Now there is a bit of a battle brewing because of CCSS, which indicates that more non-fiction material should be read than fiction in schools. Columnist Jay Mathews wrote about this recently in The Washington Post and described the academic battle, with lines clearly drawn by English teachers and professors who feel this is going to be a loss of a sacred right to teach the classic texts we have all been taught before.
There are a few problems inherent in this discussion. The CCSS is supposed to set-up standards that are “robust and relevant to the real world.” In that scenario, it is obvious that non-fiction would seem to be a more reasonable way to go. Students can study documents, read journals, historical texts, and essays that elucidate a selected topic. They are then expected to use what they have read to analyze, to find answers, to discuss them, and eventually write in meaningful ways.
All this is wonderful and essential. We writing instructors have been doing this for a long, long time and usually had students write research papers in which they cited sources. There is nothing wrong with any of this, yet there is a salient truth about non-fiction: students do not like it as much as fiction. All the standards in the world are not going to get students to enjoy Studs Terkel’s Working more than Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The same can be said for the teachers, who for the most part want to teach more fiction than non-fiction. This is not because they don’t want to be good teachers, but rather because (as Mathews notes) they love what they were taught in school and want to teach it too. This is the reason many teachers become educators in the first place.
Of course, my concern about writing is intimately connected to all this. Young writers emulate the works that they read and love. I can remember saying, “I want to write a story just like Poe!” after reading “The Cask of Amontillado.” I then sat down and wrote a story about something very similar. How many students have done the same thing? We read Hemingway and then we want to write like him. There are even contests constructed around this kind of thing, including a Bad Hemingway Contest. Imitation here is not just done in a vacuum; rather, it is building skills as they learn to pace a narrative, use colorful language and metaphors, craft plots, and build conflict.