Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Barbarians at the Gate: A response to Chris Crutcher on the Montgomery County curriculum case

I'm still rubbing my eyes in disbelief that a rural Kentucky school district is defending itself against its national detractors for setting its academic standards too high. The next time someone makes a disparaging remark about Kentucky being some kind of educational backwater, I'm going to remind them about the Montgomery County High School case in which a school district, in demanding that an accelerated college prep course use literature with higher than a 6th grade reading level, was accused by a mob of national critics of censorship.

Chris Crutcher, author of Deadline, one of the books taken out of the curriculum in an advanced course at Montgomery County High School, has, unfortunately, joined the barbarian hordes battering on schoolhouse doors demanding a lowering of academic standards. His reasons for supporting the Decline and Fall of Academic Standards are laid out in his remarks in the comment section of my previous post on this issue

Crutcher's first point is about Superintendent Daniel Freeman's remark that the books were for "reluctant readers":
I guess I'd like to comment on Superintendent Freeman's assertion that none of these books will help students when they go to college, that they are for "reluctant readers." For one thing, a lot of students going to college are also reluctant readers.
The issue, as I keep pointing out in this debate, is that this is an accelerated college preparatory course we are talking about. Why would there be reluctant readers in an advanced college preparatory course? If they are in it, there are only two possibilities: either they do not belong in the class, in which case they should be placed in another class on grounds that they're not ready for it, or they do belong in it, in which case they should replace the class on grounds that the class is not what it purports to be.

Freeman understand this, but Crutcher doesn't seem to, which makes Crutcher's accusation that Freeman is somehow lacking in awareness of the important issues here somewhat ironic. the second point was about what is appropriate for a college preparatory course in high school:
Also, the issues focused on in many of these books are issues kids will face in college. I challenge Dr. Freeman to become a bit more informed regarding what many college professors expect from their students. I speak at colleges and universities all the time and my books, including Deadline, are part of many curriculums.
The chief issue in college is how to handle higher level material. If Crutcher things that the best way to prepare students for higher level material is to familiarize them with lower level material, it is hard to know what to say except that his is a novel approach to college preparation. Maybe the football team at Montgomery County High School should start lowering the amount of weight the players are lifting in the gym to make their muscles bigger, huh?

Crutcher's own book is apparently written at a 6th grade reading level according to the lexile measurement. Now Crutcher maintains that those like Freeman who believe that books written at a 6th grade reading level (others of the books involve here score as low as 3rd grade reading level) aren't appropriate for a college prep course are unfamiliar with what colleges expect from their students.

Crutcher can be saying only two things here: either that his books are at a high enough intellectual level to qualify them for college prep reading or that college curricula are now in such a debased state that they are using young adult fiction in their curricula. We know the first isn't true because these books are written on an elementary reading level. So we are left with the second, a conclusion that can only be the cause of despair about the state of higher education.

As I asked in the comments section of the original post on this issue, which colleges are using young adult fiction in a serious college level course? I want the names of the colleges that are doing this so we can make sure prospective students know what they're getting for the $20-$30K that they are now being asked to fork over per year for a supposedly university level education.
Mr. Freeman's assertion about college bound kids and curriculum for college bound students is either disingenuous or misinformed. I ache for the old conservatism. My father was a World War II bomber pilot, a patriot and a conservative to his core. He was far better read than Dr. Freeman (for one thing, he read MY books) and there was nary a classic from which he couldn't quote. He was on the school board from the time my older brother started school until the time my younger sister graduated. And he would have run a nail through his eye before he would have allowed this kind of censorship. And it IS censorship. Agreed, Dr. Freeman did not BAN a book if the books are still available to all kids in the school library, but he did censor.
Does Crutcher really believe that taking actions to strengthen the academic level of a curriculum is censorship? If he does, then he has a very strange definition of censorship. If he really believes this, then his definition of censorship is so broad as to be meaningless. It means that any curricular decision that selects some books and reject others is an act of censorship, which in turn means that most of what curriculum staff in schools do is censorship.

This is not only silly, it is preposterous.
In the old days, conservatives invited ideas. They weren't afraid to discuss and debate issues that made them uncomfortable. They also heartily believed in the separation of church and state, for the good of the church AND the state.
In the old days liberals did accuse serious people making serious decisions about what belongs in a curriculum with censorship. They weren't afraid to discuss and debate issues without charging their detractors with the suppression of ideas either. And in regard to church and state...

... What does church and state have to do with debate? This has to be a textbook example of a red herring: a point that has nothing to do with the question at issue. The debate has absolutely nothing to do with church and state. If it does, Crutcher ought to explain why. Did Freeman quote the Bible or something? Was his church involved in this decision?

These kinds of debates are in one sense disappointing because they show that the people who are in charge of the much of the popular culture in our country--in and out of schools--are clearly not capable of making fundamental distinctions like that between popular culture and academic culture, between what does and does not constitute serious literature, and what is and isn't censorship.
Here's an alternative look at what is good for college bound kids: Read everything you can get your hands on.
No. Sorry. One of the worst problems we have is that there is a flood of literary junk out there. I spend a lot of time in bookstores and at book sales and I read and read about reading. The tide of poor quality literature is at close to epidemic proportions. The exact thing we shouldn't do is to have our children "read everything they can get their hands on."

The chief reading problem today is the lack of discrimination. Picking out books isn't like gorging yourself at a buffet; it's like panning for gold: most of what you pick up isn't worth much. You have find the stuff that is worth your trouble. And the nice thing about it is that much if it has already been done for you. In the case of older books, the vetting has already been done for you, otherwise they wouldn't still be around. In the case of new books, the problem of determining whether they're worth reading is more difficult.

In any case, the judgment about whether a book is good or not is not always the same as the question of whether it needs to be part of a curriclum, and the question of whether it should be part of a curriculum is not a matter of censorship.


8th Grade Student said...

Kids Education is more important to anything. For Example, the Montgomery County Ciriculam is taking there education very seriously. There setting there academic Standard very high so that the students will get into better collages. Just the school don't want that. In the blog it Says "The issue, as I keep pointing out in this debate, is that this is an accelerated college preparatory course we are talking about. Why would there be reluctant readers in an advanced college preparatory course?" There creating a course where they prep for collage and that there ready. Furthermore, Education is important but if you focus too much on it, then it will effect the future.

Lee said...

8th Grade Student, You should be teaching classes in modern high schools, not taking them.

In fact, maybe you are... So their!

Unknown said...

Lexile levels are not the only appropriate decider for selecting books. The Prologue of the Gospel of John is written at a first grade reading level. I don't think you would expect first graders to discuss the hypostatic union of Jesus. "Winnie-the-Pooh" is written at a seventh grade reading level. Should we restrict it to those who read at a seventh grade level? Most adult books are written at a fifth grade reading level.

It's not just vocabulary, but the concepts of the plot. For example, "Unwind" deals with important issues that college prep students should address. What is the nature of humanity? What is the value of human life? Do you own yourself or does society? Who is your family? Not fluffy themes.

gLeEk said...

I feel very strongly that students education is very important. I personally have grown very much in English and Language arts because of my teachers and the difficulties that they are teaching them at. both my 6th 7th and 8th grade english teachers have taught me everything and more that i would have to know about reading writing and grammar. i feel like if you are taking away from education you should be considered a tyrant! if Kids work there hardest but all they can learn is what 6th graders are learning in there first year of MIDDLE school then there is obviously something seriously wrong with that teachers brain or outlook on life. But for example in the blog posting is says how The MOntgomery Country Ciriculam is taking there academics very seriously, this is good becausethey are learning everything that they need to know about school and are not reading books meant for a 1st grader.

8th grade student

Lee said...

Martin, am I the only one who is getting the impression that an 8th-grade English teacher somewhere is turning your politically-incorrect web page into a project for her students?

Chris Crutcher said...


I’ve begun my responses to the last two blogs using the word “disingenuous”. I only did that to elevate my lexile score. Let me take it down a notch. Instead of “disingenuous” let’s use b.s. That same conservative father who believed in intellectual freedom and the separation of church and state also taught me a trick or two about informal debate, most often at my expense while involved in informal debate with him: present a basic premise, assume – without asking – that those listening accept it, and fire away. Sounds like you knew my dad, too.

The lexile score is a measure of readability. It pays no heed to complexity of content – layers of story, or to the capacity of characters in a story to make connection with the reader. Lexile score is about words and sentence structure, and while I wholly applaud students increasing their vocabularies or wrestling with more complex sentences, I would never let that be my single measure for passing judgment on the intellectual merit of a book. So when I use the word disingenuous – I mean b.s. – to describe your intellectual honesty, I’m referring to the fact that you know you can bring lexile measurement into your argument, assuming, rightly, that most of your readers won’t be familiar with the term, then make it the be-all and end-all of yours and Dr. Freeman’s judgment on the academic substance of any given book.

What you also must know, being the expert you are on lexile measurement, is that Elie Wiesel’s NIGHT, comes in at about a third grade level, Vonnegut’s SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE high sixth or low seventh, and John Irving’s A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY at eighth grade, five months. Much of Steinbeck hangs in at late elementary level, though OF MICE AND MEN registers about equal with NIGHT. THE COLOR PURPLE scores lower than DEADLINE. And if you don’t think the reading and discussion of NIGHT (as one example) is great fodder for teenagers on a path to higher education, you’re going to have a tough time convincing most of the educational professionals I know that you’re educational expert yourself. Hmmm. Lexile measurement. Red herring? Pink at least.

Wanna have some real lexile fun? Take your 103 students who found such hilarity in the idea of advanced high school students reading young adult literature in an AP class, down to Office Depot. With money you might normally allocate for copies of the sixth grade level JANE EYRE (which, according to more than one American literature scholar, was seen in its time much as Dr. Freeman claims to see DEADLINE), buy an unassembled bookcase, take it back to your classroom and tell them to type the instruction sheet into the lexile measurement system. Or if that doesn’t work for you, run the instructions for filing your individual income tax. Positively Chaucerian. See, the technical terms included in that kind of material will take you straight to lexile heaven, which is why Shakespeare roosts so close to the top. The language is obsolete. Words not often seen are part of the bread and butter of lexilians; not to be confused with Romulans. (More to come)

Chris Crutcher said...

And I know you know that – lexile readability is your guide – so either you’re being disingenuous (read b.s.-ing) by not including in your air-tight defense of Dr. Freeman’s actions that he is x-ing out many of the best works of Steinbeck, Hemingway, Bronte, Vonnegut, O’Brien, Irving, Bradbury and a host of others, or you don’t know as much about true literary value as you claim. (I think WUTHERING HEIGHTS might score high because so few people know what wuthering means.)

And speaking of red herrings, I’ll give you that my bringing up separation of church and state is one, if you can show me evidence that Dr. Freeman and the great percentage – and I’m talking in the nineties here – of those siding with him, aren’t members of a fundamental religious group that believes in monitoring school curriculum for points of view that clash with their belief and value systems.

And just so I don’t forget to dot the i’s and cross the t’s in response to your last blog, I put quotation marks around reluctant readers the first time to indicate I knew what the phrase meant in formal educational terms, and left the quotation marks off when I said many kids in AP courses are reluctant readers. That doesn’t mean they have trouble with the mechanics of reading, it means they are reluctant readers, a condition, arguably, that some educators create by x-ing out interesting reading material in their curriculums.

Look, nobody on my side of this issue is asking Dr. Freeman or you or anyone else who has trouble factoring adolescent sensibilities, child developmental levels, and elements of expression into high school English curriculum, to bail on your classics. We’re telling you – and more importantly the kids are telling you – that worthy ideas, simply stated, are every bit as valuable as worthy ideas made obscure. In fact, I could make a case that they are more valuable because the greater the struggle to understand the vocabulary, the less chance they have of internalizing those ideas at a psychological or emotional level. At any rate, one isn’t exclusive of the other, and whatever it takes to bring those ideas into the light where educators and educatees can discuss them is what we should be doing. And an aside: your puerile technique of breaking down my responses to your statements and restating what you think I mean is a lazy way to debate, and if you’re the academic you seem to claim, you know that also.

I hear your frustration, read your frustration. You’re trying to tell us what this argument is about. You’ve said it before. We’re not understanding. You may be confusing understanding with agreement. You characterize AP students the way you’d like them to be rather than the way they are; they are as diverse as any other classification of students.

Over and out. Almost. Just ran the above through the lexile measurement tool and it came in at 2008 out of a possible 1600. I think it was because of the number of times I used “lexile”. (Only kidding. I didn’t really run it. So sue me, I write fiction.)

Thomas M. Cothran said...


Since you bring up the substantive issue, do you think it's more profitable for students preparing for a collegiate curriculum to be dealing with the substantive content of Shakespeare, Dante (and so on), or with your books and other good young adult literature?