Middle School Reading Lists: What a difference 100 years makes!

I recently came across an interesting comparison of two middle school reading lists. The author, Annie Holmquist, compared a list from 1908 with a current list from the same state on the basis of time period, thematic elements, and reading level. The first list is packed with excellent books I enjoyed as a child (no, I wasn’t reading them in 1908!), and books that I have discovered and enjoyed in the years since. I would consider all of the 1908 selections to be delightful, engaging reading that should be well within the reach of a middle-school student. Virtually any of them would make an excellent family read-aloud.

The more recent list contains two classics and a dramatic version of The Diary of Anne Frank, rather than the book. I find it interesting that the selections seem chosen not to introduce students to some of the most fascinating times and places in history, but to wrap them in the familiar. That scarcely seems like the point of education.

Middle school reading lists: What a difference 100 years makes!

I remember my own outrage in high school literature class when I found that our reading was not Shakespeare, Austen, or Twain, but rather S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, Rumblefish, and That Was Then, This is NowThere was nothing wrong with the Hinton books — they did correspond rather nicely to the current events in nearby East Los Angeles and even in our neighborhood. They were interesting and relatable, and not even remotely challenging, and would have been great casual or summer reading. But why spend time on them in a literature class?

I had been reading old books for years — books in which characters my age talked about or dramatized scenes from Shakespeare, mythology, and other great classics. I had been looking forward to joining them in the exploration of classics from The Odyssey and King Lear to The Last of the Mohicans. Once I understood the books that my favorite characters read, I would enjoy those characters and stories more. Beyond that, I’d caught a glimpse of the “great conversation,” and I wanted to join it.

It could have been fun to explore the classics in a classroom, but I ended up doing most of it on my own at first, and then advancing farther in college as an English major. I’d be willing to bet that some of my classmates would have enjoyed the challenge as well, just as today’s kids might be surprised to enjoy books written long before they were born. Happily, libraries still exist for a little while, anyway, though many are selling books faster than they can be replaced. Make a date with yourself and read, and as C. S. Lewis advised, “after reading a new book, never . . . allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”

Here is the article:

Middle School Reading Lists 100 Years Ago vs. Today

I recently dug up a 1908 curriculum manual in the Minnesota Historical Society archives. It provided instructions on everything from teacher deportment to recommended literature lists for various grades. As a book lover, I was especially interested in the latter!

With the exception of a few textbook-like anthologies, the chart below lists the recommended reading material for Minnesota 7th and 8th graders in 1908:

MN 7th and 8th Grade Reading List - 1908

With such a list in hand, I decided to examine if the common accusation that today’s education standards have been dumbed down is really true. To make sure I wasn’t unfairly weighting this survey in favor of the past, I went to one of the Twin Cities metro area’s finest districts, namely, Edina Public Schools. Again, with the exception of a few textbook anthologies, the list below offers the reading options for their 7th and 8th grade students:

Edina 7th and 8th Grade Reading List In examining these lists, I noticed three important differences between the reading content of these two eras:

1. Time Period

One of the striking features of the Edina list is how recent the titles are. Many of the selections were published in the 21st century. In fact, only four of the selections are more than 20 years old.

In comparison, over half of the titles on the first list were at least 20 years old in 1908, with many of them averaging between 50 to 100 years old.

Older is not necessarily better, but the books on the first list suggest that when the focus of education is on handing down a vibrant, living culture, students were more likely to read time-tested, classic literature. When education loses its grounding in history and culture, students can end up reading primarily books whose popularity may happen to be a passing fad.

2. Thematic Elements

A second striking difference between the two book lists are the themes they explore. The first is full of historical references and settings which stretch from ancient Greece (Tanglewood Tales) to the Middle Ages (Harold, Last of Saxon Kings) to the founding of America (Courtship of Miles Standish). Through highly recognized authors such as Longfellow, Stevenson, Kipling, and Dickens, these titles introduce children to a vast array of themes crucial to understanding the foundations upon which America and western civilization were built.

The Edina list, however, largely deals with modern history, particularly hitting on many current political and cultural themes such as the Taliban (The Breadwinner), cloning, illegal immigrants, the drug war (The House of the Scorpion), and deeply troubled youth (Touching Spirit Bear). In terms of longstanding, classic authors, Mark Twain and Ray Bradbury are the only ones who stand out.

It’s good for children to understand the world in which they live, but as with any area in life, you can have too much of a good thing. A continual focus on modern literature narrows the lens through which children can view and interpret the world. Would it not be better to broaden their horizons and expose them to a balance of both old and new literature?

3. Reading Level

Many of the books on the Edina list use fairly simple, understandable language and vocabulary familiar to the modern reader. Consider the first paragraph of Nothing But the Truth:

“Coach Jamison saw me in the hall and said he wanted to make sure I’m trying out for the track team!!!! Said my middle school gym teacher told him I was really good!!!! Then he said that with me on the Harrison High team we have a real shot at being county champs. Fantastic!!!!!! He wouldn’t say that unless he meant it. Have to ask folks about helping me get new shoes. Newspaper route won’t do it all. But Dad was so excited when I told him what Coach said that I’m sure he’ll help.”

On the other hand, consider the first paragraph of Longfellow’s Evangeline:

“This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight, Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic, Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms. Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.”

The first example uses simple words and a casual sentence structure (and way too many exclamation points), while the second uses a rich vocabulary and a beautifully poetic writing style. Naturally, some might look at the second selection and say, “Good grief! How do you expect a child to understand that?!?”

But that’s the whole point. Unless we give our students challenging material to dissect, process, and study, how can we expect them to break out of the current poor proficiency ratings and advance beyond a basic reading level?

My takeaway from this comparison? It’s great that schools today have students read contemporary literature. But we still need to make sure that students also read good literature from the past and are sufficiently challenged.

Image Credit

This post Middle School Reading Lists 100 Years Ago vs. Today was originally published on Intellectual Takeout by Annie Holmquist.

“Every age has its own outlook.
It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.
We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.
And that means the old books”

C.S. Lewis, from his introduction to On the Incarnation by Athanasius

Other articles you may enjoy:

Print or eBook for Literature Study?

“The Benefits of Reading: Seven Tips for Reading More”

“Teach Literature in Context”

“Choosing Books for Boys”

2 Responses

  1. Ian Cairns says:

    Dear Janice, I love your work and analysis. My son is currently 3 1/2 and my wife and I are definitely heading towards a homeschool curriculum. Whether he takes the Excellence in Literature program or not is yet to be decided. But I hope he develops a healthy appetite for quality literature, such as the books you found listed in the 1908 reading list above. I know I will keep returning to your site in order to stay briefed on the resources available. Stay safe and God bless you.

    • Hi, Ian—
      I’m glad you enjoyed the lists! Reading is one of the most important things you can do with your son, and what you choose will help to shape his appetite for wonderful books.

      There’s a quote that says a lot about the importance of great literature:
      “It’s what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” —Oscar Wilde

      Enjoy the journey!

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