Op-ed: Jules Verne brings children summer adventures

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Read this op-ed in the Salem NewsThe Lowell Sun, The Patriot Ledger, Brockton Enterprise, The Fitchburg Sentinel and Enterprise, The New Bedford Standard Times, The Springfield Republican, The Berkshire Eagle, and The Federalist. 

“[M]y task is to paint the whole earth, the entire world, in novel form, by imagining adventures…” wrote the renowned, late-19th-century French novelist, Jules Verne.

As vacation begins, decades of K-12 education research tells us that summertime is when the academic paths of higher- and lower-performing students most radically diverge. Simply put, students who read during the summer return to school much better prepared than their classmates.

Monsieur Verne is considered the “father of science fiction” for his books “Journey to the Center of the Earth” (1864); “From the Earth to the Moon” (1865); “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” (1870); and “Around the World in Eighty Days” (1873), which are the most noted of his Extraordinary Voyages. Verne’s 60-plus classic works have been translated into 174 languages.

Since 1979, UNESCO’s Index Translationum reports, Verne is the second most-translated author on earth, outpacing Shakespeare and trailing only Agatha Christie. “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” ranks as the seventh most-translated book in the world, surpassing Harry Potter, Alice in Wonderland, and even Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales.

Massachusetts, with K-12 English standards that were rich in classic literature, outperformed every other state between 2005 and 2013 on the reading portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), called “the nation’s report card.”

But, in 2010, the Patrick administration took $250 million in one-time federal grant money to abandon our celebrated English standards in favor of inferior nationalized standards, the Common Core, which cut fiction by 60 percent.

Verne’s voyages value literature, history, geography, math, science, and high-tech engineering. Few authors are capable of propelling students’ imaginations while simultaneously surveying such varied academic disciplines. Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy called Verne’s books “matchless.”

Originally trained as a lawyer, Verne loved ships and the sea. He immersed himself in timeless literary odysseys from Defoe, Dickens, Poe, Cooper, Dumas, and Hugo. These immortal authors – largely excluded from Common Core – not only influenced each other across eras, but also link generations of readers worldwide.

Around the World in Eighty Days is Verne’s most successful novel. This globetrotting tale features a meticulous, clock-conscious British aristocrat, Phileas Fogg, and his acrobatic French valet and sidekick, Jean Passepartout. Together they’re sprinting to win a $4 million bet against Fogg’s stuffy London club mates.

Pursued by slippery detective Mr. Fix, Fogg embarks on a race that provides student-tourists cultural and geographic lessons via transcontinental railroads and steamships, spanning from England and Egypt to the Orient, across America, and on home to London. In India, Fogg and Passepartout rescue a beautiful princess, Aouda, from a ritualistic death on her husband’s funeral pyre, then the book speeds towards its nail-biting finish.

Verne’s illustrious admirers included American rocketeer, Robert Goddard; Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin; and radio inventor, Guglielmo Marconi. They all read his sci-fi novels, which predicted and inspired technological ingenuities, such as spaceflight, airplanes, helicopters, and submarines.

In another exotic adventure, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Captain Nemo (“no one” in Latin) is a scientific mastermind, Indian subcontinent prince, and anti-hero who escapes beneath the ocean, fleeing landlubbers and imperialism.

In his futuristically self-engineered, 230-foot, elegant submarine, the Nautilus, whose motto is Mobilis in Mobili (“Moving Amidst Mobility”), Nemo kidnaps stranded sailors, battles a giant squid, and leads fast-paced nautical expeditions.

“The sea does not belong to despots. On its surface immoral rights can still be claimed … [where they] carry out all earth’s atrocities…” Captain Nemo says. “[B]elow the surface their power ceases … live in the heart of the sea! Independence is possible only here! … Here I am free!”

Unfortunately, American students won’t be finding Nemo in classrooms, because he’s not in Common Core.

Even in Massachusetts, despite years of overall stagnation on NAEP, falling from number one in the country in eighth-grade reading, and a 20-point decline in SAT scores, the Baker administration has merely rebranded Common Core. Consequently, Jules Verne’s journeys will remain adrift from Bay State students.

Science-fiction novelist Ray Bradbury said, “[W]e are all, in one way or another, the children of Jules Verne.” Most kids cannot afford to take expensive summer trips or vacations to mysterious lands, but reading Verne’s imaginative voyages could help every child go farther academically.

Jamie Gass is director of the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.