Diminished literature curriculum hinders scholarship

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April was National Poetry Month and there’s nowhere that designation should have more meaning than in Massachusetts, where John Adams’ 1780 state constitution explicitly instructs future leaders to “cherish the interests of literature.”

Every region of Massachusetts has produced great poets. Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau lived in Concord; Emily Dickinson lived in prolific seclusion in Amherst; Herman Melville, who wrote Civil War poems, lived in Pittsfield; and Edgar Allan Poe, author of “The Raven” and other creepy tales, was born in Boston.

The Merrimack Valley has been referred to as the “Valley of the Poets” since Puritan author Anne Bradstreet and abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier were buried there. In the Pioneer Valley, Greenfield’s Poet’s Seat Tower, so named by the local Romantic sonneteer, Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, overlooks the Connecticut River.

More recently, Massachusetts has produced at least five United States Poets Laureate, including Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Joseph Brodsky, Richard Wilbur and Robert Pinsky. At least another five Massachusetts poets have won Pulitzers and two more have won Nobel Prizes.

Along with the Pilgrims, codfish, Lexington and Concord, Horace Mann’s public schools, and the Kennedys — one of the commonwealth’s most lasting contributions to posterity is our gift of poetry.

Architects of the landmark 1993 education reform law understood and appreciated our literary heritage; that’s why Massachusetts public school students were reading much of the work produced by these and other ancient and modern poets.

The results of our students’ grounding in poetry, literature and higher-level vocabulary have been outstanding. In 2005, the commonwealth’s fourth- and eighth-graders came out tops in the reading component of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation’s report card. In 2007, 2009 and 2011, each time the test was administered, they repeated that feat.

But recently, our students started learning 60 percent less about the many great Massachusetts poets and literary figures. That’s because the commonwealth ditched its nation-leading English standards for inferior national standards that will have students reading far less poetry and literature, particularly in high school.

Now, via these national education standards, Massachusetts has exactly the same literary expectations as they do in low-performing states like Louisiana, West Virginia and Mississippi.

Ironically, Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville, who is responsible for us adopting national standards, wrote in 2007 that, “There is compelling evidence on the narrowing of the curriculum.” It’s hard to understand why he is now leading efforts to weaken our state’s academic goals.

In 2009, the Patrick administration prevented U.S. history from joining English, math and science as an MCAS graduation requirement, while the new national English standards recommend that high school students read just one Shakespearean play.

The previous Massachusetts standards committed students to reading epic poetry like Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” Virgil’s “Aeneid,” Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” and Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” as well as Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” Byron, Wordsworth and Tennyson. Under national standards, our high school students’ key linkage to ancient, European and British poetry is essentially broken.

In his memoir, Gov. Patrick writes fondly of an English teacher he had at the prep school, Milton Academy. “He taught us that written language, at its best has a rhythm and timbre that is every bit as powerful” as music. In 1978, Patrick graduated cum laude in English and American literature from Harvard College.

Cambridge poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote an 1875 poem memorializing his friend, Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner, whose statue sits in the middle of Harvard Square, that reminds us why enlightened and principled political leadership matters.

So when a great man dies,

For years beyond our ken,

The light he leaves behind him lies

Upon the paths of men.

Gov. Patrick, Secretary Reville and other state officials must realize the damage the national standards are doing to the high school English curriculum and require year-long courses in American and British literature, as well as a classical literature course in Grade 9 or 10. If they do not, their lasting legacy to the Bay State’s schoolchildren will be one of trading that which is beautiful and enduring for the jargon-filled dead language of educationists.

Also seen in Education News and Lowell Sun Online.