Jamie Gass: A Frankenstein's monster attacks school literature


BOSTON — "[N]othing contributes so much to tranquilize the mind as a steady purpose," wrote Mary Shelley, author of the classic horror story 'Frankenstein'. "[A] point on which the soul may fix its intellectual eye."

The novel's 200th anniversary this year is a fitting time to remember how Mrs. Shelley's book has enlivened our understanding of human nature and modern science, even shaping popular culture and Halloween.

Schoolchildren should know Mary Shelley's name, the fact that her literary invention unleashed the science fiction genre, as well as her warnings about the perils of science run amok.

Mary's parents had been 18th-century English radicals. Her mother was the prominent, early feminist author of "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman."

Published when Mary was only age 20, "Frankenstein"; or, "The Modern Prometheus," was born from a grotesque "waking dream." She and her husband, the famous Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, were summer guests at the Lake Geneva, Switzerland home of another great poet, Lord Byron. Their host challenged each visitor to think up a creepy ghost story.

The moral of her tale is the horrible consequences of scientist Victor Frankenstein creating a monster by electrifying cobbled-together human body parts. Violence and death follow Victor and his creature. This story is a cautionary parable about humanity playing God and misusing science to "perfect" nature.

Stitched on standards

Until recently, Massachusetts' nation-leading K-12 English standards were animated by such classic British literature and poetry. Great fiction contributed to the commonwealth's success on virtually every K-12 reading test known to the English-speaking world.

But in 2010, Massachusetts took $250 million in one-time federal grant money to replace its proven English standards with inferior nationalized ones known as Common Core. These national standards — an educational Frankenstein's monster — largely decapitated timeless fiction and stitched on brainless so-called "informational texts."

"[T]he fallen angel becomes a malignant devil," wrote Mary Shelley.

By 2015, the commonwealth dropped into a tie for second in the country on the national eighth-grade reading test, while overall SAT scores were down 20 points, with a particular dip on the writing portion.

Common Core is a misguided social-engineering experiment with schoolchildren's educational futures. "For much of the 20th century, British literature held the center of high school English and ... college courses in composition, English, history, [and] linguistics ...," scholars Mark Bauerlein and Sandra Stotsky warned in 2012. "We find no explanation for Common Core dispensing with it."

Frankenstein was heavily influenced by ancient Greek mythology and English poetry, including Prometheus's punishment for giving humans fire, Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and "Milton's Paradise Lost." When we allow shortsighted technocrats to deny kids access to such enduring literature, we deprive them of more than scary fireside stories.

As the Common Core nightmare haunts American classrooms, Brookings Institution researcher Tom Loveless observed, "[T]he dominance of fiction is waning ... Teachers in 2015 were less likely to embrace the superiority of fiction in reading instruction than in the past, and the change is evident in both fourth and eighth grades after 2011."

Common Core's disturbing, fiction-less English classes are straight from "Frankenstein": "When falsehood can look so like the truth," Mary Shelley wrote, "who can assure themselves of certain happiness?"

"Frankenstein" awakens us to a key lesson of modern learning — science is a powerful tool, but when uncoupled from moral and ethical grounding, it can easily become monstrous.

Message remains relevant

After pseudo-scientific 20th-century totalitarian regimes — which manufactured mass murder, the Holocaust, and gulags — Mary Shelley's central message about the limits of human power and modern science is even more relevant today.

Our children and grandchildren will no doubt confront thorny technological dilemmas in the aptly named "post-human era." These include the bioethics of animal and human cloning, nuclear and biological weapons, advanced robotics and artificial intelligence, excessive plastic surgery, and compulsive social-media use.

"You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did;" Victor Frankenstein forewarns, "and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been."

If educratic policymaking zombies with a few bolts loose can't comprehend the importance of Mary Shelley's classic fiction, perhaps the intellectually curious eyes and souls of schoolchildren will.

Jamie Gass is director of the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.


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