Does the enormous popular success of books like Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s Cultural Literacy prove, as some conservatives claim, that a long-suffering majority is finally venting its disapproval of the way in which America’s children are being taught? That this remains an open question is shown by the comparatively lukewarm reception of a more recent book by Diane Ravitch and Chester E. Finn, Jr. entitled What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?: A Report on the First National Assessment of History and Literature.1

To be sure, this book, which reports in detail on the findings of a test of nearly 8,000 seventeen-year-old students, has been widely noticed. But the frankly conservative recommendations it makes for restructuring the way history and literature are taught in American secondary schools have received much less attention than has the ignorance revealed by the test data themselves. Shocking as this ignorance is to many people, others—including a growing number of educators—are not disturbed by it at all. Nor are most politicians, despite the lip-service currently being paid to the goals and methods of the educational-reform movement.

This proposition may seem improbable, even fantastic. How could anyone who calls himself an educator rest content with leaving America’s seventeen-year-olds as ignorant of history and literature as this test shows them to be? Under what conceivable circumstances could a politician get away with endorsing such an outrageous situation? To answer these questions, one must begin by taking a closer look at the research findings described in What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?



The First National Assessment of History and Literature is an outgrowth of the longstanding interest in educational reform that led Diane Ravitch of Columbia University and Chester Finn, currently with the U.S. Department of Education, to found the Educational Excellence Network, a group designed “to bring together educators and scholars committed to school improvement.”

As a result of their work with the Educational Excellence Network, Ravitch and Finn

became deeply disturbed about the condition of history and literature in the schools. We learned of schools where history was taught topically, without regard to chronology, and others where history had been replaced by unrelated courses in the social sciences; where literature had given way to coaching for basic skills proficiency tests; where the time for these subjects had been continually whittled away by electives, vocational courses, computer study, and other such subjects.

Most educational idealists respond to such realizations either by leaving the profession or writing book-length exposés. While Ravitch and Finn have written their share of books about educational reform, they decided to try something different this time. Substantial anecdotal evidence had long pointed to a considerable decline in knowledge of the humanities among American students, but no systematic assessment in this area had ever been undertaken. Ravitch and Finn therefore came to the sensible conclusion that what was needed was a nationwide survey of what high-school students knew about history and literature.

The fact that such a survey had not been undertaken long before is startling. But, as Ravitch and Finn point out, it was rare for anyone to speak out on behalf of history and literature in the early days of the current educational-reform movement. Though back-to-basics spokesmen were far from shy in their advocacy of the purely utilitarian gains possible through better teaching of mathematics and science, the case was more difficult to make with the humanities:

At a time when reshaping the curriculum was high on the agenda of almost every state legislature, those who might have been forceful proponents of history and literature in the schools were unable to articulate why it was important for students to learn these subjects, just as they had earlier failed to defend history and literature against distortion into amorphous courses in social studies and language arts.

Ravitch and Finn approached the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal project which tests American students in such subjects as reading, literacy, mathematics, and science, and persuaded it to participate in a nationwide assessment of what seventeen-year-olds know about history and literature. The National Endowment for the Humanities provided funding for the assessment, a panel of educational experts drafted the questions, and a 262-item multiple-choice test was administered to a national sample of 7,812 students in early 1986.



What were the results? On the history portion of the test, the national average was 54.5 percent correct; on the literature portion, the national average was 51.8 percent correct. Only 15 of the 141 history questions were answered correctly by at least 80 percent of the students, while of the 121 literature questions, fully a dozen elicited correct answers from fewer than 25 percent of the students. “Observers looking for the bright side,” Ravitch and Finn write,

might suggest that the proverbial glass is half full, rather than half empty. Another way to characterize these results, however, is in the terms traditionally used by teachers . . . this nationally representative sample of eleventh-grade students earns failing marks in both subjects. A few do exceptionally well; the great majority do not. So long as our schools are expected to educate all of our youngsters, not just the best and brightest, then the results of this assessment are cause for serious concern.

Exactly what is it that our eleventh-graders do not know? About 60 percent of them do not know who wrote Leaves of Grass. About 57 percent of them do not know that the proverbs “A penny saved is a penny earned” and “A small leak will sink a great ship” come from Poor Richard’s Almanack. About 60 percent do not know that the purpose of The Federalist Papers was to “gain ratification of the United States Constitution.” And about 75 percent do not know that Thomas Hardy wrote The Return of the Native, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and The Mayor of Caster-bridge. (One student in five thinks that Oscar Wilde wrote these books.)

The designers of the test went to considerable trouble to incorporate material dealing with black and women’s literature. But black students scarcely did better with questions about black writers than with literary questions in general, while girls “perform only marginally better on simple questions drawn from women’s history than the boys do.”

The recommendations made by Ravitch and Finn are precisely the kind of thing that has been turning up in educational-reform platforms ever since Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, then chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, brought out his controversial 1984 To Reclaim a Legacy: A Report on the Humanities in Higher Education. “Chronology must be recognized as a basic organizing concept in the study of history.” “Enliven the study of history by the frequent use of narratives, journals, stories, biographies, and autobiographies.” “Publishers of readers for schools should include a generous proportion of important literary works among their selections.” “A hefty dose of good literature should be part of all students’ English studies.” All correct and all obvious—on the surface.

Nevertheless, these recommendations are not likely to be embraced any time soon, if only because, with regard to the study of literature, there is still so much resistance to what Ravitch and Finn call “the established literary curriculum” of “major works by renowned British and American writers,” or what is generally known among academics as “the literary canon.” And the same, mutatis mutandis, is true of the study of history.

In literature, dissatisfaction with the canon has been voiced for the past twenty years or so by a wide variety of people, among them blacks, feminists, and advocates of the contemporary. The net result of their efforts to update and broaden the canon, however, has not been “a reconstruction of the mix of classic and contemporary works and authors” but something entirely different:

Once the traditional curriculum lost its authority, and there was no consensus about which authors and titles were truly outstanding, the only remaining source of authority for the “language arts” field was the research of reading experts, which yielded technical rather than literary standards for what students ought to read. . . . At the precollegiate level, the substitutes for works by the likes of George Eliot, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Ralph Waldo Emerson were a new genre of realistic melodrama known as “young adult fiction,” biographies of current sports stars and other celebrities, and stories written to fit readability formulas, thereby restricting the use of long sentences, polysyllabic words, and uncommon terms.



In recent years, moreover, the original emphasis on expanding the canon has given way to the more radical proposals of “those who on principle [oppose] the very idea of a canon, regardless of its contents or its capaciousness.” Thus “many college professors around the country,” reports Joseph Berger in the New York Times,

are rethinking the very notion of what is literature. There are those who continue to uphold a traditional standard of literary quality, arguing that students should essentially read works whose merit has been established over the years. But there is a rising number who contend the idea of an enduring pantheon of writers and their works is an elitist one largely defined by white men who are Northeastern academics and critics.

Choosing between Virginia Woolf and Pearl Buck, they hold, involves political and cultural distinctions more than aesthetic ones.

“It’s no different from choosing between a hoagy and a pizza,” said Houston Baker, professor of literature at the University of Pennsylvania. “I am one whose career is dedicated to the day when we have a disappearance of those standards.”

One index of the intensity of current opposition to the canon can be found, paradoxically, in the pages of E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy, a book which has widely been interpreted as proposing a common core of knowledge but which in fact carefully makes its obeisances to the other side. Thus Hirsch categorically rejects “the assumption that I must be advocating a list of great books that every child in the land should be forced to read,” confidently asserting elsewhere that “accumulated wisdom about human nature [is] found in all civilized traditions, East and West, ancient and modern, popular and aristocratic.”

Ravitch and Finn, by contrast, are unwilling to dismiss the notion that some books are better than others. Indeed, they go so far as to name seventy-six authors whose works constitute “a strong core curriculum” of “literature that has survived the passage of time, that is frequently referred to by other authors, and that therefore serves as a partial basis for communication among literate people.” Still, even they are unwilling to offer this list “as a mandate about what ought to be read by students in the future.” This hesitancy notwithstanding, the authors of What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? do manage to make clear their conviction that the desperate condition of the humanities in America’s public schools is the result not merely of a conscious decision on the part of the educational establishment to emphasize skills over content but of an equally conscious abdication of responsibility on the part of educators afraid to offend the influential enemies of the canon.

What these enemies want goes far beyond adding authors like Virginia Woolf or James Baldwin to the required-reading lists of high-school English courses. What they are after is nothing less than to erase the values of Western culture from the minds of the young by deliberately failing to introduce them to the history and literature in which those values are embodied. Thus, when a group of minority students and radical faculty members (led, significantly, by Jesse Jackson) marched in protest against Stanford University’s freshman course in Western culture, they chanted: “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western culture’s got to go.” And so it will if, as seems increasingly likely, such forces continue getting their way against the efforts of responsible educators like Diane Ravitch and Chester Finn.

1 Foreword by Lynne V. Cheney, Harper & Row, 293 pp., $15.95.

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