This began largely with the Common Core, instituted in 2010 during the Obama administration. While glorifying STEM, these nationwide standards, intended to develop a 21st-century work force, also took care to de-emphasize literature. By high school, 70 percent of assigned texts are meant to be nonfiction. Educators can maximize the remaining fiction by emphasizing excerpts, essays and digital material over full-length novels. Immersing children in the full arc of storytelling has largely gone out that window as novels have increasingly been replaced by short stories — or shorter yet, by “texts.”

“The Common Core killed classic literature,” as Diane Ravitch noted in 2018.

So what do kids read instead? To even be considered, a work must first pass through the gantlet of book bans and the excising of those books containing passages that might be deemed antiquated or lie outside the median of student body experiences. Add to that the urge to squelch any content that might be deemed “triggering” or controversial, the current despair over smartphoned attention spans and the desire to “reach students where they are.” Toni Morrison’s short first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” a coming-of-age story, tends to be assigned over her longer, more intricate, more provocative — and to this reader, anyway, richer — novel “Beloved.”

The assumption is that kids aren’t discerning or tough enough to handle complexity or darkness, whether it’s the nastiness of Roald Dahl or the racism and sexism in 19th-century fiction, and that they can’t read within context or grasp the concept of history. But kids adopt the blinkered veil of presentism — the tendency to judge past events according to contemporary standards and attitudes — only when adults show them how.

Citing the need to appeal to fickle tastes with relevant and engaging content, teachers often lowball student competence. Too often, this means commercial middle grade and young adult novels such as “The Lightning Thief” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” or popular fiction like “The Outsiders,” or on the more ambitious end, accessible works of 20th-century fiction like “To Kill a Mockingbird” — all engaging novels that kids might read on their own — in lieu of knottier works that benefit from instruction and classroom discussion. The palpable desperation to just get students to read a book doesn’t come across as the kind of enticement that makes literature soar.

Those books that remain are read in a manner seemingly intended to leach all pleasure from the process. Even apart from the aims of the Common Core, the presiding goal is no longer instilling a love of literature but rather teaching to the test and ensuring students reach certain mandated benchmarks. In recent years in New York State, for example, skills like “information literacy” appear to be given priority over discussions of literature.

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