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Virginia Multiculturalists Expel Literary Tradition From State English Standards

If you care about literature, good novels, and poems, Virginia’s new English Language Arts standards will depress you.

The Virginia Department of Education has approved a draft of new English Language Arts standards. They make for a dull read. If you are interested in novels and poetry, if you believe Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson are important voices that every young American should hear, if you agree with W. E. B. Du Bois that spending time with Shakespeare is a powerful inspiration that can alleviate the difficult circumstances of life, this updated version of ELA in Virginia will only sadden you.

The document reflects a practical, 21st-century mindset. There is fancy talk of “multimodal literacies” and “media messages,” but nothing about Hawthorne or Robert Frost. Students are expected to develop “the ability to problem solve and work together in teams,” rather than memorize and recite classic poems and speeches.

While it is true that in 12th grade, students are expected to explore “universal themes” in “British literature … of different eras,” we need more than just a relaxed requirement that can be fulfilled with a few poems and novels from various times. The authors of the standards prioritize adapting Virginia classrooms to “align with the demands of the present and future world” over preserving literary tradition. One standard has students “Interpret and complete an application for employment or college admission.” There is no standard that says, “Describe the main themes and styles of English Romantic poetry.”

As I mentioned, the new standards do mention literary history a couple of times, with one “Guiding Principle” stating that “our students should be exposed to literary work across cultures, eras, and viewpoints.” It even uses the words “foundational” and “masterpieces”:

Virginia learners should be exposed to foundational authors such as Homer and Shakespeare as well as masterpieces from different genres, cultures, geographies and time periods.

However, this is not a standard, only an urging. It won’t be evaluated. The principle is so ambiguous that a teacher may fulfill it with just three or four classics assigned in all of 11th grade. Call it a small embellishment, a weak effort toward the traditional approach.

It’s insufficient, not nearly enough, and we also understand what the plural term “cultures” means: less Jane Austen and more BIPOC writing. The literary education Virginia kids receive will differ from district to district. There will be no common reading, no shared experience statewide. Students will not get what they really need: a comprehensive view of the past, a significant inheritance waiting to be claimed, the novels of Hawthorne, Melville, and Twain, the poems of Pope, Blake, and Keats, the plays of the Bard. This is what we achieved in Florida, Georgia, and Arkansas, whose governors understand the significance of literary tradition to the development of young Americans.

The result aligns with what has happened to English in the last 40 years. The field has been emptied of content, with no specific knowledge. Physics has Newton’s laws, civics has the Constitution, and English has reading and writing skills, which amount to no content at all. It used to be that English meant grammar, punctuation, and the Great American Novel, Charles Dickens and Jane Eyre, some Shakespeare and modern poetry. Multiculturalists didn’t like the tradition because it was overly male and Eurocentric, while business-type conservatives preferred PowerPoint over Hamlet. From the ’80s onward, they won. Literature dropped out, and it will remain that way as these Virginia standards move forward.

American youth are not doing well. Health indicators are down, and so is educational achievement. The causes are many, and one of them is under-recognized: the loss of a meaningful, stabilizing past. The average teen is inundated with social media and crude entertainment constantly, all of it based on the present, immediate, and urgent. They have no connection to their heritage or ancestry, leaving them to enter the adult world without roots or foundations. They feel existentially insecure. Life doesn’t have much meaning beyond the daily rush.

The critic Matthew Arnold once observed that people who read the old writers discover that those voices have a certain “calming and organizing effect on their judgment.” Without them, the individual struggles to manage the deluge of information, consumer messages, and social media. For the 15-year-old, the 21st century is chaotic.

The new English standards won’t help. They provide none of the stability that young Virginians need. The past means little to the authors of them. This is especially frustrating because of the role education played in Gov. Youngkin’s rise. Parents want a coherent, meaningful curriculum that values tradition, not trendy ideas about multimodal literacies.

Youngkin claims to be a conservative, but this model conserves nothing. Could he not find any conservatives to participate in the process? Does he not understand that a conservative society thrives only as long as it passes on a cultural inheritance? Once again, a Republican champion on the campaign trail is turning out to be a disappointment. Now in office, Youngkin is failing English.

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