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The Fiction-Nonfiction Duel

The Common Core Standards have intensified the debate about the increased role of nonfiction in the K-12 curriculum. As a former English teacher, I'm frankly at a loss to understand the concern. Guidelines recommend that students get about the same exposure to fiction and nonfiction in the lower grades, and more exposure to nonfiction in high school. Let me explain why that makes sense.

The argument is that reading great fiction and writing about it are a prerequisite for success in college. I assume that those who make this claim are referring to English classes, which are almost always devoted to works of fiction. If I'm correct, then they are right because reading fiction and writing about it require skills that are not needed in reading nonfiction and writing about it. Consider How Does a Poem Mean (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1959) by John Ciardi. The operative word is "how" -not "what." A poem, Ciardi believed, cannot be "as certain as a chemical analysis." Therefore, "the concern is not to arrive at a definition and to close the book, but to arrive at an experience."

But what about students who do not major in English in college? Do they need the same set of skills? I seriously doubt it. When I was working on my M.S. in journalism at UCLA, I was never required to read fiction and write about it. Instead, I was given a reading list of nonfiction classics. None of the books involved arriving at an "experience" or letting my imagination wander. What they did demand was the ability to analyze a writer's thesis and supporting evidence, and then write a critique. I suspect that most classes in college require the same wherewithal in one form or another.

This leaves students whose tertiary education ends with community college. I think they are particularly best served by reading quality nonfiction. I'm referring now to op-eds and essays in such publications as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, and The Weekly Standard. Articles in these publications are overwhelmingly about timely issues that students in community colleges want to debate because they have strong feelings about them. As a result, they provide a natural springboard for teaching them about expressing themselves in writing.

It's not that fiction is irrelevant. On the contrary, it enriches our lives. But let's give nonfiction the status it also deserves. Right now that's not yet happening.

(Due to a power outage on Fri. Oct. 26, I was not able to post this column until much later in the day. My apologies.)

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