The Argument for Nonfiction

Dana Goldstein makes the argument that we might do well to teach more non-fiction – of the non-textbook variety – in our lower schools:

That’s why children should read newspapers and magazines, texts about nature and technology, and biographies—genres that increase real-world knowledge. This is especially important for poor children, who may not be exposed to as much “background” information at home: the random vocabulary, facts, and associations that make it easier to do well on tests like the NAEP and SAT, and to succeed in the workplace.

But for the most part, kids aren’t reading this kind of material. “One of my big gripes is the imperialism of literature, of trivial fictions and poetry,” says E.D. Hirsch, a literature professor and advocate of “cultural literacy.” Hirsch rejects the idea that storybooks are the only books that appeal to children. “Fiction doesn’t have a monopoly on narrative,” he says. “Take, for example, biographies. They have the form of fiction. It isn’t whether kids can read it or not, it’s whether it is taught or not. And boys tend to be more interested in nonfiction than fiction. It’s one of the reasons… that boys do less well and are turned off from reading.”

I’m not sure this is especially true for boys, but it’s almost certainly true for many kids of both genders. Nonfiction just inspires some people more than fiction. I can count on one hand the number of serious non-fiction narratives I read in school – and all of those were in non-English courses. I, for one, would have quickly traded The Right Stuff or Hiroshima for Dispatches for one or two Dickens or Shakespeares in my English classes (but not for the Hemingways, obviously).

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