Students missing out on great writers who ignite imagination and can transform lives
“LIVE, THEN, AND be happy, beloved children of my heart, and never forget,” reads The Count of Monte Cristo by French novelist Alexandre Dumas, “that… all human wisdom is contained in these two words, – ‘Wait and hope.’”
Today marks the birthday of Monsieur Dumas, the genius of 19th-century romantic historical fiction, whose other masterworks include The Three Musketeers (1844) and The Man in the Iron Mask (1847-50). A versatile writer, he also adapted E.T.A. Hoffmann’s scary story into a sweeter tale that became the basis for Peter Tchaikovsky’s immortal ballet, The Nutcracker.
Since 2005, Massachusetts, with K-12 English standards that were rich in classic literature, has outperformed every other state on the reading portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), “the nation’s report card.” Reading books like The Count of Monte Cristo helped students achieve this distinction.
Alexandre Dumas, whose father was born a black slave from the Caribbean, crafted intriguing plots in his 300 published volumes that elevate our understanding of history, geography, and culture. Few authors can use swashbuckling action to ignite students’ imaginations, while simultaneously teaching about the glory and treachery within human nature.
Sadly, in 2010 the Bay State abandoned its literature-rich English standards for inferior national ones, the Common Core, which slashed fiction by 60 percent. The hollow Core unwisely cuts Moby-Dick, Huckleberry Finn, Frankenstein, A Tale of Two Cities, and Sherlock Holmes, among others.
Between 2011 and 2017, as the Commonwealth implemented Common Core, its NAEP reading scores stagnated, while SAT writing scores have also dropped. Marginalizing the high-quality vocabulary and character profiles found in great books deprives schoolchildren of legendary stories that can transform young lives.
The Count of Monte Cristo is Dumas’s most thought-provoking novel. This revenge thriller features an innocent, uneducated French sailor, Edmond Dantès. His naïveté allows him to be manipulated by scheming Machiavels, who unjustly imprison him for 14 years.
While incarcerated, Edmund is befriended by a wise, aging inmate, Abbé Faria, who teaches him to understand timeless writings, dissect conspiracies, and become a skillful swordsman. Abbé also reveals to Edmund the whereabouts of a buried treasure. Once Edmund escapes, wealth and knowledge transform his identity into the calculating Count of Monte Cristo, who shrewdly exacts his revenge on the malicious villains.
Dumas’s enduring lessons also apply to K-12 education policy: Wily and self-serving adults would sooner consign unschooled young people to futures of intellectual solitary confinement than teach them the classic texts and ideas that might ensure their survival in the world.
“How is it that little children are so intelligent and men so stupid?” Dumas asked prophetically. “It must be education that does it.”
With every passing year, it becomes clearer that Common Core is a misguided social-engineering experiment with schoolchildren’s educational futures at stake. “For much of the 20th century… 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.”
Research shows that “boredom,” which another writer called “the shriek of unused capacity,” is the major reason one million students annually drop out of high school. Eighty percent of America’s minority-majority prison population are dropouts. Education bereft of great stories like Dumas’s will only exacerbate this national crisis.
“No popularity in this century has exceeded that of Alexandre Dumas; his successes are better than successes; they are triumphs,” fellow French novelist Victor Hugo wrote. “The name of Alexandre Dumas is more than French; it is more than European, it is universal.”
In 2002, France sought to remedy past racism by disinterring Dumas’s body and entombing its widely read author in Paris’s Panthéon. Unfortunately, his enchanting tales will remain locked away from American students, as his books are not included in the Common Core’s soul-eroding vision of K-12 education.
“To remember a person is the most important thing in the novels of Alexandre Dumas,” Tom Reiss writes. “The worst sin anyone can commit is to forget.” If our sister republic can finally exalt the action-packed life and works of Alexandre Dumas, then let’s “wait and hope” that American high schools can too.
Jamie Gass is director of the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.