The Wisdom Deficit in Schools

New education standards emphasize technical reading skills over an appreciation for literature and the deeper values it can instill.

Andy Clarke / Reuters

When I was in high school, I chose to major in English in college because I wanted to be wiser. That’s the word I used. If I ended up making lots of money or writing a book, great; but really, I liked the prospect of being exposed to great thoughts and deep advice, and the opportunity to apply them to my own life in my own clumsy way. I wanted to live more thoughtfully and purposefully. (Also, I hoped literature would help me understand girls.) Now I’m a veteran English teacher, reflecting on what’s slowly changed at the typical American public high school—and the word wisdom keeps haunting me. I don’t teach it as much anymore, and I wonder who is.

As a new teacher at San Luis Obispo High School in California more than a decade ago, I asked my principal about his expectations for my students’ Advanced Placement scores. He said, "Just make sure the kids are ready for the next part of their lives. They’re going to be on their own soon, and forever. Prepare them for that. Literature can help."

His idea of how to prepare kids for their futures was significantly different, in both meaning and tone, from how teachers are now being informed by the Common Core State Standards—the controversial math and English benchmarks that have been adopted in most states—and the writers and thought leaders who shape the assessments matched to those standards. It all amounts to an alphabet soup of bureaucratic expectations and what can feel like soul-less instruction. The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium—referred to in education circles simply as "SBAC"—is the association that writes a Common Core-aligned assessment used in 25 states, including mine. The consortium has established four of what it calls "major claims"; the first purports that students are "college and career ready" if they "can read closely and analytically to comprehend a range of complex literary and informational text."

That’s hardly what my principal was talking about. The Common Core promotes 10 so-called "College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards" for reading that emphasize technical skills like analyzing, integrating, and delineating a text. But these expectations deal very little with ensuring students are actually appreciating the literature at hand—and say nothing about the personal engagement and life lessons to which my principal was referring. Kate Kinsella, an influential author who consults school districts across the country and is considered "a guiding force on the National Advisory Board for the Consortium on Reading Excellence," recently told me to "ditch literature" since "literary fiction is not critical to college success." Kinsella continued, "What’s represented by the standards is the need to analyze texts rather than respond to literature.

As a teacher working within this regimented environment, my classroom objectives have had to shift. I used to feel deeply satisfied facilitating a rich classroom discussion on a Shakespearean play; now, I feel proud when my students explicitly acknowledge the aforementioned "anchor standards" and take the initiative to learn these technical skills.

But as a man who used to be a high school student interested in pursuing wisdom, I’m almost startled to find myself up late at night, literally studying these anchor standards instead of Hamlet itself. I’m making plans to teach the students how to "evaluate the sufficiency of the evidence" instead of asking them, "Who here sympathizes with Hamlet, or Ophelia, or any character, and how so?"

It’s not a personal shift—I’m still me, still interested in wisdom for the same reasons. And my principal cares deeply about the spiritual well-being of our students. It just feels like a very slow, gradual cultural shift that I don’t even notice except for sudden moments of nostalgia, like remembering a dream out of nowhere. Eighty students making a long trip to see live theater—a rather adult-themed Tom Stoppard play. A long session of students complaining about Briony from Atonement. A courageously deep discussion on Hamlet’s strangely reasonable musings on suicide. Teenagers feeling a peculiar affinity for Meursault; teenagers expressing a deep, deep hatred of Meursault. A lesson on both love and education from Wuthering Heights.

I get it: My job is to teach communication, not values, and maybe that’s reasonable. After all, I’m not sure I would want my daughter gaining her wisdom from a randomly selected high-school teacher just because he passed a few writing and literature courses at a state university (which is what I did). My job description has evolved, and I’m fine with that. But where are the students getting their wisdom?

One might argue that the simple solution is religion—namely, biblical texts. The problem, though, is that I doubt religion is on most kids’ minds. When I recently shared a poem that included the phrase, "Let there be light," hardly any of my students, who are high-school juniors, could identify the allusion. As a staunch believer in the separation of church and state, I don’t feel comfortable delving into the Bible’s wisdom. Even if I did, the environment is far from conducive to these discussions—students are generally embarrassed to reveal their spiritual beliefs. A fellow teacher recently cited a biblical reference in a standardized test as "evidence of institutional bias," and the community was generally shocked; some people, meanwhile, were outraged a few years ago when a valedictorian’s speech personally advised his peers to "love God above self."

With all this in mind, I recently read the line "Fools will be destroyed by their own complacency" in The Book of Proverbs, and I thought of my students at the cusp of young adulthood. I considered how deeply profitable this kind of advice could be for those about to be on their own—and I don’t mean profitable in the way that the advocates of "career readiness" generally conceive it. I’m not saying teachers should include the Bible in their classes in any way, but it feels strange to bite my tongue and instead teach simple skills like "interpreting words and determining technical meanings." Meanwhile, research suggests that a significant majority of teens do not attend church, and youth church attendance has been decreasing over the past few decades. This is fine with me. But then again, where are they getting their wisdom?

I’m not talking about my child, or your child. I’m absolutely positive that my daughter will know the difference between Darcy and Wickham before she’s in eighth grade; and it's likely that people who would gravitate toward this story would appreciate this kind of thinking. I’m talking about American children in general—kids whose parents work all day, whose fathers left them or whose mothers died. These could be children whose parents are unwise or don’t read any literature because they’re proudly working with their hands instead, assuming trained humanities teachers are responsibly and professionally inspiring their kids to appreciate literature. And even for the parents who do prioritize the humanities in their households, I’m not sure that one generation is actually sharing culturally relevant wisdom with the next one—not if the general community doesn’t even talk about what that wisdom specifically means. Each family can be responsible for teaching wisdom in their own way, and I’m fine with that. But then, does the idea of cultural wisdom get surrendered in the process?

Secular wisdom in the public schools seems like it should inherently spring from the literature that’s shaped American culture. And while the students focus on how Whitman’s "purpose shapes the content and style of his text," they’re obviously exposed to the words that describe his leaves of grass. And that’s good. But there is a noticeable deprioritization of literature, and a crumbling consensus regarding the nation’s idea of classic literature. The Common Core requires only Shakespeare, which is puzzling if only for its singularity. (A respected colleague recently called this stipulation "offensive," immediately rejecting "the audacity of elevating any of [Shakespeare’s] plays over anything ever written by anybody else.")

The country’s disregard for the institutional transfer of cultural wisdom is evident with this single observation: None of the state assessments has a single question about the content of any classic literature. They only test on reading skills, so teachers now prioritize these skills over content. This arrangement, in theory, allows students to read the literature on their own, when they get their own time—and I’m fine with that. But then, where are they getting the time and space to appreciate the deeper lessons of classic literature, to evaluate its truth and appropriately apply it to their own lives?

This year I introduced my students to Serial, a podcast recently produced by the public-radio show This American Life that told a riveting story over 12 episodes. I used the series as a primary text instead of anything written by Shakespeare, and the feedback was 98 percent positive. Serial was great for teaching the Common Core anchor standards (better than Shakespeare), but the lessons in wisdom were not as apparent. The protagonist at one point finally admits, "I never should have let someone hold my car. I never should have let someone hold my phone. I never should have been friends with these people. Who can I blame but myself?" That’s a nice collection of lessons—but it doesn’t seem to pack the same punch as one of Hamlet’s soliloquies.

I remember when, 10 years ago, my students spent an hour sharing their favorite lines from Father Zossima’s sermon in The Brothers Karamozov and how and why it affected their own lives. One student was visibly moved by the idea that suffering for a loved one might be a blessing available only in a life on Earth, not in heaven. A few different students called it "their favorite class ever." This morning, my student-teacher—a college student I’m training to be a classroom educator—used a hip-hop poem as a primary text and started the class by saying, "Today we’re going to practice Reading Standards 1, 2, and particularly 4" in reference to the anchor standards that the students had on their desks. If this sounds a little dry, I’m partly to blame—for a month, he’s been watching me ask the students to explicitly reflect on their progress in each of these technical areas. In any case, with habits like these, he’s sure to land a permanent job in the fall.

Admittedly, nothing about the Common Core or any modern shifts in teaching philosophies is forbidding me from sharing deeper lessons found in Plato’s cave or Orwell’s Airstrip One. The fine print of the Common-Core guidelines even mentions a few possible titles. But this comes with constant and pervasive language that favors objective analysis over personal engagement. Achieve the Core, for example, an organization founded by the lead writers of the standards, explicitly encourages schools to teach students to "extract" information so they can "note and assess patterns of writing" without relying on "any particular background information" or "students having other experiences or knowledge." This emphasis on what they call "text-dependent reading" contributes to a culture in which it’s not normal to promote cultural wisdom or personal growth; in fact, it’s almost awkward.

Inspired by what can only be called Writing Standard 6 ("Use technology to collaborate with others"), I did a mini-lesson about Twitter; a few students started following me, and I rewarded them with a follow-back. As a result, I knew why one sophomore girl looked so exhausted, empty, and hungover one morning. As I prepared to give a lesson on "determining where the text leaves matters uncertain," she looked at me miserably, and I had a feeling she knew that I had read her tweets from the night before. I felt like my silence was somehow condoning her choices, but I didn’t know what to tell her. With nothing to say, I knew I would have to quietly unfollow her.

Later, a kid who reminds me of the teenager I was in high school—a boy who is at different times depressed, excited, naive, and curious—asked me why I became an English teacher. I smiled in self-defense, but I was silent again, not knowing what to say anymore.