Dumbing Down: The Effects of Simplifying English

This article was originally published in The Daily Pulp on June 9, 2014.

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.” 

 George OrwellPolitics and the English Language

State governors and their administrations across America are collaborating with private educational firms to design and roll out new “Common Core” educational standards for K-12 schools. Similarly, the College Board, the highly powerful educational firm that controls pre-college standardized tests, is overhauling the SAT, the gateway exam for entry into college. In this short article, I want to examine one aspect of corporatized education reform: the treatment of high school-level English language and literature education, also known as ELA (English Language Arts). By focusing on a portion of this broad movement to change American education, I seek to reveal some problems with Common Core and the revised SAT—with corporatized education reform.

Let’s start with the SAT changes for reading comprehension, specifically simplifying the exam’s vocabulary. To quote the College Board website:

Students will be asked to interpret the meaning of words based on the context of the passage in which they appear. This is demanding but rewarding work. These are words that students will use throughout their lives—in high school, college and beyond. Requiring students to master relevant vocabulary will change the way they prepare for the exam. No longer will students use flashcards to memorize obscure words, only to forget them the minute they put their test pencils down. (See: https://www.collegeboard.org/delivering-opportunity/sat/redesign)

The site goes on to describe some reasonable changes in ELA, such as having test-takers evaluate an article’s argument and having test-takers cite sentences that back up their answer choices.

Still, I find it disconcerting that the SAT’s vocabulary is being simplified. The College Board is sending the message that students need not learn advanced vocabulary words, even words that aren’t used regularly. What right does a corporation have to decide that students should only learn a limited, more simplistic, more ordinary set of words? This change to the SAT is described as giving students “words [they] will use throughout their lives,” but in practice students will be taught fewer intriguing, intricate or unusual words. The College Board’s move to streamline the SAT vocabulary may be described as practical, but in truth it will be impractical. The changes will shrink students’ vocabularies. In this way, the College Board’s move to make students more college-ready will backfire. Instead, students will be less prepared for the advanced readings assigned in college.

Additionally, the argument that students should only know commonplace words sends a dangerous message: The advanced words that one finds in classic books and college-level academic texts lack value or relevance for normal life. In other words, one does not need to know advanced words in order to have a business or STEM-field job. This message perpetuates the myth that the classics, humanities and liberal arts are useless and won’t help students find jobs. Such claims are not true, of course, but they persist in national discourse. As such, by devaluing obscure or advanced words in the SAT vocabulary, the College Board sends the message that one does not need these words, or the fields of study from which they originate. In this way, the College Board subliminally encourages a spirit of anti-intellectualism about education, while also perpetuating the myth that students should study subjects that translate into a narrow range of career skills.

Overall, the simplification of SAT vocabulary is an insidious weakening of ELA education and will do the opposite of what College Board officials promise.

Let’s now consider the Common Core changes to ELA curricula across the country. Traditionally, ELA classes in America mix the forms of literature to which students are exposed, but certain genres are always present—plays, novels, poems, short stories, literary speeches and famous works of literary nonfiction and autobiography. The balance tends to fall upon novels, and that’s probably a good thing because, for some students, the classic books assigned in school may be the only great books they ever read.

However, the new Common Core standards, designed by private corporations, shift away from teaching classic novels and plays in favor of teaching literary nonfiction. This catchall category (at least, based on the requirements for the New York State Common Core) consists of newspaper articles, science journalism, various speeches and a few significant nonfiction authors (W.E.B. DuBois, Malcolm X, etc.). There are still novels and plays in the Common Core curriculum, but now teachers are mandated to use almost exclusively excerpts, not entire books, in class. Furthermore, many of the required newspaper articles and nonfiction readings take the place of classic poems, plays and novels. As such, students are reading fewer books under Common Core.

I’m all for reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X in English class—it’s an important literary work of self-mythology. But is a newspaper column by Nicholas Kristof really more valuable thanDr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde? It seems doubtful.

Admittedly, I’m most familiar with the state of affairs in New York. Nonetheless, the national Common Core website sends the same messages as New York, emphasizing literary nonfiction and technical writing in place of the classics:

The Common Core asks students to read stories and literature, as well as more complex texts that provide facts and background knowledge in areas such as science and social studies. Students will be challenged and asked questions that push them to refer back to what they’ve read. This stresses critical-thinking, problem-solving and analytical skills that are required for success in college, career and life. (See: http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/)

Let’s get this straight. Students are expected to read science and social studies materials, (which are “more complex” than literature) in ELA classes, even though students already receive nonfiction readings in their science and social studies classes. These nonfiction works crowd out the traditional classics. So, nonfiction is emphasized at the expense of fiction. An anti-intellectual assumption—that the classics lack merit and are irrelevant to daily life, whereas nonfiction is relevant and more applicable to daily life— is latent within this redesigned curriculum.

Indeed, we can see this anti-intellectualism within the Common Core statement excerpted above—stories and literature” are juxtaposed with “more complex texts,” namely the sciences. This phrasing upholds the STEM fields as intrinsically valuable, while also downplaying the humanities. As such, this remark at the end of the national Common Core ELA page feels like a joke:

Students will learn to use cogent reasoning and evidence collection skills that are essential for success in college, career and life. The standards also lay out a vision of what it means to be a literate person who is prepared for success in the 21st century. (See:http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/)

By reading less literature in ELA classes, we will be making our children less literate and less prepared for thinking critically and creatively in the future.

In conclusion, the gutting of SAT vocabulary and the Common Core’s removal of traditional literature from course syllabi are disastrous moves for nationwide ELA teaching. The SAT changes will shrink students’ vocabularies. Common Core reduces the amount of classic literature to which students are exposed. Both of these reforms hinge upon misguided, anti-intellectual assumptions: (a) that students need concepts that translate directly into job skills and (b) that the STEM fields and social science are more valuable than the humanities. Clearly, corporate-led education reform hinges upon what corporations feel will turn students into the best possible businessmen and consumers.

Because of these corporate education reforms, students will become weaker, less critical readers. With these reforms so misguided, and with the corporate rhetoric justifying these reforms so unrelentingly positive, one must doubt that the corporations genuinely have the children’s best interests at heart. Then again, perhaps the corporations’ researchers are so far removed from actual classroom education that they understand neither the intrinsic value of learning the humanities for their own sake nor the damage these reforms will cause.

Since the changes to ELA education and testing are so flawed, I shudder to think how many problems will soon crop up with corporation-designed reforms for math, social studies, and science education.









I have also corresponded with public school teachers in New York State about this matter, but will not name these teachers for the sake of their anonymity.


A followup point:

One reader thought that I was treating STEM fields as synonymous with “anti-intellectual.” To be clear, I was absolutely not trying to send that message, and I certainly have no problem with STEM education. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math are essential fields for modern society. Rather, I wrote this piece in response to education reformers who only want STEM taught and emphasized in curricula, since they feel that only STEM topics lead to career and college preparedness. In contrast, I believe arts and STEM both have merit, so I regard with skepticism those reformers who seek to turn ELA education into technical preparation for STEM fields. This devaluation of literature and words is anti-intellectual, hence my statement that these reformers are operating on an anti-intellectual premise.

Corporate reformers are the source of the problem, NOT the STEM fields, which are immensely valuable, and I’d never dissuade anyone from studying them.

Overall, I should have been more careful in articulating my argument, to clarify that the problem is with individual people hawking STEM at the expense of the liberal arts, and not with STEM itself.

The cover photo is archived from the Daily Pulp layout, but is originally from here:



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