrooms.

A student turned to me during their standardized test to point out a question on the screen. It asked about a sentence that read: “Shakespeare’s works are outdated with themes that are irrelevant to today’s students.” I do not remember what the question then asked, but likely it was something about how to improve the sentence, in which case I hope there was a fifth option: Delete it.

Everyone is denigrating the classics nowadays — even reading passages on standardized tests apparently. Princeton University removed its Greek and Latin requirements for classics majors. Howard University disbanded its classics department. #DisruptTexts is a grassroots social-media movement to decenter the canon in K–12 schools. My own colleagues talk about replacing To Kill a Mockingbird with young-adult fiction. The canon wars have begun anew, only now, they’re being fought in the trenches of secondary-school buildings.

Despite its critics, instruction into the classics remains essential. My students consistently tell me that Romeo and Juliet is the first book that ever really “gets” them, admit that this play exposed to them the danger of their own anger, and cry at the conclusion of this Shakespearean tragedy. They practice their poetry at recess and complain when we’re done reading out loud for the day. They’re never as engaged as when we’re discussing the timeless themes of violence, love, beauty, liberty, or whatever other philosophical discussion arises from these books. Students crave the humanistic education that comes through classic literature.

Unfortunately, as I’ve written about previously for National Review, the predominant philosophy of education in our teacher training programs favors student choice and contemporary texts over teacher-centered classrooms and great books. So long as the university and the aforementioned movements stand against classic literature, mere op-eds will do little to reify our commitment to great books, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid will replace George Orwell.

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To counter the institutional weight of the university and social movements requires a counterweight. Invoking Yuval Levin’s latest book, it is a time to build and support institutions that value meaningful instruction.

Hillsdale College has already begun to do so, establishing, providing the curriculum for, and financially supporting dozens of charter schools. Similarly, the movement of “No-Excuse”-model charter schools such as Success Academy in New York achieve results that outcompete traditional public schools in affluent districts. These schools rely upon curricula imbued with great books, and their success are the best repudiation of any ideology streaming from the universities. However, to section off a few buildings that maintain commitment to the classics while not providing other pressure leaves too many without.

There’s another innovative institution that could more universally shift the institutional weight back toward a liberal-arts education. In 2015, Jeremy Wayne Tate founded the Classic Learning Test, a standardized test to compete with the ACT and SAT with one caveat: It would feature passages from great works of literature. In place of a mock essay throwing cheap shots at Shakespeare, one passage on the test features an excerpt from Tolstoy leveling a thoughtful critique at the bard. Since its inception, hundreds of colleges and universities — including Baylor, Wheaton, and Hillsdale — accept it for an entrance exam.

Incentives matter — what gets tested influences what gets taught — and that truism underscores CLT’s brilliance. A quick perusal of the ACT practice questions reveal a few paragraphs from modern novels, an introduction to a psychology text, a work of feminist literary critique, and an article from Newsweek. Not to mention the example student essay critiquing Shakespeare that my student had the privilege of reading on a different exam.

These test questions affect what happens in the classroom. One simple study gave students at a school a standardized test with which they were unfamiliar and scores came back lower than normal. The researchers had chosen an exam that was different in format but similar in content and difficulty to the school’s standard test. The researchers explain this disparity, suggesting that the curriculum and instructional methods of the district had slowly over time mirrored the content and question style of the test. The exam influenced the instruction. I myself observe the kinds of questions on exams and have perused ACT practice tests so that I can afford my students in-class practice.

If teachers focus their instruction and districts align their curriculum on the kinds of items that the CLT tested, a more universal adoption of the exam would apply an institutional pressure to counter the anti-classics ideology within the university. If teachers and students knew that test takers would face passages from Frederick Douglass and Jane Austen on their college entrance exam, it would incentivize these classics with a force that mere persuasion cannot. It would impact classrooms in public, private, and home schools — not just a handful of charters.

The CLT promises to transform what happens in the classroom. So long as tests exist, teachers will teach to the test. As such, the CLT would encourage the kind of instruction that would create students who know, without a multiple-choice recommendation, that any flippant criticism of Shakespeare is rubbish.

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