Where Personality Quizzes Go Wrong

Sometimes I take an online personality quiz for fun. It isn’t a good idea. Even flattering results leave me discouraged; I question the quiz’s authority but can’t talk back to it.

Of course some quizzes are meant for amusement, but others pretend to reveal some truth about your nature–even in ten or fewer questions. They even claim a scientific basis.

Here’s where such quizzes miss the mark. First, their claims far exceed their capabilities; they are crude instruments, yet their authors suggest that they can tell you something useful. There’s an inherent discrepancy between the pretension and the actual capability of such a quiz.

Second, the assumed categories (such as personality types) have inherent limitations. Such quizzes, by their very contents, tell only part of the truth. You might find out that you are “an” introvert when in fact you have a mixture of introverted and extraverted tendencies. (Now that Jonathan Cheek and colleagues are positing four kinds of introverts, there are quizzes to tell you which kind you are, as though you had to be one.)

Third, many such quizzes ask you what is “usually” true, when in fact your exceptions may play a large role in your life. For instance, I score low on neuroticism tests, because I do not worry much on the whole. When I do worry about something, I though, I can worry intensely. A quiz’s emphasis on “usual” or “average” behavior doesn’t capture this.

Fourth, the multiple-choice options may not apply to you at all. Sometimes they are directed at a different demographic from yours. Sometimes the authors didn’t consider all the possibilities. I find myself choosing the “least wrong” option instead of one that really suits me.

Fifth, many responses are contextual. Whether or not I enjoy a party really depends on the party. Whether I feel energized by others’ company depends largely on who they are and what else is going on. Sometimes it isn’t possible to give a true general response, yet the quiz requires it.

Sixth, the quiz may rest on shaky theoretical principles. For example, the MBTI was once standard fare but has come under heavy criticism. I will not be surprised if other tests come to a similar end.

Seventh, a questionnaire of this sort has value only when the results are analyzed intelligently. Doctors give questionnaires to help them with preliminary diagnoses; they treat the responses as a starting point, not the last word. No questionnaire should stand on its own as an arbiter of human nature.

Eighth, none of this comes close to the descriptions and characterizations found in literature. No personality test can approximate Pushkin’s poet, Melville’s Ahab, Gogol’s Chichikov, or Bellow’s Tamkin. The difference? In literature, you meet characters who may remind you of people you know, including yourself, but at the same time resemble no one. They let you do the same; when reading, you can find both affinity and liberty; you wake up into imagination.

Psychology has much to offer, but its quizzes tend toward hubris. Annie Murphy Paul says it well in The Cult of Personality Testing: “Personality tests take wildly different forms–questionnaires, inkblots, stories, drawings, dolls–but all make the same promise: to reduce our complicated, contradictory, changeable selves to a tidy label. These tests claim to measure not what we know, but what we’re like; not what we can do, but who we are.”

Even if they seem just silly, they make their way into workplaces, schools, and language. They play to the desire for “interactive” science and quick results; it seems cool to go online, take a test, and find something out about yourself in five minutes. They are basically the candy of self-knowledge, candy that too often gets served up as the main course.

Self-knowledge is much more than “I am this” and “I am that.” It requires long study of things outside the self; it requires participation in the world. A series of clicks won’t get you there.

Learning to Govern Oneself

What is Teacher book cover test3Happy New Year (of several kinds) to all!

For the past two days i have been in Dallas, where I spoke at the Education Forum at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture (and participated in panel discussions, plenary discussions, a seminar, and more). This year’s Education Forum celebrated the 30th  year of the Dallas Institute’s Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers, as well as the publication of the Dallas Institute’s wonderful book What Is a Teacher? Remembering the Soul Of Education Through Classic Literature, to which I contributed a chapter. I have just begun reading the other chapters, with great enjoyment. I met many people at the Forum and recognized many others from the Summer Institute and various Dallas Institute events. In addition, I had a chance to work through some ideas that have been on my mind and that I plan to carry into the school year.

This year, in my Ethics and Political Philosophy courses (for tenth and eleventh grade, respectively), I will bring up (and return to) the idea that education prepares a person for self-government. Self-government is not the same as “self-regulation” (a concept that Elizabeth Weil takes apart, with partial success, in a recent essay in The New Republic; more about that another time). Rather, it involves drawing on one’s knowledge and understanding to make numerous choices and decisions. None of us can escape being governed in some ways by others–our political leaders, our bosses, our teachers, and, in childhood, our parents–yet we can come to understand the terms of these arrangements (and question them intelligently).

The difficulty is this: self-government involves what seems its opposite: laying aside our own urges and immediate judgments in order to learn or consider something foreign to us. It may seem unrewarding, at first, to make one’s way through John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, but that treatise opens up rich ideas about intellectual liberty itself. Similarly, it takes great patience to listen to another person in the classroom, be it the teacher, a classmate, or even a musical recording–yet such listening can be a way of adding to one’s resources and treasures.

So, we will be discussing the idea if self-government (intermittently) while reading Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Mill, and many others. It’s a tricky and paradoxical concept–but it plays a role in many texts and has a great deal to do with education.

Free Will and Education Reform

George Henry Hall: The PomegranateThe question of free will bursts into question upon question. What does it mean to have free will? To what degree do we exercise it? How can we know? For all the swarms of ideas on the subject, there seems to be agreement—among philosophers, theologians, poets, psychologists, and others—that whatever freedom we might have, we do not control other people or the outcomes of our actions (and if we could, it would be unwise). What a refreshing thought—and what a far cry from today’s education reform, which insists on our ability to control others’ results!

Literature from ancient Greek drama to contemporary psychology warns about illusions of control. In Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (in Robert Fagles’ translation), the Chorus sings, “And neither by singeing flesh / nor tipping cups of wine / nor shedding burning tears can you / enchant away the rigid Fury.” Rabbi Hanina states in the Gemara of Berachot (33b) of the Talmud, “Everything is in the power of heaven except the fear of heaven.” (There are numerous interpretations  of this statement.) In recent centuries, literary, philosophical, psychological, religious, and sociological writings have emphasized the futility (or danger) of trying to control others.

Yet much of education reform assumes we can and should control others–in particular, their measurable achievement. This assumption is profoundly wrong. To rate teachers on their students’ test performance is to distort the educational endeavor. Teachers influence students (and their influence is great); they do not cause students to do well or poorly. (It’s one thing to analyze the results; it’s another to convert them by formula into a rating.)

“Very well,” someone might respond, “so you’ve admitted that teachers influence students. Are you saying this influence doesn’t matter?” Of course it matters; it gives meaning to the work and helps teachers heed the alarm clock in the mornings. Still, whenever the student steps out to do something—take a test, give a presentation, or read further on the subject—this is the student’s action, not the teacher’s. The student has the credit and the dignity (or should).

“In that case, teachers might as well throw up their hands,” another might say. “If they aren’t held accountable for results, why should they bother trying?”

When you think you might influence (but not control) your students, there is all the more reason to try. You get to share in something that is not your own, something that goes beyond you. When a student does well, you have the honor of contributing to it in some way; when a student does poorly or runs into difficulties, you have sorrow and the self-questioning. Honor and sorrow and self-questioning and responsibility inspire me a great deal more than the publication of teachers’ “value-added ratings” in the newspaper.

It is not just that they inspire me more; it’s that they serve as better guides. I don’t know, and have no way of knowing, how great my influence will be or what form it will take (beyond concrete and immediate learning). That is all the more reason to put thought and effort into my lessons: I am participating in something partly knowable, partly mysterious, but in any case larger than myself. If I had wanted a predictable effect on things, I would have become a chocolatier, a producer of delight and cavities. Even then, my results would not have been uniform.

Yes, of course I want concrete learning to come out of my lessons; of course I want to see evidence of it. Even so, I do not make it happen, nor do I set its limits. Even less do I control what comes out of that learning.

Many economists would disagree. A 2011 study (by Raj Chetty, John N. Friedman, and Jonah E. Rockoff) concludes that teachers affect not only students’ performance on tests, but also their college attendance and future earnings.  Granted, they say “affect,” not “cause,” but then they extrapolate: “Replacing a teacher whose VA is in the bottom 5% with an average teacher would increase the present value of students’ lifetime income by more than $250,000 for the average classroom in our sample.”

I think of D. H. Lawrence’s  “Pomegranate”: “Do you mean to tell me you will see no fissure?”

I respect these scholars and acknowledge the care that went into the study. Still, its projections assume minimal variation among students, little that could interfere with their earnings, and little room for them to choose their directions in life. Presumably, if teachers could “increase” students’ lifetime income by more than $250,000 (a projection based on limited data), then we could boost the economy just by replacing the low-ranking teachers. We could replace our way to a better world.

But what if the students’ lifetime income didn’t increase as expected? What if these students faced layoffs, job changes, and life difficulties, or chose professions that didn’t pay especially well? What could one replace then, for better outcomes? Perhaps one could give each of their choices a value-added rating (in terms of how much income it produced) and demand that they make lucrative life choices. Someone would have to chase after them and make sure they did so.

What if illness and war and death got in the way? Well, one would have to replace those students who got sick or died, or who grieved the death of others. No room for mortality (or aging) in the picture, especially if it interferes with earnings.

We are left, then, with those select few who don’t age, fall ill, or die—and who, without fail, take actions that bring them more money.

We are down to no one—but there, in that world of none, we have attained prosperity!

Happy are those who do not inhabit that world.

Unthinking Beauty

After decades of “rethinking” beauty, the Team of Real-world Utilitarian Educators (TRUE) has made a unanimous decision to unthink it altogether, to demand that all schools implement the unthinking without delay, and to hold a national conference on the subject.

“Beauty is all economically based,” said TRUE president Lelijk Jones. “I’ve seen fifteen-year-olds who can paint better than Jackson Pollock. But Jackson Pollock’s the one who gets into the museums. It has nothing to do with quality; it’s all about money. I know some would disagree with me and say Jackson Pollock is a great artist. That just proves my point. There’s no agreement here.”

“Also, beauty doesn’t get us to where we want to go,” said Amy Strela, a hedge-fund manager, multimillionaire philanthropist, and founder of TRUE. “Looking good is one thing. Striving for beauty is another—it takes too much time. We need our children to set specific, attainable, measurable goals for themselves. Beauty’s a big hindrance. It isn’t always specific. It’s only sometimes attainable, and it sure isn’t measurable.”

“I agree,” said Elise Verloren, a high school sophomore who had quit the piano in order to devote more time to résumé-building. “I used to spend a few hours a day practicing and listening to music. Then they told me at school that I wasn’t doing enough for my leadership skills or for my community. I started working on those things, but then it was painful to go back to the piano. So I decided to focus on the real-world stuff.”

“Ms. Verloren brings up an authentic problem,” said social psychologist Doug Polezny. “There is a socially based tension between social and aesthetic life demands. It’s important to choose one or the other, because it’s… well, because it is. Since we live in a high-needs world, everyone should serve the social demands, at least for now. Schools should emphasize them in all the subjects.  School districts should advertise the new emphasis. Research has shown that targeted communication relieves people of mental conflicts and results in an increase of the desired behavior.”

Some TRUE dissidents (members who quit after the resolution passed) object that utility and beauty are not mutually exclusive. “I grow vegetables and flowers in my garden,” said one, “and I have no plans to get rid of either. My garden shears are good for both.”

“In an ideal world with gardens, you might be able to have it both ways,” conceded President Jones. “But we’ve only got twenty-four hours in a day, and beauty has a way of stealing an awful lot of those hours, if you let it.”

The “Unthinking Beauty” conference will contain no mention of beauty whatsoever. Instead, presenters will demonstrate strictly useful curricula, lessons, and workplace setups. “We must stress that just because something isn’t beautiful, doesn’t mean it isn’t pleasing to the eye,” said conference planner Tad Neznam. “We like things that you like. The point is not to stop liking things; it’s to stop loving them. You can still be comfortable in your environment. We even encourage it, for productivity’s sake. In fact, we’re all about improving the colors in workplaces and hitting the research-proven noise level.”

In a world without the B-word, according to the TRUE resolution, there’s much more time to get things done. “Just imagine how many hours are gained when you give up Mahler’s symphonies, not to mention Moby-Dick,” said Strela, who plans to donate ten million dollars for the construction of the first national beauty-free library. “Even a Shakespeare sonnet takes up time that could be spent on something else. We’re not talking page numbers. We’re talking time.”

“These people need to read Dostoevsky,” said Jeremiah Porfiry, an outspoken tenth-grader.

“No time for that, especially if there’s any you-know-what in his novels,” replied Strela.

Pre-registration for Unthinking Beauty is now open; the cost is $2,500 per registrant, regardless of age. Registrants receive access to the VIP Room, admission to twelve speed networking events and three seminars, and a reserved seat in the state-of-the-art auditorium.

Why Give Literature an Honored Place in School?

In education discussion and elsewhere, the terms “literature,” “fiction,” and “nonfiction” get jumbled up a bit. I jumble them too—I catch myself talking about “literature vs. nonfiction,” for instance, knowing that there’s overlap between the two. The term “literature” refers to works with lasting artistic merit (except when one is talking about the “literature” on a given topic). Artistic merit is difficult to define, but it involves a certain transcendence as well as mastery. A literary work goes beyond literal meaning; it has hints, metaphors, paradoxes, juxtapositions, ironies. It takes us a bit beyond the information that it presents. Moby-Dick may teach us a thing or two about whales, but that’s only part of what it does.

In that sense, the push for more and more “nonfiction” in classrooms (for instance, through the Common Core Standards) does threaten literature instruction. Those pushing for more “nonfiction” rarely have Emerson, Buber, or Kierkegaard in mind—works that tease us with possibilities. They want students to read argumentative pieces and informational reports: that is, works with a clear thesis supported by evidence. Of course it’s important for students to read such works; the problem lies in privileging them: in hinting, through one mandate after another, that informational text is more useful than literature (for college and career preparation) and therefore more valuable.

“But no one’s saying that!” some will protest. “No one said that informational text was to come at the expense of literature. The ELA standards apply to all of the subjects, not to English class alone.” Well, if this were so, English teachers would not be getting directives to include much more informational text in their curricula. New York State would not be considering a proposal to require high school students to write a research paper (for English class) that draws on at least four informational texts. Make no mistake: the push is for informational text. And it’s destructive as well as misguided.

Should students be reading informational nonfiction? Of course—but they don’t have to do this in English class. From elementary school onward, they should read on scientific, historical, and other topics. They should have a chance to read ancient mathematical proofs, musical scores, biographies, letters, historical documents, and more. Where should this take place? In the most appropriate classes. At times, students might read a work of fiction for history, or study a song for English. In the early elementary years, some of the courses may be combined into “literacy blocks”—so that students may find themselves reading poetry and historical narratives in the same class. But overall, each course should have readings for its domain—and English class should be the place for literary works.

An English course in expository writing might be an exception here. If a school’s English department offered a specific course in writing a research paper, then the other English courses wouldn’t have to be eroded. My high school had such a course—and many students reported years later that it was the most important course they took. Nonetheless, the other English courses were devoted to literature, excellent literature, and no one apologized for that. It was in middle and high school that I first read Sophocles, Euripides, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Hardy, Faulkner, O’Connor, T. S. Eliot, and others. No one doubted that such works were important; no one suggested that we were deficient in information. (We read a range of historical works and wrote research papers for history class.)

Now, there are big gaps in my education, including my literary education, but I found myself prepared not only for college, not only for a range of workplaces (even in the 21st century), but for a life that I want to lead, a life that involves pondering words, listening to music, and sifting through thoughts. I was not prepared in all ways, but who can be? Either one enters predictable situations with skills and knowledge to match them, or one enters the unknown, with the risk that one may not always know what to do. Who on earth would want the former? I’ll take the uncertainty and the risk any day, again and again. That said, one shouldn’t be foolhardy about risks; one shouldn’t enter the adult world defenseless. I have been foolhardy at times, defenseless at times, but not in relation to academic or vocational knowledge. I had what I needed in order to learn more; I had, moreover, a store of things to recall and reread.

Reminiscence aside, what is at stake here? Why stick one’s neck out for literature? It isn’t always beautiful (beauty is a complex topic), meaningful (try to find a stable meaning in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground), or even likable (I find 100 Years of Solitude irritating at times). It is easy to slip into sentimentality about literature, but sentimentality is not the point. Literature deserves an honored place in schools for many reasons, including its ability to open up areas of life that we might not otherwise face. There is room in it for bravery and uncertainty. When reading “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” one does not have to be snappy and polished; one does not have to put on a good face or rattle off talking points. One can roam for a while in the lovely and perplexing mess. (It isn’t mess itself, by any means–but it allows for a bit of the messy, and takes us out of the realm of the pat.)

Today’s students learn skills like “speed networking”—making a quick, flawless impression. What they don’t learn, often, is the practice of mulling, of staying with something they don’t immediately understand, and of allowing themselves their own mysteries too, and allowing themselves time. Not all students have lost this; some know how to sit with uncertainty, difficulty, questions, pain. Sadly, these very students get faulted for being “off-task,” since the tasks have become quick and shallow. Our priorities have gone off kilter; things that can keep us mindful and soulful get shorter and shorter shrift.


Note: I made a few edits to this piece after its initial posting.

A Book Club for Overlooked Masterpieces

Cynthia Haven’s blog The Book Haven is one of the richest and most thougthful blogs I have encountered. I love reading her pieces on Joseph Brodsky, Tomas Venclova, Czesław Miłosz, and others. So, it was an honor to see that one of my recent pieces had inspired her to listen to a recording of Tomas Venclova reading his own poetry.

Today, when I visited her blog, I read a post that answered some questions that have been on my mind: How does one draw attention to a book one loves, a book that has been in some way overlooked, and how does one give such a book to others?

Cynthia Haven and Tobias Wolff have found a way to do just that. They created a book club devoted not to the book of the moment, but to overlooked masterpieces. It’s called “Another Look” and will debut on November 12, at Stanford University, with a discussion of William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow.

I was so happy to read this news that I trekked out to the local bookstore in Park Slope (about two neighborhoods away from me) to purchase Maxwell’s novel, which I have not read. I rarely have room for book recommendations; I read slowly and am severely backlogged. But this was something too special to pass over.

I hadn’t been out since the storm, except to get coffee, so this was my first stretch of the legs in several days, in the midst of tourist-like residents who were taking photos of fallen branches. Fortunately that was the extent of the damage, from what I could tell, in this part of Brooklyn.

The bookstore didn’t have the novel on its own, but it did have a volume of Maxwell’s later novels and stories, which I gratefully seized (and purchased). I came home and read two of Maxwell’s short stories: “The Man Who Had No Friends and Didn’t Want Any” and “A Fable Begotten of an Echo of a Line of Verse by W. B. Yeats.” Now I know I have a treasure in my hands, or many treasures.

I will read So Long, See You Tomorrow by November 12 so that I can imagine the book discussion. What a great thing for Wolff, Haven, and the other participants to do.

Wolff’s own stories need no recommendation from me–but if anyone wishes for a place to start, I recommend his collection In the Garden of the North American MartyrsHis novel, Old School, has been on my mind a great deal lately. I commented on it recently and may say more about it soon.

Scaffolding or Teaching?

There has been uproar recently about teaching prescriptions arising from the Common Core State Standards. In a guide for publishers, David Coleman and Susan Pimentel (the main authors of the standards for English Language Arts) discourage teachers from engaging students in “pre-reading” activities. Students should focus directly on the text, without distraction. Teachers may provide “scaffolding” (that is, necessary information or other instructional support) but should not do anything to replace the students’ actual reading. Coleman and Pimentel revised the guidelines in April in response to criticisms and concerns. But the revised version still assumes that an informational lesson or the offering of insight is “scaffolding.”

Not all direct instruction is scaffolding, though. The very term “scaffolding” implies that students should ultimately be doing the work on their own. Teachers provide temporary support to help them get there, then take it away when they don’t need it any more. For instance, a teacher might provide vocabulary words and their meanings, then provide the words and have the students look them up, then have students identify and look up words on their own.

But when  we study literature, our independent reading is only part of what we do. We learn, also, from classmates and the teacher. Their insights add to our own. In college and graduate school, the professor is supposed to offer insights into the text. This isn’t “scaffolding.” This is teaching and scholarship.

As students advance in a subject (let’s continue to consider English for now), two things happen at once. On the one hand, they become capable of handling the material independently at a certain level. On the other, they come to recognize that there’s more to be grasped. Certain kinds of instruction do indeed “scaffold” the material to help the students gain basic understanding. Other kinds take them beyond that basic understanding. The categories overlap, of course.

So the question becomes: what are we teaching? There’s a difference between literacy and literature instruction; the one focuses on reading; the other, on interpretation of specific works. In the elementary years, literacy may be the focus. Students read across the subjects and build knowledge along the way. They reach a point where they can pick up a book, read it with little help, and answer questions about it. Teachers should give them essential background information so that they ultimately won’t need such help. But as they advance through the grades, the focus of English class moves toward literature. The point now is to help them see things in a work that aren’t obvious even after a careful reading.

Given the differences between literacy and literature study, where do “pre-reading” activities (activities that prepare for the reading) come into play? When should they be avoided? Certain kinds of “pre-reading” activities distract and deflect from the text, no matter what the level. I have seen lessons that did everything but delve into the book. Students looked at the picture on the cover, made predictions about the text, connected these predictions to their own lives, and on and on. I saw a lesson on Maya Angelou’s poem “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me” where students spent most of the time making lists of things that scared them. I have seen “genre” lessons—even in first grade—where students learned to determine a book’s genre and make guesses about its content before reading it. (I have seen similar activities, albeit a little fancier-sounding, in some graduate school courses.) Often I have wanted to say: “For crying out loud, let’s read the book!”

But information provided by the teacher can be interesting and helpful, even essential. Many works assume knowledge on the reader’s part, so it makes sense to give students this. I assume that the original audience of Homer’s Iliad knew who Athena was and where Troy was. They also understood, at least instinctively, what dactylic hexameter was; they grasped not only the story line, but its cadences. Why not give young students (and older students) such an entrance into the reading? If students already know their Greek mythology, why not revisit it? And if the teacher knows Greek, why shouldn’t she recite a little of the original Homer for them? Wouldn’t that give them a sense of its sounds and rhythms?

Some information may not be essential but may bring students farther into the text. This spring, when teaching Leo Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich to tenth graders, I brought in a passage from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. I wanted the students to consider Aristotle’s idea of virtue as a mean, then look at the “happy mean” of Ivan Ilyich’s life and consider why this is so different from the sort of virtue that Aristotle describes. Granted, the students could have read Tolstoy’s story without the Aristotle passage. They would even have understood that Ivan Ilyich’s “happy mean” was not so happy. But the juxtaposition with the Aristotle gave them a greater sense of Tolstoy’s irony and of Ivan Ilyich’s miserable situation. I would not call this scaffolding.

Nor would I call “scaffolding” what my college professors have taught me. I remember reading Nikolai Gogol’s story “The Nose” for the first time, in Russian. The professor pointed out the skewed logic as she read passages aloud and laughed herself to tears. We were all capable of understanding the Russian text. But she pointed out Gogol’s subtle logical tricks and wordplay—things that made us pay all the more attention. Yes, I would have enjoyed Gogol even without this instruction, but it was this practice of listening to certain passages, hearing her comment on them, reading them again to myself, and thinking about them some more that made me fall in love with his work. I ended up writing my dissertation on Gogol.

So, we have two complementary truths, two aspects of education. One is that schools should bring students to a point of independence. Another is that the independence is fullest and richest when we continue to learn from others. The Common Core State Standards, and education policy overall, should acknowledge this latter truth.

Fiction Is Not Fluff

A slew of recent articles have reported on the push for more nonfiction in schools around the country. The Common Core State Standards specify that by twelfth grade, 70 percent of a student’s assigned reading should be “informational” text, and 30 percent “literary” text. This ratio applies to the curriculum across the subjects, but English teachers are trying to squeeze more nonfiction in their courses. After all, they will be judged on their students’ performance on tests. Nonfiction is fine, but the pressure is not. In pushing nonfiction because it is nonfiction (or its non-equivalent, “informational text”), we are hurtling into a big mistake.

The rationale for the ratio is that students need to read widely. They must be able to understand informational texts in order to succeed in college and careers. Unfortunately, this argument often carries an overtone of hostility toward fiction and literature overall. If nonfiction is serious, essential, practical, and real, then fiction, according to some, must be a waste of time. A commenter on Jay Mathews’ blog complains that students don’t know how to read closely, because they have been fed a diet of “feelings books” instead of texts that explain how things work or what happened. Now, this may be true, but it has little to do with fiction or nonfiction. A nonfiction book may be primarily a “feelings book,” whereas a work of fiction, drama, or poetry may be intellectually and aesthetically complex.

The nonfiction mandate (mixed with rumor and anxiety) comes in response to a lack. Many elementary and middle schools around the country devote large portions of the day to “literacy blocks,” where students practice reading strategies on books of their own choice. Little or no subject-matter instruction occurs during these blocks. As a result, many children enter high school with scant background knowledge across the subjects. Many continue to struggle with basic reading. The problem affects students, teachers, and schools. A students might drop out of school, a teacher might lose a job, and a school might face closure, in large part because of curricular deficiencies in the early years.

Thus it makes sense to have students read across the subjects—to build their knowledge on a wide range of topics. This will ultimately make them stronger readers of literature as well as science and history. For some, it will make school interesting. Some students may find themselves engrossed in the anatomy of a beetle or the history of a river. It will enrich future courses as well; teachers can build on knowledge and insight that students have already acquired.

Very well. But it is folly to privilege “informational text” over literature—to imply that it is more serious, important, academic, advanced, or useful. We see this tendency even in this year’s ELA tests (or what little information we have about them). In a New York State test scoring guide, two sample tasks involve judging a fictional text against “facts.” Third graders are asked to read an Algonquin legend and then explain why it could not happen in real life. Sixth graders are asked to read a Nigerian folktale and an article on the sun and the moon, and then “explain how the folktale would have to change if it were based on the facts in the article.” Granted, these are just samples, but they suggest an effort judge fiction by fact. If we continue in this vein, we’ll be in deep trouble, and so will the students who have to tackle these strange tasks.

Such privileging of fact is not good preparation for college. Each field has its language and logic. It is as misguided to insist that literature be true to fact as it is to turn mathematics into a series of word problems. Moreover, any serious study involves play. In literature, we thrill in the paradox, the impossible, the imagined, the uncertain, even as we focus on details and structures. We stop to admire passages without knowing exactly why, even after years of analyzing them. We laugh and laugh over the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, Tristram Shandy, Akaky Akakievich, and Humpty Dumpty. Other subjects, too, have their uncertainties, rumination, and delight. In mathematics, insights do not come when called. No matter how much we learn about methods, we are often left blundering, turning a problem this way and that, until suddenly the solution comes through. In history, no structure is perfect; we search for the one that will explain events clearly without oversimplifying them. Facts are part of each field but not the sum total. If they were, the fields would be dead.

The domain of literature is nothing to scoff at. Literature is made-up stuff, yet it takes us to old truths—not through data, not through statistics, but through story, image, rhythm. It shows us things we might not otherwise see; it reminds us of things we heard long ago. Take this passage from The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy:

Henchard bent and kissed her cheek. The moment and the act he had contemplated for weeks with a thrill of pleasure; yet it was no less than a miserable insipidity to him now that it had come. His reinstation of her mother had been chiefly for the girl’s sake, and the fruition of the whole scheme was such dust and ashes as this.

Even out of context, the passage shows mastery of language and form. The final phrase brings to mind the words from the Anglican burial service, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” (as well as Genesis 18:27 and Job 30:19). There’s a funeral in Henchard’s mind, a death of a fantasy and plan, combined with a “fruition,” a dream come miserably true. There is a cadence, a lasting quality, in the way the passage ends. This passage and the novel demand close reading; there is nothing trivial here.

Granted, not many students read Hardy in school or elsewhere today. But they certainly won’t read it if English teachers cut down on literature. Novels (and even poems and plays) will get short shrift; in some districts, apparently, teachers have been instructed not to teach more than one novel per year (see the fourth comment). (I’d be content with two superb novels per year; there’s every reason to make room for lyric poetry, epic, drama, short stories, and essays. But it should depend largely on the course.) Some students may read such works on their own, but most will not; they won’t see the point of doing so. Thus, a mandate intended to lift the intellectual level may end up bringing it down.

There are practical problems, moreover, with a fiction/nonfiction ratio. First, the definitions of fiction and nonfiction get fuzzy in places. Where would Homer’s Iliad fall? What about Plato’s Republic? What about Cicero’s “Dream of Scipio,” Erasmus’s Praise of Folly, Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, or Auden’s “September 1, 1939”? If you answered fiction-nonfiction-nonfiction-nonfiction-fiction-fiction, you’re probably right by educators’ standards, but the terms seem somewhat arbitrary here. All of these works are worth reading; all could be included in a first-rate curriculum. What does it matter whether they count as fiction or nonfiction?

Second, there is no adequate way to measure the ratios. Shall it be by number of works? By word count? By some formula that weighs word count against difficulty level? Any approach will render itself absurd. The number of titles is certainly misleading, as some works are much more demanding than others. The same is true for word count. A formula will only prove frustrating; it could wield far too much influence over the actual selection of works. Teachers will find themselves testing various combinations on the formula until something passes. Out of anxiety, schools will err on the safe side and eliminate a good deal of literature from their curriculum. When people must follow foolish directives, they will often do foolish things.

What should schools do instead? There’s nothing wrong with including more nonfiction for its merits. Yes, students should be reading historical materials in history class. In science class, they could certainly read the textbook, and there may be room for classic scientific works and modern articles as well. In English class, students should read literature and literary nonfiction and perhaps other materials that shed light on them. The focus should be not on the proportions, but on the substance. In a good curriculum, the proportions will come on their own.

But policymakers get ruffled over the idea of a good curriculum. What is it? Should schools decide this for themselves? What if their definitions vary widely? How can we ensure any level of accountability? In addition, isn’t it likely that schools will find some rationale for what they’re already doing? All of these are worthy concerns, but let’s not assume that schools are devoid of good ideas and practice. There are excellent curricula that could inspire others directly and indirectly. There are teachers who create and teach substantial and memorable courses. We don’t need a uniform curriculum, but we can define some common elements and shape individual curricula from there. We could identify a few works that all students should study, and leave the remaining selections to the schools.

There is no substitute for good sense and good education. The push for more nonfiction (because it’s nonfiction) will not raise the level of learning in schools; it may even depress it. What’s needed is careful thought about what we’re actually teaching—the subjects and works themselves—and how we can make our offerings stronger and more beautiful. Yes, more beautiful too. Beauty is not a frill.

Literature’s Mischief

My favorite literature professors in college had one trait in common: a sense of mischief. They were serious, devoted scholars, leaders in their fields—but their eyes and words twinkled when they spoke. They understood and conveyed the aspects of literature that wriggle away from us, stump us, play tricks on us, tease us with allusions, and run away.

They stood outside of literary fashions and jargon. Elsewhere I would hear people say “subversion,” “embodiment,” the “I persona,” and other such words, over and over. Such terms did have meaning, but many used them for safety. “Subversion” was one of the most frequently abused; any tilting, any twist of a trope becamse “subversion.” Sometimes I wanted nothing more than to gallop off into the fields and read with bees, not buzzwords, in my midst (though I am allergic to bees).

Later, I found a similar tendency in K–12 education, in the emphasis on “reading strategies.” Here again, jargon stood in for crafty, well-tuned reading. Students (supposedly) learned how to predict, make inferences, and determine importance, as though these skills could be applied uniformly. The strategy-promoters treated literary works as interchangeable, replaceable, and subordinate to processes.

But literature doesn’t bow to strategies or to fancy terms. It makes its own way and takes a feather-duster to our thoughts. On January 1, 1917, Robert Frost wrote to Louis Untermeyer, “You get more credit for thinking if you restate formulae or cite cases that fall in easily under formulae, but all the fun is outside saying things that suggest formulae that won’t formulate—that almost but don’t quite formulate. I should like to be so subtle at this game as to seem to the casual person altogether obvious. The casual person would assume I meant nothing or else I came near enough meaning something he was familiar with to mean it for all practical purposes. Well, well, well.”

Here Frost points to the egoism of casual reading. When you read something breezily, you tend to make it what you think it is. It becomes, in some sense, an image of yourself. It’s attentive reading that takes you into the surprises and the mischief.

It would be foolish to try to locate mischief in every literary work; not all literature is mischievous, and mischief takes many forms.. The point is to recognize it where it does occur and to have room for it in oneself—room for zigzags and leaps and wiggles.

Examples of mischief in literature abound. I’ll give just a few.

1. The opening lines of Reflections on Espionage, a spy tale in verse by John Hollander:

Cupcake here. Hardly anything to report
Today: the weather will be suitable
Only for what can be done in the morning
And on the outlying islands….

Here’s the utterly unlikely opening “Cupcake here” (who ever heard of a poem beginning with “Cupcake here”?) set against the humdrum “Hardly anything to report / Today.” And there’s already some suspense: what is it that can be done in the morning and on the outlying islands? The reader is drawn into the tale, the verse, the codename (there will be many more), and the rest.

2. A passage in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. There’s hardly an unmischievous passage in that book.

I define a nose, as follows,—intreating only beforehand, and beseeching my readers, both male and female, of what age, complexion, and condition soever, for the love of God and their own souls, to guard against the temptations and suggestions of the devil, and suffer him by no art or wile to put any other ideas into their minds, than what I put into my definition.—For by the word Nose, throughout all this long chapter of noses, and in every other part of my work, where the word Nose occurs,—I declare, by that word I mean a Nose, and nothing more, or less.

The narrator is clearly inviting the reader to find other meanings in “Nose”—but that’s not all. There’s the impish digression—the beseechings, the moral buildup, the syntactical crescendo—all leading to the truism “a nose is a nose.” There’s something suggestive in “of what age, complexion, and condition soever,” as though the reader’s physique had something to do with the matter. There’s the appeal to the “love of God,” when all the while the narrator is using the wiles that he attributes to the devil.

3. This will be the last example: a poem in Saul Bellow’s short novel Seize the Day. The mysterious guru Tamkin has written the poem for T0mmy Wilhelm, the central character, who finds himself adrift in midlife’s muddle. The poem is dreadful, by Bellow’s design—forced, silly, bombastic—but like Tamkin himself, it has a few flecks of truth. I’ll quote only the title and first stanza, so as to stay within “fair use.”



If thee thyself couldst only see
Thy greatness that is and yet to be,
Thou would feel joy-beauty-what ecstasy.
They are at thy feet, earth-moon-sea, the trinity.

With these three examples I have only dipped into the topic. There are thousands more. I have not tried to classify mischief or to provide a history of it. But the examples have these traits in common: they bend to no fads (though they may play with a fad or two), they bring out possibilities of language, and they push a person into thought and laughter. And if  there is a God who looks down upon our bumblings, it may well be such passages, among other things, that convince Him (or Her, or some Mysterious Pronoun) that we were worth the ruckus.

Should Schools Make Kids Read Books They Don’t Like?

For the right reasons and in the right ways, yes.

Some educators believe fervently in allowing students to choose which books to read in school. Proponents of “Balanced Literacy” and similar programs argue that if students choose books that interest them, they will be more motivated, gain more from the books, and eventually wend their way to literary classics. By contrast, when schools and teachers impose books on students, then students come to see reading as obligatory, difficult, and dreary.

Ideally, a school should do both: select certain books for their beauty, merit, interest, and significance, while giving students opportunities to choose books that interest them. But because the former requires considerable knowledge, planning, attention, and time, it should receive priority during the school day. Students should have some quiet reading time at school—at least once a week—but should grapple together with literary works in literature class.

Why? There are many good reasons: building students’ literary knowledge, fostering common knowledge, and more. I’ll focus on one reason that doesn’t get mentioned too often: the importance of disliking a book. Dislikes can be fruitful. First of all, to quote Marianne Moore out of context, we “do not admire what / we cannot understand.” Through sticking with something that they initially resist, students can come to a better understanding of it. Sometimes it’s the vocabulary that throws kids off. Sometimes it’s the characters’ names. Sometimes it’s the form; the story may not go the way they expect a story to go. Sometimes it’s an unfamiliar setting or context. Sometimes the kids don’t understand the metaphors or allusions at first. But through attentive reading and lively discussion (guided by a knowledgeable teacher), students may break through these obstacles and find their way into the works. They would not have done this if they had been confined to their own urges, to the books they liked right away.

Beyond that, even if the dislike doesn’t go away, it can be instructive. When it comes to literature, strong reactions serve us well. There are those who don’t like Hemingway, plain and simple, or don’t think Tolstoy deserves all the acclaim he has received. These are important reactions; they come from a person’s conception of literature: what it is, what it should be, and what makes it good. But you can’t form such a view unless you have read something you disliked—carefully. Knee-jerk reactions don’t go far; penetrating critiques do. By honing such responses, allowing oneself to be both right and wrong along the way, one finds one’s ground.

Now, a student should not be subjected to torture, nor should a teacher. There should be enough variety that students will take to some works right away; there should be enough careful planning that he or she may ease into challenges and develop requisite background. Enthusiasm goes a long way, too, as the educator Jessica Lahey has pointed out. Teachers should have room to teach some of their favorite literature so that they can light it up for the students. Even so, a teacher may do a splendid job with a work that isn’t quite a favorite; it challenges her to find the good, which does exist if the work is worth its salt.

There is such a thing as literary merit. It takes different forms but comes down to endurance. An excellent work of literature reveals more of itself over time. It doesn’t fall out of fashion, or if it does, the falling doesn’t harm it. It’s the sort of book that one wants to keep in the shelf, not just for its presence but for rereadings. Teachers should guide students into such works; students should learn to trust the books, the teacher, and their own instincts. The three may clash at points, but such a clash has value. We read not only for pleasure, but also for confrontation: to be lifted out of where we are right now, into other possibilities and ways of seeing the world. In this confrontation there will be some dislike. No way around it. So it should be. And dislike can tantalize the tongue and mind like cocoa.