This February marks the 190th anniversary of James Fenimore Cooper’s historical novel The Last of the Mohicans (1826), a masterpiece of American literature. This classic is among the Leatherstocking Tales that, along with his distinctive sea stories, earned Cooper international fame.
For generations, young readers have embraced this page-turning adventure that features diverse warrior heroes: the frontier scout, Hawk-eye (Natty Bumppo); the virtuous Mohican chief, Chingachgook and his son Uncas; the daughters of a British officer, Cora and Alice Munro; and the bloodthirsty Huron villain, Magua.
Set during the French and Indian War, The Mohicans’ characters are caught in a clash of civilizations, as imperial powers Great Britain and France duel for control of North America. New York’s Lake George and Hudson River Indian tribes are splintered in a fierce wilderness of waterfall caves, tomahawks, canoe chases, muskets and knife fights.
Due to English classes infused with timeless fiction, from 2005 to 2013, Massachusetts students outperformed their counterparts from every other state on each administration of the reading portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as “the nation’s report card.” Quality literature delivers results.
Cooper also pioneered American literary themes about Mother Nature and Native Americans receding to European colonialism. His fast-moving tales about shared humanity are far more compelling than the often lifeless “informational texts” featured in the nationalized K-12 standards known as Common Core.
In 2010, Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration sacrificed Massachusetts’ proven, literature-rich English standards for a one-time federal grant of $250 million to adopt Common Core. This move cuts the classic novels Bay State students read by 60 percent. Worse still, it prescribes a “cold reading” method where even non-fiction texts are scalped from their historical context.
As Cooper warned posterity: “The tendency of democracies is … to mediocrity.”
Five years into Common Core, national eighth-grade reading scores on the 2015 NAEP were disastrous. In Massachusetts, for the first time in a decade, our eighth-graders were no longer No. 1 in the country. This debacle is self-inflicted.
Students who read classics like “The Mohicans” learn American history through gripping narratives. While the treacherous Magua pursues, Hawk-eye, Chingachgook and Uncas guide the Munro sisters to their father at Fort William Henry, which is under siege by the French. Modeled after frontiersman Daniel Boone, Hawk-eye’s trailblazing character inspired the individualistic persona prominent in western folklore.
In contrast to Andrew Jackson’s Indian-murdering rampages, Cooper was the first novelist to portray the disappearing Native Americans with enlightenment and complexity.
Cora, who is herself biracial, asks, “Should we distrust (a) man because his manners are not our manners, and that his skin is dark?”
Biographer Wayne Franklin tells us Cooper authored 10 percent of America’s novels in the 1820s. Emerson, Longfellow, Melville, Goethe, Tolstoy, and Conrad all adored his books. On his deathbed, Franz Schubert, the composer of “Ave Maria,” was reading Cooper novels.
Cooper crafted great fiction, but also great political history.
His essay “The American Democrat” (1838) is an excellent primer on constitutionalism and self-government, subjects the 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform law mandates teaching and testing.
Coordinated by curriculum expert Sandra Stotsky, the commonwealth’s U.S. history frameworks and pre-Common Core English standards reflect an intellectual coherence that grounds students in America’s literary and civic culture.
However, in 2009, claiming prohibitive costs, the Patrick administration ditched the U.S. history MCAS test as a graduation requirement, which the Baker administration has yet to restore.
“It is a besetting vice of democracies to substitute public opinion for law,” wrote Cooper. “This is the usual form in which masses of men exhibit their tyranny.”
Willfully ignoring a century of research, Common Core brushes aside classic literature, while U.S. history instruction continues to be marginalized. The result is that K-12 public education in Massachusetts has been deliberately dumbed down.
By the novel’s end, Uncas, Cora and Magua are killed. “Why do my brothers mourn! … Why do my daughters weep!,” Chingachgook — the last of the Mohicans — grieved to the remaining tribes. “My race has gone from the shores … I am alone.”
If wiser, more farsighted educational leadership doesn’t reemerge soon on Beacon Hill, America’s unique historical and literary heritage itself may become extinct in Massachusetts classrooms.
Jamie Gass directs the Center for School Reform at the Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.