Why Don’t Schools Teach Poetry?

Robert Maranto

Poetry Can and Should Matter to the Young

When my now teenage son Tony was small, after my wife read him a bedtime story, I would read him a poem, usually from 101 Famous Poems, a classic book published in 1929, periodically reissued, and still widely available.1 Rationally, Tony often requested Oliver Wendell Holmes’s “The Deacon’s Masterpiece,” whose very length delayed bedtime. Of course, “The Deacon’s Masterpiece” (a.k.a. “The One-Hoss Shay”) also tells a great story, about a determined deacon who makes a shay—a carriage—with every part as strong as every other part, so no part breaks down:

There couldn’t be,—for the Deacon’s art

Had made it so like in every part

That there wasn’t a chance for one to start.

For the wheels were just as strong as the thills,

And the floor was just as strong as the sills,

And the panels just as strong as the floor,

And the whippletree neither less nor more,

And the back-crossbar as strong as the fore,

And spring and axle and hub encore.

(stanza 9, lines 5–13)

Until exactly one hundred years later, while driven by the deacon’s distant successor, everything falls apart at the same instant:

You see, of course, if you’re not a dunce,

How it went to pieces all at once,—

All at once, and nothing first,—

Just as bubbles do when they burst.

End of the wonderful one-hoss shay.

Logic is logic. That’s all I say.

(stanza10, lines 21–24; stanza 11)

The poem supposedly inspired Henry Ford to inspect junkyards to see which parts of his cars broke first, and hence which parts of his assembly lines needed work. More important for our purposes, the poem has wonderful language, uses old-fashioned words like “dasher,” “thoroughbrace,” and my favorite, “whippletree,” the meaning of which, accompanied by images, you can easily now look up online. I once heard then seven-year-old Tony recite the poem line for line to some geeky friends, who found it hilarious.

Eventually Tony moved on to fantasy. At that time, our daughter Maya was six, so my wife sagely pointed out that I needed to read her poetry to catch up with Tony. At Maya’s fourth-grade talent show, fifty-four children performed songs, dances, drum beats, even a puppet show. One child, Maya, read a poem—“The Children’s Hour,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It was sad that at a good elementary school so many adults and all the students were wowed that a child was able to recite a forty-line poem from memory, one scarcely any of them had heard of or knew. Still, the grownups seemed to get it, in part. I say in part because of the non-reaction to such lines as:

I have you fast in my fortress,

And will not let you depart,

But put you down into the dungeon

In the round-tower of my heart.

And there will I keep you forever,

Yes, forever and a day,

Till the walls shall crumble to ruin,

And moulder in dust away!

(stanzas 9 and 10)

Any parent should find these lines heartbreaking, because we can’t keep our children with us forever, not in this world. When I google the portrait of Longfellow’s “grave Alice and laughing Allegra, and Edith with golden hair,”2 I am reminded that they are gone, and likely everyone who knew them, as will we all be someday.

Along with loving and longing, poetry can encompass science. As an undergraduate reading an economics textbook, I found a line saying that no economic theory is like the deacon’s one-hoss shay, falling apart all at once. A blue-collar kid who attended average public schools, I had never heard of any deacon or any shay, but somehow that line stuck with me. Years later I found the shay in the poetry book I read to my kids, and immediately understood the intent of that line in my college economics textbook: No theory ever fails all at once and nothing first, as bubbles do when they burst.

Poetry also expresses faith. Why can’t Christian rock lyrics resemble the lines of William Blake, whose poems so express a love of God? At least once a week Maya asks me to read “The Lamb” and “The Tyger,” in that order. But here’s my favorite Blake poem (whose title is also its first line):

Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;

Mock on, mock on; ‘tis all in vain!

You throw the sand against the wind,

And the wind blows it back again.

And every sand becomes a gem

Reflected in the beams divine;

Blown back they blind the mocking eye,

But still in Israel’s paths they shine.

The Atoms of Democritus

And Newton’s Particles of Light

Are sands upon the Red Sea shore,

Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.

Poetry can reflect history. As a bored eighth grader, I’d sneak off to the library to read Kipling’s doggerel such as “The Young British Soldier,” with its great statements for and against colonialism:

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,

And the women come out to cut up what remains,

Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains

An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier

Go, go, go like a soldier,

Go, go, go like a soldier,

Go, go, go like a soldier,

So-oldier of the Queen.

(stanza 13)

Or take Kipling’s very British view of “The American Rebellion”:

Not while she poured from Pole to Line

Treasure and ships and men—

These worshippers at Freedom’s shrine

They did not quit her then!

Not till their foes were driven forth

By England o’er the main—

Not till the Frenchman from the North

Had gone with shattered Spain;

Not till the clean-swept oceans showed

No hostile flag unrolled,

Did they remember what they owed

To Freedom—and were bold!

(stanzas 1–2)

Years later, when lecturing college students on the American Revolution in U.S. government classes, I often found myself quoting from this poem.

Drawing on treasured remembered lines, we can also use them to make quick analogies, like daring “to eat a peach” for “taking a bite out life” and living it to our fullest. And while poetry is a vehicle for exploring our humanity, it can serve us in our vocations as well. At age fifteen, our son studies computer programming, but Tony also writes. We tell him that is a very good thing, since in twenty years most programming may be mechanized or offshored, but America will always need people who are analytical and can express themselves. To speak and write well, one needs to have a sense of poetry. Moreover, as the ever-engaging Dana Gioia argues in “Can Poetry Matter?” poetry is vital because of the role language plays in a free society: “A society whose intellectual leaders lose the skill to shape, appreciate, and understand the power of language will become the slaves of those who retain it—be they politicians, preachers, copywriters, or newscasters.”3

Why Don’t Schools Teach Poetry?

Well, public schools actually still do teach poetry, but far less of it than in the past. The poems that nearly all schoolchildren learned a century ago and many learned half a century ago are rarely studied today.4 One reason for this is political correctness, the view that anything by a dead white European or American male is suspect, and of course, until recently, most English language poetry fit this description. A second reason is progressive disdain for memorization, as my former colleague Sandra Stotsky has observed.5 Other culprits behind the disappearance of poetry in our schools also exist.

Dana Gioia—extending and deepening the insights of Joseph Epstein, Russell Jacoby, and other critics of academia—sees the bureaucratization of academia’s creative writing programs as creating a “superabundance of poetry within a small [academic] class and the impoverishment outside it.”6 Today’s poets lack incentives to reach out beyond the academy, and within the academy, they must produce a quick quantity of publications rather than a slow quality. Bureaucratic incentives have also marginalized poetry within the broader literary culture and society. There is much to this, but it explains the failure of contemporary poets to create a new canon, not the unwillingness of public schools, which ultimately have little connection to higher education (apart from schools of education), to expose students to the canon of great works. Just two generations ago, in the 1960s, The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show’s “Poetry Corner” brilliantly parodied William Wordsworth’s “The Daffodils” and Longfellow’s “The Children’s Hour” and most viewers got the joke.7 That is no longer the case. Why not?

Many blame the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Indeed, when a friend recently had his poetry textbook cancelled, the publisher blamed the CCSS. There is something to this. As critics such as Peter Wood and Jane Robbins lament, the CCSS focus on the vocational rather than the educational aspects of schooling.8 CCSS architects such as David Coleman do not see poetry as worthy, at least not when compared to filling out job (or welfare) applications. Still, as lukewarm CCSS supporter Mark Bauerlein notes, the new standards are not terribly prescriptive; indeed, the only author mentioned by name is Shakespeare.9 The CCSS’s very ambiguity has allowed unprofessional educators to blame the standards for all manner of silliness in terms of readings and assignments. In Rialto, California, public schools had students write papers assessing evidence regarding whether the Holocaust really happened. Rialto claims that somehow the CCSS made them do it.10 I don’t think so.

Closer to home, our local school district cut poetry and upped technical reading in literature classes to make them more factual than fictional, citing the CCSS. In his pre-AP English Language Arts class Tony is even now applying selections from Sean Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens to a short biography of his own choosing rather than reading a classic work selected by his teacher. The CCSS do mandate that most texts be “informational” rather than literary, but with some effort on the part of teachers and principals, this might be managed across the curriculum and not entirely contained in English classes where they would crowd out literature choices.

In my son’s junior high school, Arkansas English Language Arts Teacher of the Year Jamie Highfill devised a coherent, demanding literature curriculum highlighting poetry and fully in accord with the CCSS.11 The school superintendent rejected Highfill’s plan, instead employing an expensive consultant who cut the literature out of language arts classes. This particular consultant had never actually taught English, but was linked to and a likely future employer of said superintendent.12 (As a happy postscript, our school board fired the superintendent, in part for her choice of expensive consultants.)

The superintendent who chose the consultant has all the requisite degrees and certifications plus a sorority membership, but is not someone who appreciates literature. Unfortunately, that is the norm among educational administrators. I recently did some consulting for a fairly prominent school of education, whose graduate students, i.e., our future public school principals and superintendents, had median math GRE scores at the twentieth percentile. That was the good news. The bad news? Their eleventh percentile median on the verbal GRE. Even worse news was that few of the school’s education professors found these statistics troubling.

I believe that we have lost interest in and have little awareness and knowledge of most of our poetry because we have too many uneducated educators, a condition stemming back to 1918, nearly a century before the appearance of the CCSS, when the National Education Association (NEA), then an administrators association rather than a teacher union, issued The Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education.13 Prior to the Cardinal Principles, secondary schools, and schools generally, were charged to teach our history and literature, among other things, both because more knowledge makes us better citizens and because more knowledge makes us better human beings. The secondary curriculum reflected not what schools of education wanted, but rather what real professors in real fields wanted—and what English literature professors wanted, in part, was poetry.

Over time, The Cardinal Principles changed all that. As the late great Richard Mitchell wrote in The Graves of Academe, the early twentieth-century Progressives thought that most people are just not capable of much intellectual development.14 Trying to educate them would only frustrate them. Accordingly, the Cardinal Principals reoriented schooling around keeping children off the street so they would not compete with grownups in the job market and preparing them for their eventual work in factories. Thus, six of the seven cardinal principles are distinctly non-academic: “health,” “worthy home-membership,” “vocation,” “civic education” (meaning student government and cooperation), “worthy use of leisure,” and “ethical character.”15 The seventh—the awkwardly named and ill-conceived “command of fundamental processes”—was intended to cover nearly all of what educated people regard as the customary academic fields: science, math, history, music, art, and of course, literature and poetry.

More than a half-century after the Cardinal Principles was issued, I, a high school journalist, interviewed the superintendent of Baltimore county (Maryland) public schools, Dr. Joshua Wheeler, who was retiring and accordingly quite candid. When asked whether schools should test students to ensure that they have certain minimal skills before graduation, Wheeler responded with patient condescension:

Your question shows that you do not understand the purpose of the public education system. The purpose of public education is not to educate students. The purpose of public education is to provide an education for those few who want it.

Wheeler then explained that if schools had real academic standards, some students might drop out, increasing crime and unemployment. Similarly, thirty years later prominent education professor Nel Noddings considered No Child Left Behind as deficient since it focused on “command of fundamental processes” to the exclusion of the other six (non-academic) goals of the Cardinal Principles.16 Who cares if students can read and write so long as they have “learning tools”? Having people who think like this run our schools is rather like putting pacifists in charge of the Pentagon.

And yet, weakening the academic content of schooling proved controversial. Traditional secondary educators, who have always felt some dedication to their academic subjects, resisted watering down content, as did (and do) some parents. Eventually, however, high school was reshaped in part due to the efforts of administrative progressives in schools of education and state and local education agencies, who develop curricula and control the educator personnel pipeline. Further, in the years just before and during the Great Depression, high school attendance expanded rapidly, reflecting the determination to keep young people in school and out of job markets. After all, a young person in school is a “student,” while a young person in the job market is likely unemployed. As a rule, political leaders prefer the former statistic to the latter. The rapid expansion of high school meant that new high school teachers could be schooled in the new reality of fewer academic and more “relevant” high schools.17

Ever since, our secondary schools have focused largely on non-academic pursuits, save when academic study can be justified in strictly vocational terms. That has given schools little reason to staff poetry-loving teachers, much less poetry-respecting administrators.

Yet one more shoe has had to drop for the de-intellectualization of public schooling. Even if schools of education did not support poetry or literature or academic content as such, many teachers did. Teachers have always been trained badly, hired erratically, paid marginally, and managed in a manner worthy of Dilbert. None of this mattered, however, so long as women had few other career options. Discriminatory labor markets kept teacher quality high. Many teachers were smart, and like smart people everywhere, many of them liked poetry (and literature generally) and did what they could to keep it in public education, quietly undermining school administrators and curriculum specialists. As a significant empirical literature shows, the opening of other occupations to women in the 1970s and 1980s eroded teacher quality, meaning that fewer teachers were willing and able to resist fads imposed by central administration, schools of education, and profit-seeking prophets (consultants).18

But silly fads, even century-old fads, finally fade. Through school choice and alternative personnel pipelines like Teach For America, the nature and composition of American public education is gradually changing. Those changes are ever so slowly improving teacher quality and allowing parents who want academic rigor more options, pushing traditional public schools to respond.19 If trends continue, a century from now many of today’s educational leaders will seem as absurd as Shelley’s “Ozymandias”:

I met a traveler from an antique land

Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert… Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal these words appear:

‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

This may be the fate of all second-rate educators and their enablers. At least that is my hope.

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