Marketable people and unmarketable people

NEW JERSEY- Societies have an unconscious, just as people do, and sometimes societies move in unconscious directions that would horrify people if they ever became aware of where they were really going. When Mussolini rose to power, he innocently promised to make the trains run on time. Everybody wanted the trains to run on time. No one was aware of how much the punctuality would cost. 

Lee Siegel, O Estado de S.Paulo

16 de dezembro de 2012 | 01h00

For some years now American society has been creating a two-tier system that is dividing the country into two groups: marketable people and unmarketable people. This dividing motion unfolds through many areas of American life, but nowhere is it as consequential, and as poisonous, as in public education. Yet it has the appearance of being just another benign technique to make us all happier and more Efficient.

I've written before how "teaching to the test" is betraying a generation of American young people. The quality of formal intelligence is elevated, and the qualities of intuition, creativity and empathy are devalued. This is perfect for a society run strictly along the lines of the marketplace. But it is very bad for the creation of a society of imaginative, caring, interesting people.

And now the latest offensive against The Unmarketable has begun. It is called the Common Core State Standards. This is a set of guidelines for, among other things, reading materials from kindergarten through high school. Although they do not take effect until 2014, the Common Core Standards are currently being implemented across the country. The most prominent feature of the reading guidelines is their emphasis on nonfiction. They dictate that the majority of texts assigned to students must be reading materials such as, according to one reliable account, "historical documents, scientific tracts, maps… recipes and train schedules." By the time students are in high school, the guidelines say, 70 percent of their reading should be nonfiction along these lines.

In this way, the war on imaginative literature that was waged during the "culture wars" of the 1990s has finally achieved its goal. At the time, writing that was imaginative, intuitive, empathetic was considered to have little value. In the 1990s, such a belief was justified by the argument that so much literature was biased against women and minorities. This, of course, was absurd since, on the one hand, different times had different mores, as the old saying goes. But it is also true that texts which were condemned for being imperialist, for example, were nothing of the sort. 

Jane Austen's "Mansfield Park" was constantly being attacked for what its detractors claimed were Austen's imperialist attitudes when, in fact, the book was if anything an attack on imperialism, beginning with its title. Mansfield Park was where, in 1771, a British court passed down a decision prohibiting the holding of black slaves-seized in the West Indies or Africa-in England.

It was not lost on me at the time that the most impassioned professors opposed to nearly all Western literature on politically correct grounds were also WASP mandarins. Their strictures had the effect of making it difficult for students from humble origins to gain access to the great works of imagination. This was very clever on the part of the WASP mandarins because it is great literature that is subversive of the very social order from the top of which they comfortably presided. The heroine of "Mansfield Park" is a solitary impoverished girl. 

The same dynamic is happening with the Common Core's boycott of imaginative literature, only this time the pretext is not politically correct virtuousness but the claims of the new economy. We now live in an information economy, say the Core's proponents. It is essential that students master the comprehension of informational texts in order to flourish in the new information economy. Literature, they say, merely helps them with "self-expression," which is self-indulgent. Worse, it leads to inefficiency and decreased productivity.

So once again, you have people sitting ensconced at the top of society, who have enjoyed a classical education rich in the reading of all the great works of literature, who would deny the current generation of young people those very works. Whatever the intention-and I am sure that the road to this particular destination is paved with good intentions-the consequences are perfectly in line with the marketplace values that have overwhelmed all areas of American life. People who master the concrete world of information will help propel the concrete world of profit-making. People who lose themselves in the blurry gray areas and the enveloping mist of fiction and poetry add nothing to the economy.

It is perhaps no coincidence that at the same time the big book publishers are merging in this country, to the point where soon there will be only one giant book publisher, not unlike the state-run publishing apparatus of the former Soviet Union. The Common Core will have a similar effect in the personal realm, as it merges diverse individuals into one information-gathering entity. Yet it is literature that brings out the uniqueness in every individual. And it is individual uniqueness that one day stands up to groupthink and stupidity and mass murder and says: Enough! No wonder the Soviet commissars preferred the reading of maps and timetables to the reading of fiction and poetry.

To be sure, literature has not (yet) been outlawed, and young people who crave it will seek it out. But I worry about the young people who need to be told that it is there in the first place. They may never find it; or if they do, they may find it when they are older and burdened with responsibility and lack the time and the cultivation to read demanding works of art. 

The result will be a nation of sheep, who have never been taught by fiction or poetry that life's givens can be changed, that unfair or cruel social arrangements are arbitrary, that suffering and setbacks and mistakes are universal, and that therefore they should not punish themselves for not being perfect cogs in a perfection-obsessed society.

But they will know how to read a train schedule! And no doubt, by that point, all the trains will be running on time.

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Lee Siegel

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