It doesn't take much research to see that much of this lamentation is right on the mark. Whatever the arguments are in support of this dumbing down, two facts are indisputable. First, the United States of America is far down the ranks of educational achievement throughout the world. The last I heard, we came in 25th in how smart our kids are compared to other countries. Second, long ago and way back when, our kids were held accountable to much higher standards in academic subjects (Virgil in Latin, anyone?), and we didn't hand out all the freebies that we do today. Today's homeschool parents and many institutional educators are thus doing what they can to reverse our nation's course.
As an English teacher and former homeschool parent, I have noticed that literature instruction has become a major part of this movement both in homeschool programs and in alternative institutional schools, such as charter schools. Although today's student isn't typically equipped to read the Great Books, such as Sophocles and Plato, they are generally able to manage the Good Books--the classics most of us recognize as central to the Western canon. To try to fix what has been broken in the American educational system, many programs are doing what they can to return these classics to their rightful place as the center of literature studies. And I applaud this.
Yet, in my observations of this movement, I have noticed something that I don't applaud. These programs tend to push students way, way too fast. Dickens, Austen, Shakespeare, Twain, Alcott, and all the wonderful authors who make up our classic canon are not being introduced to our students like new friends they can get to know; they are being thrown at our students like vitamins that hopefully might nourish them enough to get them through college. Program after program presents a daunting list of authors to be raced through in a single year--authors who wrote such rich and profound work that even adults need sufficient time to mull them over and digest them. How are our kids supposed to read great classic, adult novels lickety-split and get much out of the experience? For that matter, why are we pushing adult novels in the first place onto children and teens who don't have the maturity to fully explore and understand them?
To discuss this issue thoroughly is outside the scope of this post. To every opinion I offer about what literature programs should be doing differently, a supporter of this dip-and-sip approach could offer a defense…to which I could probably offer a counter-defense (or concession, as the case may be) and so on and so forth. Such an debate should take up the space of a book, not a blog post. Yet, I would like to at least suggest here that there is another way to avoid dumbing down the literature education of our children, to celebrate the classics while not overwhelming our novice readers, and to celebrate the best of contemporary literature, too (after all, every classic was once "contemporary literature"!)
Without suggesting specific ways to design a program (not my intention here), I suggest pursuing a hybrid approach. Let our kids read a lot of books without forcing a study; steer them towards the good books, and teach them how to spot books that aren't worth their time. If a chosen book is a little bit above their level, let them read with a commentary in hand, such as Cliffs Notes. Maybe discuss it with them in a casual sort of way--book-club style perhaps.
Don't push it, though--avoid books that discourage and kill interest, that foster a hatred of literature studies. There are plenty of wonderful books at all levels. The good books aren't going anywhere, so there is no need to rush. This is art we're dealing with, not an academic subject! Art should be handled with great care. Then, carefully choose a select few books to study deeply each year, books chosen for a reason and that will be meaningful to the students. These should be books that the teacher is prepared to unpack as fully as their class can handle. In this way, students will not only have a rich experience of the book (or story/poetry/etc.) but will understand how to tackle difficult books on their own in the future.
Literature is not a race. The good and great books are art, an experience to be treasured and savored. Let's slow down, so that our kids can have a chance to discover that.