AN OPEN LETTER TO THE EDUCATIONAL ESTABLISHMENT

Broken dreams At 1AU we do not manufacture widgets. We do not develop actuarial spreadsheets based on risk assessments of teenage driving habits. We do not order fresh produce for a chain of restaurants displaying cartoon characters on the menu. Therefore, the first, natural assumption is that we are suspect and unreliable in asserting the value of developing skills that have little to do directly with profits or productivity.

I will assert the opposite and attempt to demonstrate why.

The Common Core Standards refer to an initiative developed by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center). The well-intended goal of this initiative was to develop curricular guidance for schools to teach vital components of primary educational goals at the highest possible standards. The most recent Standards call for a marked increase in non-fiction reading, replacing much of the fiction and poetry that up until now has constituted a substantial portion of student literary exposure.

Here's why. The reasoning goes that we now live in a largely data centric society, that instruction manuals and data-based informational sources have become the warp and weft of our days. The sentiment was summed up in a speech last year at the New York State Education Building by David Coleman, the President of the College Board and one of the authors of the new standards proposal.

“Forgive me for saying this so bluntly, the only problem with . . . [that] writing is as you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a [expletive] about what you feel or what you think. What they instead care about is, can you make an argument with evidence, is there something verifiable behind what you’re saying or what you think or feel that you can demonstrate to me? It is rare in a working environment that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday, but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.’ ”

Can I argue with this? Do I dispute for a moment anything implied or overtly stated about the realities Mr. Coleman describes of the grown-up, post primary school world? Not for a second. His assertions are not in dispute. But even here, as I agree with his statement as one of fact, one of my central arguments appears against his overall proposal. Simple refutation of facts is not in itself adequate to overcome all arguments. Aesthetics require support, but they also require justification, usually in the form of metaphoric representation that appeal to some basis of common values held by the adjudicators. Simply being able to counter an argument does not, in and of itself, define a strong counter-argument.

Mr. Coleman is correct that our society requires sophisticated skills for processing primary source material and analyzing complex data for many ordinary, daily transactions. While I risk sounding like a naive, shoeless idealist, I would say that part of this reality is the tragedy of the new standards proposal. In a society that has largely become an endless, sometimes bloody chase for capitalistic success, the texture and emotion and deep wisdom of lives often expressed most trenchantly through literature have been largely overshadowed. It's as if society has tacitly adopted a philosophy that enterprises separated from making an efficient buck are also things that no one wants to hear about.

Has society decided suddenly to deny the value of poems? Of song? Are famous works of art in and of themselves valuable for what they express or must they be able to become merchandisable as greeting cards and tchotchkes to have measurable value? Is there a value to being emotionally moved that transcends money? I love my children intensely, but if they were reduced to their measurable value, I'd want them out of my life today.

More and more it feels like we chase capitalistic enterprise like hamsters on endless wheels. Everyone works all the time, endlessly refining to-do lists that never grows shorter. Mr. Coleman's assertion and the standards he represents is only one more capitulation for a society to abandon its best parts.

I find this ironic. Movie tickets still get sold. Episodic television continues to be vastly popular. Music of various types continues to croon and wail and enchant. Are we to believe that the skills necessary to live in a world filled with feeling should just accrue without direction, gradually like dust settling on a quiet window sill? Are we to pretend that the wisdom of literature––the characters that have affected us, who have become our private rudders through countless challenges in life--are to be abandoned like old walking sticks? That would be tragic. How many times have we all considered chasing giant white whales in our lives, only to reflect ruefully on the fate of Melville's captain? How often have we met the same phonies that Holden Caulfield met, considered his choices, considered differently for ourselves? Do Orwell's political observations in the guise of fiction give us political pause? Do we recall Laura's pluck and enterprise in that little house she lived in on the Missouri prairie? Do we find moments of quiet reflection before making vastly profound strategic decisions like Ender Wiggin? Do we live with the Fools of Chelm, or are we those fools ourselves?

I would hate to leave these questions, and the profound wisdom imparted by the stories and characters that examine them, by the side of the road, supplanted by spreadsheet analysis and diligent abstractions of white papers. Is it good to read Martin Luther King's original Letter from a Birmingham Jail? Absolutely. Primary texts present vital windows on culture, on critical thinking, on the tangible world. But should we dismiss the value of literature in lieu of fact-based media? No. We do so only at the peril of losing humanity's passionate engine to pursue goals that transcend daily labor. Literature is not a luxury. It's a function of humanity's quest to understand itself, one person, one saga, one moment-- big or small, smooth or rough, quaint or grand--at a time. When publisher Tim O'Reilly asserts that he "doesn't give a [explicative] if literary novels go away. They're an elitist pursuit," he eats the intellectual seed corn of the society that cultivated his media behemoth. The novel as a form is elitist? What hubris have we so deeply absorbed that we're willing to erode an essential wellspring of our moral formation, our shared cultural experiences, of lives we do not have to live but from which we can nonetheless learn so much? Do we dare to consider ideas beyond what we can quantify numerically? It's as if to say that immediate, quantifiable utility is the only thing that defines value, if it doesn't speed up the churn, it isn't worth the effort. Think this is a new trend? No. There's a reason Gene Roddenberry made Spock half-human. Logic alone is not enough.

While 1AU Global Media makes no bones about being a business proposition founded and staffed almost entirely by artists, it's commonly known that one of our unusual specialties is the ability to translate complex science, technology, economic, and other conceptually challenging subjects into imaginative and engaging media products. We not only need to be confident with the science itself, but we also need to be capable of a surprisingly diverse list of technological tools, from sophisticated software packages and original code development, to a dizzying array of hardware employed in the service of making easy to digest media. As a company we would be nowhere without robust scientific literacy, earned the hard way. But we would also be nowhere without the very things that a life suffused by literature ultimately conveys.

Years of working on behalf of NASA, NOAA, and other federal agencies put me and my colleagues in close contact with world-class scientists and researchers. This is a serious crowd, and a brainy one, and I don't think anyone would argue that the jobs they do are anything less than the categorical height of academic or professional achievement. Nonetheless, one of the most common inspirational sources I've heard from many in this serious, analytical, extraordinarily non-fiction crowd is their early exposure to science fiction literature, often headlines by the goofy, inventive, ethically challenging and satisfying world of Star Trek.

I'm not proposing that Star Trek is great literature, nor that it should be placed in school curriculums. But I am suggesting, by means of counter argument, that without a fictional frame, the vitality of the many scientific and technical muscles cultivated by rigorous higher education would not be nourished by the grounding humanistic principals that give life meaning. Achievement, profit, growth: they mean nothing without values, ethical reasoning, beauty, and justice. Humanistic skills can only be cultivated by intangible consideration; they are not reducible to objective tests. They are three dimensional.

1AU Global Media is a business. We are capitalists, after all; that's the world in which we live, and (thank you very much) things are red hot in that department. We're very grateful for the opportunity to make a living by living creative lives, and with no apology we intend to continue to be wildly successful capitalists going forward. So much of production and media consulting reduces to extremely complex engineering, accounting, project planning, technical analysis. The pace is fast, the skill set complex, the learning curve endless. But I would profoundly lament the loss of young artists entering the professional world who weren't fueled by passions cultivated by literature and the deeply intimate experiences it can instill. I would be unable to mine delicate, deep veins of meaning in the purely mechanical world of non-fictional texts. I would miss the spark that life demands for it's own continuity.

That leads me back to The Common Core Standards. They present an educational framework that's well intentioned and based on measurable outcomes, namely test scores for parsing certain classes of non-fiction texts. To some critics, Mr. Coleman suggests that not everyone understands the intentions of the Standards, that they are not exclusive, that 30% of all reading should still be left to literature in school. My problem, besides a banal debate about percentages, is that intentions matter most and many educators simply won't see the forest for the trees.

To cite Mr. Coleman's example, the world may not be looking for a compelling account of your childhood, but I would argue that an employee who not only knows how to write one, but also how to reflect on childhoods he or she has encountered in books is better capable of interacting with real people in the real world. Because unless Mr. Coleman and his cohort are proposing that productivity and profitability themselves are the highest goals of human interaction, I suspect that Mr. Johnson's reflections on childhood share certain commonalities with Mr. Smith's reflections of his childhood, too. Now that they're both adults, they have to figure out how to publish their company's monthly widget production report collaboratively, and they have to decide if chasing the White Whale represented by their biggest competitor's widget output is also a good business plan.

If only they had read Moby Dick.

--MS

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