There has been a lot of chatter on the intertubes in the last six months about how the Common Core will or will not cause the removal, reduction or shift of the place of fiction in the Language Arts curriculum. That isn’t what with post is about. I think that is an important topic. But I am not going to talk about it.
Instead I am going to explore a quote, widely attributed to David Coleman, who is generally considered to be both the architect of, and the chief advocate for, the new Common Core standards, which are rapidly becoming the law of the land educationally speaking.
The comment is as follows:
“It is rare in a working environment,” he’s [Coleman] argued, “that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.’ ”
This iteration of the comment came from a NY Times blog post, but I have seen it reproduced widely with only minor variation. And having searched for any disavowal, found none. So I am going to take the sentiment as given above. It is just the sort of glib, off-the-cuff comment that teachers are used to hearing from those who aren’t teachers, usually for the purposes of denigrating something teachers are doing. Which is exactly the purpose here.
As is often the case though, the comment itself displays are colossal lack of understanding of education and humans in general. Were it merely another thing I heard at a cocktail party or found attributed to the CEO of some business concern, I would probably shrug it off. However, attributed to someone with as much influence over education as Mr. Coleman, I think it presents a serous problem.
And even worse, the comment completely refutes itself.
Humans are fundamentally narrative creating machines. It is how we grapple with the world around us, our experiences, that which we generally call reality, pretty much everything. We process the world in the form of stories. Stories that we make up to make sense of our own lives, stories we make up to make sense of other’s lives, stories we make up to share our ideas. To the extent that a particular human gets good at the skill of constructing narrative he or she gets good at operating in community with other humans. And becomes good at dealing with him or herself.
So narrative isn’t just a cool thing to do- it’s life or death. Telling stories well is power. As we see in every election, every bit of advertising, and every six year old lobbying for a later bedtime or to skip bath (you can tell what my life is like). To get really good at narrative, and to understand it, ourselves and our culture (and the culture of others), we study narratives. Fiction, epic poetry, history, great science, mathematics. All learning is most powerful when couched in terms of narrative. It is why our most profound texts are in the form of stories (In the beginning…) not in the form of action memos from God. It is why the major art forms revolve around narrative, not data sets.
Just being exposed to narrative is accessing one of the most powerful learning modes we have. It’s why people believe movies that have no basis in fact, and it’s why advertising is effective. But really understanding how narrative works, and having some skill one’s self is life changing. It also vaccinates the individual against bullshit. If you know how stories work, you know how to judge the story you are being told. You know how to ask critical probing questions about what a story really means. You notice what it doesn’t say and wonder why the storyteller left things out. You can tell the difference between an honest story and crap.
Which brings us back to ‘Johnson,’ who is being asked to write a memo. If Johnson has been educated about storytelling, though he is at the moment in a business context, he will be able to use those tools in his memo. The memo that crafts a compelling story will get read. Attention will be paid to it. It will make its point more effectively than the memo written by ‘Rogers’ who perhaps read less narrative and was asked to write in the narrative form less often. So in the most immediate sense, I believe Johnson will be the better employee- he will be more useful to his boss, the company, the industry. And so more successful for himself.
But if Johnson has really been grounded in serious study of narratives, and the moral education that is inherent to that study (if you don’t know what I’m talking about read Martha Nussbaum’s Poetic Justice), then Johnson will also be really useful to society as a whole, and not just commercial and self interest. He might stop and ask why he is being asked to write a memo advocating financial shenanigans (Enron), shortchanging safety in oil drilling (Deepwater Horizon), or supporting torture as legal and necessary (I’m thinking of you John Woo). The engaging of narrative is about the expanding of consciousness, awareness, moral insight, and self knowledge. When Johnson is presented with compelling narratives in support of these otherwise unsupportable things, he will be more able to ask the penetrating questions that expose the problems of those narratives.
So while Coleman is right, no one is going to ask ‘Johnson’ to write a personal narrative, the skills Johnson learned while writing and reading narrative are pretty damned important.
But Coleman’s comment in itself reveals the flaw in its thinking. When asked to make a point about the role of narrative in the world, what did David Coleman do?
He gave us a narrative! A story, about an imaginary worker, in a fictitious situation, facing a challenge. Coleman is even a good enough storyteller to give us a ‘negative narrative,’ one that makes its point by stating the opposite. In technical terms that is called ‘satire.’ It is exactly David Coleman’s skill with narrative that allowed him to get off his point so clearly and effectively WITHOUT a long explanation.
Now, his ‘story’ is shallow and stupid, evidence of only the most elementary thinking about education, humans and storytelling, but what can you expect from someone who tried to make a point about how useless stroytelling is by telling a story?