Was Your High School English Class Better than Your Grandma’s?

             
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My grandmother passed away a few months ago. While looking through her belongings, I discovered several scrapbooks from her school days in the 1930s and 40s.

One page in the scrapbook focuses on her 9th-grade English course in a small, rural high school in Minnesota. Pasted to the page is a workbook of sample questions which she apparently used to prepare for the state’s year-end exam.

The little booklet is filled with questions on everything from spelling to grammar to literature.

While pondering the titles regularly referred to in the literature section, it suddenly dawned on me where my grandmother got the sophisticated and descriptive writing style that permeates her scrapbooks. In all likelihood, it was fostered by the high-end literature she was expected to study even in her small, country school. Simply reading the first paragraphs of each of these titles – and running them through a text analyzer – reveal books with complex vocabulary and syntax, and reading levels generally several grades beyond what we might expect from today’s 9th-grade English students:

The Lady of the Lake – Sir Walter Scott (Reading Level* - 13.0)
The Vision of Sir Launfal – James Russell Lowell (Reading Level - 13.0)
Lincoln, a Man of the People – Edwin Markham (Reading Level - 7.6)
My Native Land - Sir Walter Scott (Reading Level - 14.0)
The Gold Bug – Edgar Allan Poe (Reading Level - 12.0)
To a Waterfowl – William Cullen Bryant (Reading Level - 13.0)
The Ballad of East and West – Rudyard Kipling (Reading Level - 11.0)
The Chambered Nautilus - Oliver Wendell Holmes. Sr. (Reading Level - 10.0)
The Ransom of Red Chief - O. Henry (Reading Level - 11.0)
The Great Stone Face – Nathaniel Hawthorne (Reading Level - 7.0)
(*Reading level numbers correspond with grades: 9.0 = 9th grade, etc.)

Here and there, today’s public schools will offer one or two classic selections like these. But more often than not, students are given titles which are minimally challenging.

I wonder… would we see so many millennials struggling to read and write if today’s students were held to the same high standards as my grandmother was?

I sincerely doubt it.

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