Why Anthony Esolen is Wrong, Part II

I’ve received some wonderful responses on my previous post “On Teaching Writing in High School – Or, Why Anthony Esolen is Wrong,” and I thought I would show you two of them here and then respond.


My dad writes:

[…] I’m wondering if there is a difference, or a distinction that should be made between teaching how to write, and how to read? While you are undoubtedly correct that the majority of high school students need “formulas,” if you will, to learn how to write, crawling before walking, as you put it, how about reading?

This got me thinking. Indeed, Esolen’s piece, especially the part where he says that “We attend to Keats’ words and metaphors so that we will better see what he is saying to us about what it means to be human,” it is clear that he has shifted from talking about writing (and the Common Core’s “Substandard Writing Standards”) to talking about reading.

Of course, the two things go together. As Flannery O’Connor says, “I write to discover what I know.” One might alter her words and add, I write to discover what I read.

I don’t mean to be to carefree and conflate terms here, but in a way, writing is a way to read.

My dad continues:

I’m thinking about Professor Nagy’s approach to teaching Homer, which admittedly is at the college level, but still aims at taking the completely unintiated neophyte into a very alien “song culture,” but does it without formulas, without imposing preconceptions from the outside, but instead rigorously insists on reading out of the “text” not into it [emphasis added]. He introduces useful techniques, such as comparing “micro narratives” within the text with the “macro narrative” itself, but never in a way that reduces the work to an easy formula. Thoughts?

I guess my initial thoughts are these. I teach reading very similarly to how I teach writing. In fact, although my (sometimes distant) end goal is to get kids to read with an appreciation for Esolen’s “true, good, and beautiful,” my immediate goal is to get them to read at all.

Last year I realized many of my high school kids did not know how to read. That is, they could sound out letters and let the words wash over them, but they failed to realize that the act of reading is a complex process that involves the use of multiple skills. So, I spent two units, one in the fall, one in the spring, on teaching “Reading Strategies.” In essence, they are the same type of “formulas” and “ingredients” that Esolen seems to eschew in writing.

Here are two posts in which I write about how I did that:

“7 Quick Takes Friday, Last Week of School Edition”

Thoughts Forthcoming…


My friend Jeff (also an ACE graduate) writes:

I’m not sure whether Esolen’s argument against the common core is based on the idea that teaching formulaic writing based on evidence wastes time better spent encouraging higher order, more creative thinking or that teaching formulaic analysis and writing about literature precludes more creative, organic analysis of literature, but I take issue with both.

If you can teach a student to find the beauty and truth in a poem but they aren’t able to communicate this truth to others, the value of that education is severely limited. One good thought able to be understood by others is more valuable, I would argue, than a million brilliant thoughts trapped inside the mind of one.

To which I can only say, “Amen!”

My kids say things to me all the time like, “I understand it, I just don’t know how to explain it.”

To which I always reply, “If you don’t know how to explain it, then you don’t really understand it.”

Again, Flannery: “I write to discover what I know.”

Best of all, Jeff continues and describes his perspective on all this as a Math teacher:

Furthermore, I don’t believe that being taught formulaic writing/analysis precludes being able to appreciate the beauty of a poem in a more creative way. I have never taught writing or literature but get frustrated when teaching math that I spend the vast majority if my time teaching basic skills instead of how to creatively apply math concepts. However, when I look back at my experience learning math, my understanding of it was very formulaic. Then I took calculus, and I realized that this understanding was limited and needed to be replaced with another approach. However, if I had never had a formulaic understanding if math, I would never have been able to understand the beauty of calculus. Even parts of calculus I only understood once I had worked out dozens of problems in a formulaic manner. I would think that a writer would outgrow his or her formulaic way of writing when it no longer expressed in a satisfactory way his or her thoughts.

Thanks so much, Dad and Jeff!

As snarky as my last post was, I do not mean to give the impression that I am not one of Esolen’s “comrades,” as he calls them. In terms of fighting for the renewal of education, especially Catholic education, I am totally on his side. I would also like to think that I am also on the side of “the True, the Good, and the Beautiful”–but only the Lord knows the extent of my allegiance to Him.

But I think that in order to help our kids appreciate the Transcendentals at all, we have to get our hands dirty and take a very Sacramental, blood and sweat and dirt and bread and wine approach.

You know, the Jesus approach.

After all, He helped the blind man see by putting mud and spit on his eyes (cf. Mark 8:23, John 9:6).

And the poor man didn’t see everything clearly right away. He said that the people around him at first “looked like trees, walking” (Mark 8:24).

If thesis formulas and reading strategies are a bit muddy and dirty, that’s okay by me. I figure the Lord can use those things too to help my students write and read their way towards Him.

source: google images

On Teaching Writing in High School – Or, Why Anthony Esolen is Wrong

Anthony Esolen is a teacher and writer whom I profoundly respect and admire, and with whom I find myself almost constantly in disagreement. (Except for most of his stuff in the Magnificat publication. That’s usually great.)

This is a piece he wrote a year ago in Crisis Magazine that continutes to nettle me. You will basically get the gist of his argument from the title: “The Common Core’s Substandard Writing Standards.”

I’m not going to tackle the whole thing here. Rather I’m going to obnoxiously excerpt two particular passages that make me roll my eyes whenever I think about them.

Esolen writes:

So, when I don my robe as the Unteacher, I never say to my students, “Follow these steps and you will be a great writer,” as if I were imparting the secret ingredients of an infallible potion.  I say, “Never pretend to know what you do not really know.  Never pretend to believe what you do not believe.  Never affect a certainty you cannot reasonably claim.  Never affect uncertainty so as not to offend the muddled.  Never use a word whose meaning and usage you are unclear about.  Never open a thesaurus unless you are looking for a word you know quite well but cannot at the moment remember.  Never put on airs.” (Esolen)

And, poof! With a few more inspiring speeches, he teaches them how to write about the true, the good and the beautiful.


Besides snarkily commenting on the “airs” he may or may not be “putting on” in this very passage, I would also like to point out that Esolen lives in the blissful ivory tower of academia, where of course following formulaic “steps” to writing is considered exceptionally mundane and lowly. In his Crisis Magazine bio, we learn that he “teaches Renaissance English Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at Providence College.”

Thus I suppose many of the college students Esolen teaches already know, at least partially, how to write coherently. Otherwise, they probably wouldn’t be going to Providence College.

But the Common Core standards are not written for college students. They are also not written for college professors who seldom see the miserable sludge the passes for thinking in high school essays. Indeed, these standards were not written with you in mind at all, Professor Esolen, and so you cannot really fault them for not ringing true to your experience of pedagogy.

The Common Core Standards (imperfect as they may be) are written for high school educators who are still trying to get their kids to write in complete sentences.

I sympathize with how Esolen feels. The Common Core seems to be a dumbing-down of the mysterious art of writing. It talks a lot about using evidence and not very often about telling the truth–which is, in the long run, far more important. Esolen is right about that and I wrestle with that valid point here: “Language, Truth and Power in the Classroom”.

But Esolen believes the authors of the Common Core

do not read poems at all, really.  They read texts, or, as they put it with the air of technicians, text.  When you read a passage by Dostoyevsky, or a poem by Donne, or the maunderings of a politically correct doyen, you are reading text, and reading text requires the same techniques, always and ever, just as there is a correct way to dissect a dead cat on the laboratory table. (Ibid)

You know, he has a point. The Common Core does treat pretty much every work as a “text” you can approach in a systematic, perhaps even coldly scientific way.

As a high school student myself, I would have hated this. Writing always came naturally to me, and I glanced snobbishly at the formulaic outlines my silly high school teachers made me write and ignored them because I didn’t need them (or think I did). I was too busy, with Esolen, contemplating the true, the good and the beautiful.

But what I did not see then, and what Esolen does not see now, is that the “steps” and “secret ingredients” he so easily dismisses are very necessary to 90% of high school students.

Nobly, he professes his writing creed:

But I and my comrades believe that rhetoric is subordinate to the humanities.  We attend to Keats’ words and metaphors so that we will better see what he is saying to us about what it means to be human.  We do not invert the order of ends.  We care ultimately about the good, the true, and the beautiful, and what vision of those that Keats was granted to see.  We read poetry as poetry, and we rejoice in its truth and its beauty, nor do we presume to know all about it. (Ibid)

This is very noble, and even very UD of him–but as far as most of my high school kids are concerned, it’s also a bunch of crap. They don’t rejoice in poetry because they do not know how. They don’t “care” about “the good, the true and the beautiful” because most of them don’t know (yet) what those are. They ignore the “vision” of Keats because they have too much obstructing their own vision right now.

It is my goal to help them improve their vision so they can see and travel the road ahead, but unless you give them specific tasks and directions to hold onto, most of them will wander and get hopelessly lost in the jungles of adolescent thinking.

High school students don’t need a preacher. They need a teacher– a fellow-learner–who is willing to see how complicated and crazy it all looks, and try to help them make sense of it.

Esolen would probably cringe at the lessons I’m teaching my kids right now on writing: the 4 methods for incorporating a quote, quote sandwiches, the thesis formula (A is B because of 1, 2, 3!), the 3 parts of an intro paragraph, the 4 parts of a body paragraph, how to use textual(!) evidence…

I am offering my kids “secret ingredients.” I am giving them “steps.”

Because you know what? They work.

And I hope learning these steps will help my kids eventually make the long journey toward the True, the Good and the Beautiful.

But you can’t run until you can walk.

And if we have to start with crawling, then so be it.



More on the Core:

Language, Truth and Power in the Classroom – Part II

Getting to the Core

If I Could Teach One Thing About Writing…



7 Quick Takes Friday (3/28/14)




Ah, the Friday of Spring Break.

It feels rather less like a Friday and more like a “Um, excuse me, Ms. Shea, have you graded those papers yet…?”

I’m working on it, people. I am.


Over at Crisis Magazine, Anthony Esolen lauds the University of Dallas for its authentic commitment to the Western literary tradition:

Here is what my great and wise professor, Robert Hollander, had to say about the University of Dallas. Let his words ring in your ears, American bishops whom I want so badly to love and to follow in the fight for things both human and divine, and who so often let me down:

“After my first visit to UD in the spring of 2005, I came upon my friend and colleague, Alban Forcione, surely one of the five or fewer greatest scholars of Cervantes alive, [and told him] that we had wasted our lives teaching in the Ivy League and that I had found the place at which we could have spent our careers with better effect.” (Esolen, “On the Academic Hostility to Great Literature”)

As my friend Shelley would say:



But wait…

As much as I agree with the core (get it?) of Esolen’s argument, there are parts I am not so sure about.

Let’s define a few terms first:

The Core (n) – the 60 credit hour sequence of classes taken by all students at the University of Dallas, regardless of major, predominantly in their freshman and sophomore years. Eg: Literary Traditions I-IV, Philosophy of Man, Western Theological Tradition, etc.

The Common Core (n) – “an education initiative in the United States that details what K-12 students should know in English language arts and mathematics at the end of each grade. The initiative is sponsored by the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and seeks to establish consistent education standards across the states as well as ensure that students graduating from high school are prepared to enter credit-bearing courses at two- or four-year college programs or enter the workforce” (via Wikipedia)

The Common “Corpse” (n) – Anthony Esolen’s nickname for the Common Core (see above), reflecting his belief (and the belief of many Catholics) that this education initiative undermines not only the Catholic identity of schools, but the very purpose of authentic education itself



Now, in the aforementioned article, Esolen’s chief purpose is not to criticize the Common Core, although he does do this as a way of opening. You can view his much more comprehensive (and, at times, compelling) arguments here:

“How Common Core Devalues Great Literature” at Crisis Magazine

“Common Core’s Substandard Writing Standards” at Crisis Magazine

“Common Core: 21st Century Peonage” at Crisis Magazine

Here are just a few thoughts:

I am a high school English teacher, and last year I was encouraged to implement Common Core Standards in my lesson objectives. Thus, I cannot really speak to ALL the standards, but I am familiar with the grades 9-12 Language Arts standards.

source: politichicks.tv


1) Common Core has mysteriously descended upon most of the states without any kind of debate or voter input. States’ Rights Advocates are rightly suspicious and annoyed of this top-down Federalizing of education.

2) “Follow the money,” as a wise person recently reminded me. Common Core is largely funded by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. You may draw your own conclusions. Moreover, the biggest reason it was so quickly (and almost universally) adopted is that President Obama offered the states an extra competitive edge in their applications for “Race to the Top” federal grants if they adopted the Common Core Standards by August 2010. Hm.

3) It is true that the Common Core seems to prize “informational texts.” This is especially evident on their “recommended” reading lists and options for teachers. Many people are worried that this is to the exclusion of “literary texts.”

4) Many Catholics object to the content of some of the recommended texts as being inappropriate or indoctrinating students into secular agendas.



1) One reason for the unifying of educational standards is rather practical. Some states have horrible and confusingly-worded standards, period. Or they have such an overwhelming number of standards that teachers look at them, groan, and then move on with their lesson planning either cherry picking a few numbers here and there or ignoring them altogether. The Common Core tries to simplify and streamline the standards so that they are much easier to understand and thus to implement in one’s actual classroom teaching.

2) Another reason for the unifying of educational standards is also practical. In previous decades, when people stayed put and were educated in their home states at least through high school, they could follow a coherent set of standards that (supposedly) guided a coherent curriculum (a particular sequence in Math classes, for example). But recently, since so many people do NOT stay in one state and are often educated in several states over time, there were a lot of issues with different students encountering the same skills over again at a different grade level, or skipping them altogether. Common Core says, “okay. By the end of 6th grade, everybody has to have mastered A, B and C.” So even if they move to a school in a different state, these students will be on the same track.

My conclusion, as of today. (Although I am open to your comments and to learning more. I don’t pretend to have this all figured out.)

1) The Common Core is a tool, that, like all tools, can be used for good or for evil. It may not even be a very good tool, but it is definitely better than some.

2) The “recommended” texts are just that. Recommended. And, as a high school teacher, I can tell you that Educational fads and theories “recommend” all sorts of silly things all the time that a reasonable person can confidently ignore. This is not a good reason to adopt the CC, but it is a good reason to not freak out.

3) Esolen seems to suggest that the Common Core itself is the source of a lot of current and potential problems. But I see it as more a symptom of our flawed notions of education than anything else.

4) Catholic Schools are in a privileged position because we are NOT required to adhere to state or national standards by law. Unfortunately, in order to seem “competitive” it seems a lot of Catholic schools are dumbly nodding their heads and saying “oh yes, we have Common Core too. Don’t worry, your kids will be well-prepared for college just like everybody else.” But this is 1) just marketing and 2) rather beside the point. Catholic Schools have a responsibility to educate the human person from a supernatural perspective that is utterly antithetical to many secular alternatives, not just the Common Core.

5) If anything, the Common Core at least is forcing some Catholic schools to re-examine their identities and the purpose of Catholic Education to begin with–which is a very good thing.

6) With Saint Paul, we can “examine everything carefully” and “hold fast to what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). We don’t have to throw out the baby with the bathwater out of fear and knee-jerk reactions to a complex problem.


So my “Quick Takes” basically turned into a discussion of the Common Core. Whoops.

Here’s another controversial topic, that I think is explored quite well in this article from the American Spectator: “Hobby Lobby, Your Bedroom, and Your Boss” by Natalie DeMacedo.

A taste:

Outside the Supreme Court some women held signs saying, “Birth control is not my boss’ business.” You are completely correct! So stop asking your boss to pay for it.


The best piece of advice I have received recently came from a good friend. During a homily at Mass, she said the priest was discussing how overwhelming Lent can be sometimes, especially after the first few weeks when you have failed in your promises and resolutions.

He has some simple words that I have been repeating to myself a lot:

“Pray, and then do the next right thing.”

Which, oftentimes, is to pray again.