Failure Is Always An Option

The California Department of Education offers a potentially rather nifty service to parents on its official website: It provides recommended reading lists customized based on the kid`s grade level (K-12) and test score on the California Reading Arts exam, with 13 progressively harder lists at each grade level:

“Based on your child`s score on the California English-Language Arts Standards Test, a specific list has been designated as appropriate for him or her in terms of reading difficulty and interest level.”

These lists are much less driven by multiculturalist quotas than you`d expect. They`re heavy on The Classics of Western Civilization, including ones that nobody reads anymore, like Vergil`s Aeneid. And the multiculti stuff is pretty good, like Fences by August Wilson.

Unfortunately, educators are living in a dreamland about what kind of books are suitable for their lowest-scoring students. Let`s take a look at the recommended reading list for high school students (grades 9-12) who rank lowest out of the 13 levels of scores on the test. So, that`s like youths in the bottom decile in reading ability, right?

Here are five of the 57 recommendations from the bottom of the barrel list:

Collected Poems by W.H. Auden
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw
Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot
Paradise Lost by John Milton

Right …

Look, at this level, you just want these kids to read something, so you should be recommending, I don`t know, 32-page sports hero biographies in big type with lots of pictures. The Da Vinci Code is way too hard for these poor bastards.

This seems to be a general pattern, pushing public school kids toward books that are way over their heads. Let`s talk about average public school students. For example, Shakespeare is frequently introduced to students via Romeo and Juliet, which is the young Shakespeare at his most show-offy and incomprehensible. You should start instead with Julius Caesar, which is written in Shakespeare`s simplest style in imitation of Latin. And it`s about war and politics, which boys like, and boys are the problem these days. Most of them probably won`t get it, but at least they have a fighting chance with Julius Caesar.

For those high school students who go on to a second Shakespeare play, Henry IV, Part I has perhaps the most entertainment value, with war, politics, and some humor that`s still kind of funny in Falstaff. Avoid Shakespeare comedies that are based upon transvestism but aren`t actually funny, like Twelfth Night. They appeal to a certain type of English teacher, but not to most students. And avoid “problem plays” like Measure for Measure, which are problem plays because they have problems (i.e., aren`t very good).

If you are building a public high school reading list of classics, you should look for 1) simple, 2) short, and 3) appealing to boys, which means you`d start with The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway and The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane.