In a recent op-ed column, Barbara M. White deplored what she called the "Great Books approach" of Chicago teacher Marva Collins, and suggested that these volumes are too much for children. She told us that when she read William Raspberry's column about the Collins program, she had already been outraged by her third-grade son's assignment to read a recent award-winning children's book. The book, she said, is "terrific [but] . . . not for third graders." Particularly "upsetting," in her view, was the death of one of the fifth-grade characters in the book: "I don't mind Avi's dealing with fictional death. But . . . on the emotional level of a third grader, not that of a fifth or sixth grader."
The news that the Chicago teacher requires her students to work with Chaucer, Plutarch, Dostoevsky and other led Barbara White to make some rather startling (and unsettling) statement: "Children, even bright ones, need to be intellectually nourished, but not from an adult menu. There is much to be said for not pushing our children into precocious literary experience."
I'm afraid that, while caught in the throes of parental wistfulness (understandably enough), she lapsed into an egregious simplism. How was it escaped her that emotional reactions take no note of grade level? While she spared her son "fictional death," countless children of third-grade age are in touch with the real thing, through hot and cold wars, natural tragedy and accidents. Family breakup is no less traumatic for third graders than it is for fourth and sixth graders.
If I may offer a personal experience: long before the third grade I met death through the demise of my mother. Nobody who raised me was there at the time. Only I recall lingering at the bier, arranging and rearranging my mother's hair to my taste as she lay in her coffin -- and how I and my little white friend shared tears on the porch. It was an unforgettable experience, and a sobering one even at that age. But I think it prepared me to accept personal loss later on.
I wonder if other parents share Barbara White's views? If so, could such parental fears be partly responsible for the appalling deterioration in reading and language skills?
It seems to me that exposure to the classics promotes facility with language and may even deliver sound values for living. Before kindergarten I read "Little Red Riding Hood," a truly violent story. I was scared out of my wits by it, and make forever wary of strangers.
Children are being constantly underestimated. They are far more receptive to the realities of life than we think. Let us not lose sight of the fact that immediately after birth they begin growing into adults, and by 11 or 12 years of age, nature has seen to it that out little darlings are biologically fit for parenthood -- without any recognition of parental concepts or society's taboos and its mechanical devices.
Admittedly, Plutarch, Chaucer and the others may present hard going to many third graders, and I can't imagine many third-graders absorbing "Crime and Punishment." But I believe that exposure is the name of the game if presentation is skillfull and imaginative. Marva Collins has obviously, found a palatable formula. My grandmother did.
My regimen of the classics started when I was five. Beginning with fairy tales and short poems, my grandmother went on to choose books with strong story lines written in rich, chunky pasages. Where the nuance was too mature or the text too intricate, my grandmother performed a wondrous job of editing. By the time I entered junior high, I had read, out loud to my grandmother, such books as "Anthony Adverse," "les Miserables," "leaves of Grass" "The Grapes of Wrath," "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and most of Poe and Dickens. Needless to say, English class was a cinch. I was no exceptional child: I had been exposed.
My classmates were no less so. In Washington's segregated school system, we members of the city's black community -- speaking of trauma -- were exposed, at all levels, to the best in Western literature. By sixth grade most of us had done at least two Shakespearean plays and had competed in oratorical contests. The success of this early exposure can be seen in the scores of olde black Washingtonians who have always spoken, read, written and tested well, and have quietly gained entry into the mainstream.
Even so, let me be among the first to say that familiarity with the classics carries no guarantee of personal happiness or success in business. What can be gained, however, is a sharpening of the intellect.
Barbara White said that she "would hate to see other elementary schools imitate" the Collins approach. I think test scores prove that the current public school system is a failure. What would she recommend?
I think what Marva Collins is proving is that the mental ability of the American child is no less than that of his/her slave or poor immigrant forebears who learned, achieved and survived under the most grievous circumstances. For that, she is due our gratitude and commendation. Anyway, who else has cared lately?