Youngkin’s English Test

Published April 23, 2024

National Review

In 2021, voter opposition to education radicalism boosted Glenn Youngkin to Virginia’s governorship. Three years later, there is reason to wonder whether Youngkin retains either the will or the ability to follow through.

The Virginia Department of Education recently approved draft English Language Arts (ELA) standards. They are a disappointment, throwing a bone or two in the direction of the West’s great literary tradition but largely catering to multiculturalism and a form of sociological reductionism you might call “deconstructionist.”

To be fair, despite Youngkin’s good efforts, Democrats took narrow control of Virginia’s state legislature in last year’s election. Operating in a purple state means that Youngkin faces higher hurdles than do governors in redder regions. Last year I noted with pleasure that both Georgia and Arkansas had restored the foolishly discarded tradition of poetry recitation in class. Although Virginia now has a chance to do the same, it has, sadly, so far declined.

Most important, but for a nod to British literature in the twelfth grade (a requirement with little in the way of teeth), Virginia’s draft ELA standards generally direct students to literary work from “various cultures.” Nor is Virginia’s multiculturalism particularly “literary.” Instead, students are asked to describe the “social function” of a text in “cultural, historical, and geographical context.” That is more sociology than literature.

Nowadays especially, such direction encourages the dismissal of great works as relics of alien or outdated cultures. The “social function” of Jane Austen is written off as prepping young girls for the oppressive institution of marriage. Dante can be reduced to legitimation of the Church’s social hold. Historical context is fine if it’s about describing an era’s outlook — the age of Shakespeare, say. This drives teachers to grapple with literature on its own terms. But that is not what Virginia is doing.

Much of the improvement in red-state ELA standards in recent years has emerged through state-level collaboration with Mark Bauerlein, an emeritus professor of English literature at Emory University who served under Dana Gioia at the National Endowment for the Arts. Glenn Youngkin’s Virginia Department of Education ought to be working closely with Bauerlein, not taking direction from the usual ed-school suspects. Above all, Virginia’s ELA standards ought to mandate broad familiarity with our Western literary tradition.

Granted, Virginia is a purple state. Nevertheless, Youngkin is a popular governor with national ambitions. If he cannot lead on so basic an education issue, what is the point of holding the governorship? Nor is it the case that in-depth exposure to the West’s great literature precludes knowledge of minority authors. Take Florida’s excellent ELA standards, which are clearly traditionalist in emphasis while having plenty of room for writers like Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. DuBois. They are part and parcel of our great tradition.

It’s not too late to revise Virginia’s draft ELA standards. Youngkin should get to it quickly lest he fail his English test.

Stanley Kurtz is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Beyond his work with Education and American Ideals, Mr. Kurtz is a key contributor to American public debates on a wide range of issues from K–12 and higher education reform, to the challenges of democratization abroad, to urban-suburban policies, to the shaping of the American left’s agenda. Mr. Kurtz has written on these and other issues for various journals, particularly National Review Online (where he is a contributing editor).

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