Thursday, February 28, 2008


“Survey Finds Teenagers Ignorant on Basic History and Literature Questions”

“Fewer than half of American teenagers who were asked basic history and literature questions in a phone survey knew when the Civil War was fought, and one in four said Columbus sailed to the New World some time after 1750, not in 1492.

The survey results, released on Tuesday, demonstrate that a significant proportion of teenagers live in ‘stunning ignorance’ of history and literature, said the group that commissioned it, Common Core.”

This article in The New York Times is a must read, but more thought provoking are some of the responses from readers, a small selection of which are posted below.

Read the article at:

Reader responses:

I am a teacher, and our public schools work as they are designed to. They produce a compliant citizenry, ill-equipped for independent analysis and pre-disposed to consume. Schools exist for two reasons: a jobs program for adults and an indoctrination program for our youth. I have yet to hear anybody debate why, in the No Child Left Behind act, schools are required to provide the Pentagon with student contact information--and this in an education bill. Unfortunately, we have the schools that we deserve.— Carl, Alaska

Any discussion of education today always ends up in a (virtual) shouting match. Yes it needs to be better, but we don't need to keep blaming someone else. It starts with yourself. If each of us, as an individual, values education in a public way it will get better. It's not just the schools, the policy-makers, and the parents. For whatever reason this society does not value curiosity. Everyone should be be proud of their curiosity without being condescending. It won't get better until we see popular entertainment that portrays the smart person as the hero. Be smart and be a hero.— PeteB, Missoula, MT

I am a senior college student. I went to a good public school and took all the required history and civics classes. But at an early age I knew I wanted to pursue science as a career, a decision which forced me to narrow my studies and interests into an attractive ‘hook’ for colleges. From that point on, History and English fell on deaf ears because they were not part of my long term goal.
I believe the major flaw in my privileged education was being encouraged to become so specialized at such a young age. I am 21 years old with a $120,000 education, yet I could not outline the American history of my two decades let alone the discovery of the new world. I can not balance a check book or list any basic economic principles. I know nothing of war or international law. I can tell you an awful lot about physics though. And as such, I feel very much like a child.— college student, Baltimore

It's more serious than just an ignorance of historical fact.
For over thirty years the US has been driven to the core by the idea that there is no such thing as a fact, and that factuality is just a concept subject to the user's preference. When the idea of "fact" becomes a political concept, every "fact" is a matter of politics, and one can credibly argue that global warming is or isn't real based on one's party, or that the Holocaust did or didn't happen based on one's prejudice, or that taxes are or aren't a good thing based on one's patriotism, or that a military engagement is a victory of a defeat based on whether or not one loves one's country...In such a climate the very utility of facts is questionable. The onerous work it takes to acquire them and to incorporate them into critical thinking is of dubious value when one can simply declare a belief instead, regardless of factuality, and be embraced by everyone who shares it.

Facts are humbling, challenging obstacles. When one can enjoy the emotional fulfillment of being a true believer, and when so many of our role models in government, business, sports, etc., have dispensed with them, why bother with them?

Our culture now suffers from the mental illness that equates one's own personal worldview with fact, and denies the value of any reality-based consensus. That illness has permeated into the highest circles, and the law itself, which must be fact-based, is threatened. — DFC, Los Angeles

I used to teach HS English and had my 11th grade classes memorize the first 14 lines of the intro to the Canterbury Tales - in Middle English. They complained, they moaned, they groaned but over the course of the semester they always learned it and as they progressed, we started every class by saying it out loud together. If I forgot, they reminded me. At the end of the year when they had to say it alone, aloud in front of the class, one of the boys came up and said,"I thought at first this was the stupidest assignment anybody could have but when I complained to my parents I found out my father knew most of it. It started out as a joke but we taught my mother and we've been saying it together. My father wanted to be sure I learned it right." The spirit and the soul have always been reflected and explored though the universality of literature. How else can we know that when we act like beasts that these actions are not what civilized humans do? — Dinah78, California

The ancient Greeks had a very different conception of the world than the dominant United States' culture of today. They imagined themselves situated in space facing backwards, looking towards the past, while the future rolled over their shoulders from behind like a wave at the beach. Over the years (many years at that), we have turned around so that now we conceive of ourselves as facing the future and riding atop the wave of progress. In this conception of the human body and mind, there is no reason to look to the past, and even if we do, by turning our head over a shoulder, we can only get a partial view. The Greeks valued mythos as much as, if not more than, logos; we have forgotten what mythos is.

However, I do not suggest that we drastically reconfigure our conception of the world and our place in it; that would be impossible. However, by focusing on local history, family history, cultural history, perhaps we can show students what can be gained from turning around every now and then and facing the past in its full panorama. — Stephen, Marblehead, MA

In my own completely unscientific study, I have repeatedly found "stunning ignorance" among my parents' generation about the world as it exists today, to the point that they are seriously impaired in their efforts to participate and experience today's world. This goes beyond being able to set the clock on one's VCR (what's a VCR, anyway?) -- that is just bad industrial design. It is more characterized by utter paralysis in the face of the expanding connectivity of the world.

These studiers, which seem always to decry the pathetic state of our youth today, would do well to turn the camera around. Instead, for whatever reason, such ignorance is given a free pass: can't teach an old dog new tricks, after all. And that's supposed to be OK.

The education of youth is important, no doubt, but the failure of many, if not most, adults to continue their education is just as serious. After all, what good is knowing what happened in the past if you have a) no clue what is happening TODAY? and b) no clue how to even find out what is happening TODAY.

PS No, having a hotmail account and abetting the transmission of mountains of virus-laden jokes, amusing pictures, and factually-challenged patriotic/religious messages to all your friends and relatives who bear the misfortune of being in your adress book does NOT count as functional participation.— Helen, Hawaii

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Crass Commercialization in Children's Books?

Should Children's Publishing Let Commercial Product Placement Into Books for Young People?

"Susan Katz, publisher of HarperCollins Children’s Books, said she was not concerned about a possible backlash against corporate sponsorship in books aimed at such a young audience. 'If you look at Web sites, general media or television, corporate sponsorship or some sort of advertising is totally embedded in the world that tweens live in,' Ms. Katz said. 'It gives us another opportunity for authenticity.' "

Authenticity? Read more in The New York Times at

Monday, February 18, 2008

Choosing Stupidly; Celebrating Ignorance

In an article about Susan Jacoby’s new book, The Age of American Unreason, and in an op/ed essay by Jacoby, both state that not only are many Americans choosing ignorance for themselves and their children, but that we as a culture and society take pride in that ignorance.

Ms. Jacoby writes---
"The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself." Ralph Waldo Emerson offered that observation in 1837, but his words echo with painful prescience in today's very different United States. Americans are in serious intellectual trouble -- in danger of losing our hard-won cultural capital to a virulent mixture of anti-intellectualism, anti-rationalism and low expectations.

This is the last subject that any candidate would dare raise on the long and winding road to the White House. It is almost impossible to talk about the manner in which public ignorance contributes to grave national problems without being labeled an "elitist," one of the most powerful pejoratives that can be applied to anyone aspiring to high office. Instead, our politicians repeatedly assure Americans that they are just "folks," a patronizing term that you will search for in vain in important presidential speeches before 1980. (Just imagine: "We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain . . . and that government of the folks, by the folks, for the folks, shall not perish from the earth.") Such exaltations of ordinariness are among the distinguishing traits of anti-intellectualism in any era.

The classic work on this subject by Columbian University historian Richard Hofstadter, "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life," was published in early 1963, between the anti-communist crusades of the McCarthy era and the social convulsions of the late 1960s. Hofstadter saw American anti-intellectualism as a basically cyclical phenomenon that often manifested itself as the dark side of the country's democratic impulses in religion and education. But today's brand of anti-intellectualism is less a cycle than a flood. If Hofstadter (who died of leukemia in 1970 at age 54) had lived long enough to write a modern-day sequel, he would have found that our era of 24/7 infotainment has outstripped his most apocalyptic predictions about the future of American culture.

There will be many critics of Jacoby, but we must ask ourselves why in our schools and greater society is athletic prowess esteemed and highly rewarded monetarily while intellectual achievement is derided as “nerdish” and young people who exhibit intellectual curiosity are often mocked by their peers? Why are entertainers given exorbitant salaries and our young people’s caretakers, teachers, and librarians given inadequate monetary compensation? And why are their efforts and professions held in such little esteem within our society and culture? What percentage of our federal budget is given to education, schools, and libraries and does that amount reflect a national commitment to making education and literacy a top national priority?

And most troubling, why do we, as a people, exult in our ignorance?

I grew up the granddaughter of immigrants, none of whom had achieved even an eighth grade level education in their country of origin. My grandparents’ greatest desire was to have their children and grandchildren receive the education they lacked. They sacrificed for their children’s education, denying themselves life’s comforts, working back-breaking jobs in order to give their children a road to a better life. I grew up surrounded by selfless people who worked to give their children and grandchildren opportunities they did not have. I thought in America everyone grew up with families that thought and acted like that.

It was not until I became a parent educational activist, fighting for school funding in a small town in New England that I encountered many people who did not share my family's priorities, people who did not believe that an older generation must sacrifice so that the next can have better opportunities. I can distinctly remember knocking on a family’s door asking a father, “Don’t you want your kids to have a better education than you did? Don’t you want your kids to have a smaller class sizes, better books, and good teachers? His response-“I had 45 kids in my class; what’s good enough for me is good enough for them.” Unfortunately, our nation, in words, in our actions, and in our monetary choices, seems to reflect the values expressed by that father rather than the values my grandparents lived.

In this election campaign, issues related to literacy, education, libraries, humanities, sciences and the arts are rarely discussed, and if they are, are discussed in the most unimaginative and pedestrian manner recycling tired ideas and programs that reflect old inadequate thinking and problem solving. Contact the presidential candidate and party of your choice and urge them to talk about education and the future of our young people. Urge them to seriously consider education issues to the same degree they do economic and health issues. Urge them to think critically and creatively and come up with new ideas, new problem solving.-- Mary Brigid Barrett, president, the NCBLA.

For more information go to the NCBLA activist pages at:

To read about Susan Jacoby’s ideas, go to:

Take a moment and contact the presidential candidates, as well as your political party, and let them know that you want them to start talking about our children and their education, NOW!
Contact Presidential candidates and national political parties:

Democratic Party website and contact info:

Republican Party website and contact info:

Presidential Candidates websites and contact information:
Hilary Clinton:

Mike Huckabee

John McCain

Barack Obama

For more information go to the NCBLA activist pages at:

The End of Literacy? Don't Stop Reading.

Howard Gardner Says Don't Worry

This weekend The Washington Post published an essay by Howard Gardner posing the question:

"What will happen to reading and writing in our time?

Could the doomsayers be right? Computers, they maintain, are destroying literacy. The signs -- students' declining reading scores, the drop in leisure reading to just minutes a week, the fact that half the adult population reads no books in a year -- are all pointing to the day when a literate American culture becomes a distant memory. By contract, optimists foresee the Internet ushering in a new, vibrant participatory culture of words. Will they carry the day?

Maybe neither. Let me suggest a third possibility: Literacy -- or an ensemble of literacies -- will continue to thrive, but in forms and formats we can't yet envision."

Mr. Gardner's essay is well worth reading, but how long it has been since he has spent any time in public elementary or secondary schools? A challenge for Mr. Gardner-- spend a month working with young people in Worcester, Massachusetts, or in East Cleveland, Ohio, or even any middle class/working class neighborhood public school across the country to see where our nation truly is concerning reading, writing, and education-- to see the state of actual school buildings, school libraries, and public libraries in many parts of our nation. Have a conversation with a real group of kids, ask them what they read, how much they read, when they read anything at all. And then see if he would draw the same conclusions.

Read Mr. Gardner's essay at:

Thursday, February 7, 2008


Scholastic Audiobook/NCBLA Book Basket Auction Benefits the NCBLA

Scholastic Audiobooks has donated 10 new audiobooks, including Gregory Maguire’s New York Times Best Seller What-the-Dickens! for an online auction to benefit The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance (, a 501C3 not-for-profit that advocates and educates on behalf of literacy, literature, libraries and the arts. This audiobook collection includes The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick; Main Street #1 by Ann Martin; Stoneheart by Charlie Fletcher; and Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor

In addition, the NCBLA Board has donated many personally autographed audiobooks and books to this collection including works by M.T. Anderson, Natalie Babbitt, Susan Cooper, Nikki Grimes, Patricia MacLachlan, Gregory Maguire, and Katherine Paterson. The retail value of this book basket exceeds $1,000. For a detailed list of books and audiobooks, go to:

The auction begins today, January 31, 2008, and runs until February 9. 2008. To find the online auction, on or after January 31 go to:

In the search window, top left, paste in the title of the auction:

Signed Wicked! +Unique Collection Autographed New Books

and click, Search.

If you like you can also select the category: Books.

Or go to:

Celebrate Literature!!!

Celebrate the Poetry of Elizabeth Alexander!

If you haven’t discovered the work of Elizabeth Alexander, run to your library or bookstore and find Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color written by Dr. Alexander, with Marilyn Nelson, illustrated by Floyd Cooper, and look for her other extraordinary books as well.

Elizabeth Alexander was born in 1962 in Harlem, New York, and grew up in Washington, D.C. She received a B.A. from Yale University, an M.A. from Boston University (where she studied with DerekWalcott) and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania.

Her collections of poetry include American Sublime ( Graywolf Press, 2005), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; Antebellum Dream Book (2001); Body of Life (1996); and The Venus Hottentot (1990).

Alexander’s critical work appears in her essay collection, The Black Interior (Graywolf, 2004). She also edited The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks (Graywolf, 2005) and Love’s Instruments: Poems by Melvin Dixon (1995). Her poems, short stories, and critical writing have been widely published in such journals and periodicals as The Paris Review, American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, Callaloo, The Village Voice, The Women's Review of Books, and The Washington Post. Her work has been anthologized in over twenty collections, and in May of 1996, her verse play, Diva Studies, premiered at the Yale School of Drama.

About her work, Rita Dove has said that Alexander's "poems bristle with the irresistible quality of a world seen fresh," and Clarence Major has also noted her "instinct for turning her profound cultural vision into one that illuminates universal experience."

In 2007, Alexander was selected by Lucille Clifton, Stephen Dunn, and Jane Hirshfield to receive the Jackson Poetry Prize from Poets & Writers. She has also received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching at the University of Chicago, and the George Kent Award, given by Gwendolyn Brooks.

She has taught at Haverford College, the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, and Smith College, where she was Grace Hazard Conkling Poet-in-Residence, the first director of the Poetry Center at Smith College, and a member of the founding editorial collective for the feminist journal Meridians. She has served as a faculty member for Cave Canem Poetry Workshops, and has traveled extensively within the U.S. and abroad, giving poetry readings and lecturing on African American literature and culture.

Alexander was a fellow at the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale University, and currently, she is an Associate Professor in the school's African American Studies Department. ( from

Listen to a fascinating interview of Elizabeth Alexander, and hear her read her own work on PBS/WGBH Basic Black at:

And discover more about Ms. Alexander and her work at:

Monday, February 4, 2008

Write Congress on Behalf of Our Nation's Public Libraries!

New Federal Budget Proposal Increases Funding for Our Nation's Public Libraries;

Contact Your Representatives in Congress and Tell Them You Want This Funding!

In a budget where domestic discretionary spending was severely restricted and funding for 151 programs was cut or eliminated, the Library Services and Technology Act saw several key increases. Included in LSTA, the most important federal legislation affecting libraries, are the following totals:

  • $171.5 million for state grants, an increase of $10.6 million over FY 2008; this funding increase ensures that smaller states will have the resources to serve their populations, a priority the Congress recognized in 2003;
  • $12.715 million for the National Leadership Grants for Libraries, an increase of $556,000 over FY 2008;
  • $26.5 million for the Recruitment of Librarians for the 21st Century, an increase of $3.16 million over FY 2008;
  • $3.717 million for Native Americans Library Services, an increase of $143,000 over FY 2008; and
  • $3.5 million for library policy, research, and statistics (included in the administration total), an increase of $1.54 million over FY 2008; this will help libraries identify the programs that most effectively serve users.

“This budget is fantastic news for library users across the country,” said ALA President Loriene Roy. “LSTA is a vital funding source for American citizens, especially children. LSTA monies go toward helping people of all backgrounds achieve literacy, including those with disabilities. And Dr. Roy added, “Across the country, libraries use LSTA funding for a wide variety of access services, including workshops on career information, family literacy classes, homework help and mentoring programs, information on religions and other cultures, access to government information, and so much more.

Go to the Literacy/Library Advocacy page on NCBLA's website to find who your congressman and senators are, and how to contact them, at:

Great Book Event in Boston-Open to the Public!

Writers and Readers On the Hill:
The 7th Annual Massachusetts Book Awards to be held at the Massachusetts State House on February 7, 2008

The Massachusetts Center for the Book and the State Library of Massachusetts are co-hosting the 7th Annual Massachusetts Book Awards on Thursday, February 7. The awards event will begin at 1:30 p.m. at the Grand Staircase, and a reception will follow in the State Library reading room.

The awards are presented annually to books from the previous calendar year that were published by Massachusetts authors or that convey important Massachusetts themes. Twelve books, an award winner and two honors books, in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and children’s/young adult literature become part of a year-long reading promotion initiative sponsored by the Center in collaboration with Massachusetts libraries.

This year’s award winners include some of the most important voices writing in the U.S. today. Former U.S. Poet Laureate and Cambridge resident, Louise Glück, is the award winner in poetry. She will be joined by renowned Amherst poet Martín Espada and Pulitzer prizewinning poet Franz Wright, both honors writers in poetry this year.

Nathaniel Philbrick, one of our most important contemporary historians and Nantucket resident will receive the nonfiction award this year. Claire Messud, Somerville resident and acclaimed novelist will receive the fiction award. The award in children’s/young adult literature goes to Alice Hoffman, a much applauded Cambridge writer.

Also joining the celebration will be Kim McLarin, Milton resident, novelist, and current host of WGBH’s Basic Black, and Mameve Medwed, Cambridge novelist, both of whom are honors writers in fiction this year.

The event is open to the public. Porter Square Books will handle book sales during the reception and book signing. For more information and to RSVP, contact the Massachusetts Center for the Book by email – – or phone – 617.521.2719.

Wimpy Kid Keeps Kids of All Ages in Stitches

Share with the young people in your life-

Greg Heffley, Author of Popular
Diary of a Whimpy Kid interviewed
on NPR's All Things Considered

Greg Heffley's pre-teen diary, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, is a big favorite —many kids find Heffley's books highly entertaining and love his humor. Teachers and parents can go to the NPR website and listen to the interview with their kids in class and at home!

Go to: