Voices | Feb. 20-27

This Philly student thinks teachers should be preparing students to communicate in the modern world. So why are there still books in the curriculum from the stone age he asks? | Image: Oladijemi Odunse

Stop forcing students to read old books

The goal of a language class is to foster competency in the language. This is done, in part, by providing examples of the language having been skillfully orated and written. Those examples should be modern because teachers should be preparing students to communicate in the modern world. This is common sense. But given the prevalence of outdated texts in our English curricula, not many curriculum developers have it.

Shakespeare is taught because of his significant contributions to the English language. This is a good reason to teach about someone. But there are reasonable ways to go about teaching Shakespeare. Giving examples of words he created and pointing out plays he inspired are plausible ways to teach of him. Force-feeding 16th-century prose, however, is not one of those ways. It’s certainly not one that many students are receptive to. Yet, it is the route that many teachers take to teaching Shakespeare. Needless to say, this is wrong-headed and backward.  

The teaching of his significance is one thing, but his writing? There is no reason to teach writing that old. Literary know-how that can be applied in the present-day – which teachers purport to be preparing their students for – cannot be obtained from something over 300 years old. And to whatever extent it can be, it can be supplanted by writing that is current and, therefore, accessible to readers. Want to teach iambic pentameter? Go for it. Just let the example you give be modern. Because when students’ brains are stuffed with “art thous,” their proficiency in modern-day English does not improve. Unfortunately, centuries-old texts aren’t the only things plaguing English curricula. So too are culturally irrelevant texts.

Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” falls into this category. Of course, it is not the only one. But for the sake of brevity, it is the only one I will mention. The message of the book is to understand all perspectives before making a judgment and not to be racist. It was a unique message in 1960 – when the book was written. But since then, there has been a plethora of books published on the subject. Books that give a more accurate and current description of American justice that also instills antiracism. Books that could easily supplant “To Kill A Mockingbird.” And given their abundance, it makes no sense to allow the 59-year-old “To Kill A Mockingbird” to continue lingering on high school shelves.

To give English curricula the full brunt of the spear, we must first identify what is outdated. This three-part test could be used in doing so: Is it old in age? Is it culturally relevant? And does its syntax and grammar square with modern English usage? Answering yes to the first doesn’t necessarily render the book outdated. However, answering no to the others does.

Shakespeare’s writing is not just old; it’s decomposed. So, labeling his writing is a breeze – it satisfies all three of the criteria. Labeling books like “To Kill A Mockingbird,” however, presents an interesting challenge. While it is 59 years old, the syntax is normal and the language is pretty darn close to modern. But what makes it antiquated is the culture that it speaks to. It was written in 1960 and that’s how it reads. But America is much different today than it was in the ‘60s. So, what’s it still doing in English curricula today? One may argue that it should stay for historical purposes. To that, I’d say: if you want students to know about racism in the deep south, history class is the vehicle for it; not English.

The ideas that I propose are centered on the basic principle that students should be taught things of value; value to them and their generation. The question is whether outdated English literature is that.  The answer: absolutely not.

– Jemille Q. Duncan | Philadelphia


Mardi Gras kicks off next week with the usual costumes, beads, parades and more.

Your turn: What are your plans for Mardi Gras? If you’ve ever attended the party in “The Big Easy,” do you have any tips to share with PW readers?

Send your thoughts to voices@philadelphiaweekly.com

Offshore bans hurt Americans

Congressional Democrats just betrayed America’s working class.

Late last year, the House passed a series of bills banning offshore energy development, a significant source of employment for blue-collar Americans. Fueled by environmental fervor, these lawmakers are willing to sacrifice opportunities for their most important constituents.

There could be up to 90 billion barrels of oil and 328 trillion cubic feet of gas buried beneath federally owned sections of the ocean floor. That’s enough oil and natural gas to power the United States for over a decade. Ideally, energy companies would lease these underwater lands from the government and extract this bounty.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration outlawed energy development in over 90 percent of federal offshore territories. This policy prevents companies from accessing energy riches in the Arctic, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans – as well as the Gulf of Mexico.

Soon after taking office, President Trump vowed to lift this ban and revamp offshore energy production. But House Democrats are doing their best to stop him. The bills they passed recently would ban energy development off of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Alaskan coasts.

These policies deny working-class Americans prime employment opportunities. Jobs in the offshore sector often don’t require a college degree, are largely immune to outsourcing, and pay an average salary north of $110,000. Even under existing federal constraints, offshore development supports 300,000 jobs.

Opening up offshore territory would create 730,000 additional jobs over the next 20 years. 

Still, Democrats claim it’s an environmental imperative to ban offshore drilling. Rep. Joe Cunningham, a South Carolina Democrat and lead sponsor of one of the bills, said that offshore drilling would “ruin our vibrant natural resources.” Beto O’Rourke told a crowd that “offshore drilling threatens the local wildlife.”

These concerns are entirely unwarranted. Offshore drilling is getting safer by the year. And energy development is tightly regulated to protect the environment. Every rig employs at least one “species observer” who is empowered to stop development if marine animals come too close to operations.

If anything, this anti-offshore campaign could damage the environment by choking off funding for a critical federal conservation program. A slice of tax revenue from offshore operations is earmarked for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which helps finance environmental preservation and national parks. Offshore operations contribute $900 million to this fund every year. If Democrats have their way, that money will vanish.

Luckily, these bills won’t get far. The Republican-controlled Senate will never go for such an extreme plan and President Trump has promised to veto any offshore bans that cross his desk.

Still, actions speak louder than words. By moving this legislation, House Democrats have shown that they aren’t serious about improving the lives of the working class. If they were, they wouldn’t pursue policies that make it harder for Americans to find good, stable jobs.

Donald Bryson is president and CEO of the Civitas Institute, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Raleigh.

Pass For The People Act

We must hold our elected officials accountable. After the GOP disaster of failing to hold Trump accountable for abusing his power and trying to bribe a foreign country to change the direction of an American election, we need a change. 

The House passed the For The People Act (H.R.1), which is exactly what we need to keep future presidents, congressmen and local officials on track to work for We The People, not themselves. If we want to continue down the path of regression of politics and have fat cats in office enriching themselves, we are no longer a healthy democracy but an open wallet for corruption. The Senate must take up H.R.1 now. My head and heart (and liver) can’t take much more of this!

– Brandee Blasi | Clifton Heights

Bill threatens drug research

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Lower Drug Costs Now Act (H.R.3) imposes strict price controls, taxes, and regulations on biopharmaceutical companies. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office expects the measure to reduce the industry’s revenues by $1 trillion over the coming decade. 

Many H.R. 3 proponents acknowledge this government price-setting will choke off private-sector research funding. But they believe the National Institutes of Health – the federal agency that funds most basic scientific research – could fill the gap left by private researchers.  

It can’t. 

The NIH does important work. But it possesses neither the personnel nor the resources to replace private drug companies. And even if the NIH could fill that role, we shouldn’t want it to. Putting the government in charge of drug development would politicize scientific research and prove disastrous for patients. 

H.R. 3 would gut private-sector innovation. Pharmaceutical firms spend roughly 20 percent of revenues on research and development. So a $1 trillion drop in revenues would result in approximately $200 billion less R&D spending. 

House Democrats hope to reroute some of the money the government saves from price controls to the NIH. In theory, the agency could use that funding to pick up the private sector’s slack.  

In practice, this plan won’t work. The NIH doesn’t try to develop medicines. It focuses almost exclusively on basic research, such as how certain proteins and genes affect people’s health. 

It’s up to private companies to embark on the arduous and expensive drug development process. It takes more than 10 years and $2 billion to develop one successful drug. “Sixty-seven percent to 97 percent of drug development is conducted by the private sector,” according to recent research from the Tufts University School of Medicine. 

The NIH simply doesn’t have access to that kind of capital. 

Even if it were possible, Americans shouldn’t want the government to play a larger role in drug development. Placing a federal agency – whose annual budget varies based on Congress’ whims – in charge would turn scientific discovery into a political circus.  

Sandip Shah is founder and president of Market Access Solutions, which develops strategies to optimize patient access to life-changing therapies.

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