Halloween, Headless Horsemen and Literature in our Schools

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The Headless Horseman, painting by John Quidor.

In this season of ghosts and goblins, it seems only appropriate to think about the stories that for many generations served to frame our imagination of what Halloween should look like.

For generations, schoolchildren of all backgrounds learned about literature and life in America via Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, Herman Meville’s Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Paul Revere’s Ride, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

That list is a partial trajectory of the American spirit. On Halloween a different sort of literary spirit has grown around the holiday, with very visible markers in our literary past: Our fascination with the macabre in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, the humorous, light-hearted yet richly crafted stories of Washington Irving such as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and tales formulated from the stark oppositions of American Puritanism, as evident in the stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Ichabod Crane’s unlikely fascination for the beautiful Katrina has always been easy for a child to grasp, as was Crane’s obsession with terrible tales such as the one about the “Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow.” The amazing thing about the story is just how rich it is, and how it grows with us into adulthood. It helps that it makes us laugh.

Hawthorne doesn’t much go for laughter. The Scarlet Letter is of course his most famous story, but on Halloween, with its night-time rituals, goblins and devils all dancing and prancing in the dark along with SpongeBobs, nerds and this year Captain America and Angry Birds, I think Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown is the story that most comes to mind.

The Puritan Young Goodman Brown, is about to leave his Faith, his lovely bride, for a trip into the woods. Odd beginning already, given that Puritans didn’t much like the woods, having settled the land and carved out a space for the Elect in the New World. Brown, though, is headed for deep into the forest. .. at night. (Hawthorne’s and the Puritans’ woods were not those of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods.) On the way, he runs into all kinds of townspeople, including the Sunday School teacher and the Deacon. Brown also meets with a presence cloaked in black carrying a snake-like staff; this man traveled from old Boston to the woods in superhuman time, so, well, you know he’s talking to the Devil.

The Devil says he knows Brown’s Puritan ancestors. And he knows Brown’s wife, too; Brown sees her transported away (and her pink ribbon). They meet and are to be baptized before a great fire and a crowd of all the townspeople, the good and the bad who are all awake and in the depths of the woods. When he resists baptism, he awakens, as if from a dream. Dream or reality? No matter. Having lost his Faith (in all senses), he can never look at anyone without feeling they were with Devil; his remaining days are those of a gloomy old man.

I share these stories to mark the holiday, but also with some sadness at changes in the state’s curriculum and how too people in the K-12 world view literature. It was these foundational liberal arts readings and vocabulary in cultural literacy, along with math and science as its auxiliaries, which used to punctuate public education for democratic learning.

William Faulkner stressed literature’s transcendent value and continuity with our past in his famous 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.

But by the 1970s and ‘80s something had gone terribly wrong in our public schools and schools of education, as American literature, as well as academic content more generally, was shunted aside in our public school classrooms in favor of so-called “hands-on learning”, “experiential learning”, “place learning,” and other well-meaning but in the end unsatisfying reinterpretations of what education is about.

The 1983 A Nation at Risk report famously proclaimed:

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.

Politicians, policymakers, and scholars like UVA English professor E.D. Hirsch, Jr., who in 1987 authored Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, challenged public schooling and its school of education-centric culture to elevate the academic quality of the curricula and standards.

In 1988, Diane Ravitch and Chester Finn (decades before their late-career conversions back to support the EduBlob of trade groups — here and here, respectively) wrote What Do Our 17-Year Olds Know?: A Report on the First National Assessment of History and Literature, a book that laid bare the appallingly low level of understanding, appreciation, and performance that American schoolchildren demonstrated. I’ve always taken their book to be a cri de coeur on Americans’ paltry knowledge of their own literature and history.

In reality, over the last 25 years, very little has actually changed across the country in terms of the academic achievement and our schoolchildren’s knowledge and appreciation for American literature. By 2008, Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University, authored the book The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.

Because in my limited experience as a teacher, I’ve noticed in the last 10 years that students are no less intelligent, no less ambitious but there are two big differences: Reading habits have slipped, along with general knowledge. You can quote me on this: You guys don’t know anything.

(From Wikipedia)

The notable exception—Massachusetts, which in 1993 embraced liberal arts-rich standards, high stakes MCAS testing, and teacher testing. Together with generous state funding, this elevated Massachusetts to number one in the country in NAEP reading in all grades tested in 2005, 2007, and 2009. Through reading better quality literature, the Bay State’s students have even done well on NAEP’s writing portion.

And in Massachusetts, our former state standards were heavily grounded (80% or more of reading texts) in the classic American literature I cited above, while even NAEP ELA tests are more (80% plus) focused on so-called “informational texts.” In the hands of ed-school types “informational texts” likely mean everything and nothing for students in the classrooms.

This illustrates once again that the Massachusetts model of high-quality academic standards, literature texts, and vocabulary gave children the building blocks in language and reading that correlated with huge academic gains on national and international testing. Nobody else in America can make this claim.

After all, in addition to our long and well known literary history our Commonwealth’s 1780 Constitution (drafted by John Adams) is explicit in its commitment to literature as the basis for learning:

Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature…

The Headless Horsemen of the Common Core State Standards Initiative for national standards (the Gates Foundation, Achieve, Inc., CCSSO and the Fordham Institute) worked with our current state leaders to throw their flaming pumpkin of trade-group nonsense at our Commonwealth’s long history of literary excellence.

In effect, the adoption of the national standards cut by over half the amount of classical American literature our schoolchildren will be reading in our schools. As my organization has noted repeatedly in the press (this one in the Lowell Sun):

[W]ith the adoption of national standards, the commonwealth’s English curriculum will spend less time on literature than it does on “informational texts.” Along with the move away from literature, the national standards also mark the return of educational gibberish. The now-defunct Massachusetts standards called for third- and fourth-graders to “identify subject and verb agreement in a single sentence.” The national standards call for teachers to “use modal auxiliaries to convey various conditions.”

Such a choice is odd for Governor Patrick, who clearly has a literary sensibility and has often spoken and written about his appreciation for literature while attending Milton Academy via a school choice program. In his book A Reason to Believe, he wrote:

My freshman English teacher, Albert Oliver Smith, was extraordinary. The other teachers called him “A.O.” …I struggled in the class, yet it was magic Mr. Smith spoke musically, with total command of the language. He remains the most fluent English speaker I have ever heard. He insisted one’s writing and speech be energetic and precise. Find just the right word. Shun pretense and ambiguity. Simple sentences are best, and when you finish writing them, read them aloud—which we did when we read Shakespeare, then other plays or prose…

This Halloween when your kids are heading out for trick or treating, read them Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It’s unlikely they’ll be reading it in school.

Crossposted at Boston.com’s Rock the Schoolhouse. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer’s website.