That time Ray Bradbury railed against Common Core

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Two great books that go well together.
I can’t read just one book at a time. At any given moment, I’m in the midst of reading as many as a half-dozen books. (According to my Goodreads account, I have 11 books on my Currently Reading list.)

As a result, it takes me forever to finish a book. But my multitasking habit has its upside. Every once in a while, I come across two passages in two books I’m reading simultaneously that I might not otherwise think about. This magical synergy happened recently when I read “The Republic of Imagination” by Azar Nafisi and “The Martian Chronicles” by Ray Bradbury. The books were written more than a half-century apart, but for a little bit, both writers talk about the same thing.

Neither Bradbury nor Nafisi is a fan of the new Common Core reading curriculum. I know this about Nafisi because she makes a well-reasoned case against Common Core in her book. I am guessing Ray Bradbury hated Common Core because of an inspired massacre he depicts in “The Martian Chronicles.”

More on that in a second.

Nafisi’s case against Common Core stems from the fact that it places a higher value on “informational texts” than fiction. In high schools, for instance, the split is 70/30 in favor of the former. Not that she opposes nonfiction; Nafisi wrote that she would love to see, for instance, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” taught alongside James Baldwin’s “Go Tell It on the Mountain” to demonstrate the “intersection between history and fiction.” But that’s not what’s happening. Imagination, she says, is being sacrificed for vocational preparation.

“The goal was … to replace anything that might invite subjective interpretation — the realm of imaginative knowledge — with tangible facts.”

Bradbury shows us the danger of such a lofty goal in “Usher II,” one of the later chapters of “The Martian Chronicles.” In it, an earthling named Mr. Stendahl flees to Mars to escape the “clean-minded” people who rid the earth of all great literature by the likes of Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft and others. He builds a mansion in tribute to some of Poe’s greatest horror stories on his new home planet.

When officials from the Department of Moral Climates come to inspect Stendahl’s facility, he kills them off one by one, in the fashion of Poe’s stories: an orangutan, a pit and a pendulum and of course, the Masque of the Red Death. He saves the best for last, sealing his last victim up brick by brick inside a vault.

The poor guy never sees it coming, of course; he’s never read “The Cask of Amontillado.”

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Those who don’t read Poe are doomed to die a grisly death.
The late Bradbury’s predictions weren’t spot on: “Usher II” takes place in 2005, long before Common Core became a talking point among education bureaucrats. At the time, he wasn’t after those people. Bradbury was satirizing censors who used fear to silence works of art. But his point still stands, even in this age when we don’t have (as much) to fear from prude guardians of taste who would destroy anything deemed the least bit smutty.

They have the same problem as the people who dreamed up Common Core’s dull standards: a lack of imagination. Consider this passage:

“‘Oh, the word “escape” was radical, I tell you.’

‘Was it?’

‘It was! Every man, they said, must face reality. Must face the Here and Now! Everything that was not so must go. All the beautiful literary lies and flights of fancy must be shot in mid-air.'”

And if reducing a high school student’s reading list to informational prose in place of imaginative fiction doesn’t shoot down the “beautiful literary lie,” I don’t know what does. 

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Truth, fabrication and consequences

“This American Life” took another, badly needed step on its road to correcting the record on Friday when it pulled three more audio episodes from its Web archive. Professional liar — I call him that because he got paid to make up stories and pass them off as factual — Stephen Glass lied to the show’s creators long before Mike Daisey came along, and his crimes lasted longer.

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Back in January, “This American Life” ran an excerpt from monologist Daisey’s show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” Most of what he said was factual, but Daisey made up parts about his experience, parts that helped give legs to the story of working conditions in the Chinese factories where Apple products are made. In the March 16 episode of “TAL,” Daisey as much as admits he lied for that purpose: to make people care about the story.

As a longtime listener of the show, and as a professional journalist, I was outraged — OUTRAGED! — that someone would fabricate a story they claimed to be nonfiction. I mentioned this to a friend of mine, also a journalist, half expecting the same reaction. Instead, she replied:

When will the show cop to the other falsehoods that ran in earlier episodes and weren’t retracted?

“This American Life” had Stephen Glass – no relation to the show’s host, Ira Glass – on three episodes in the 1990s, before he had been exposed as a fraud. On one of those occasions, he claimed to have worked for a while as a telephone psychic.

Not that I expect anything BUT fiction from purported psychics.

The story, adapted from one he wrote for Harper’s was one of many that Glass was known to have made up, either in whole or in part. It also included his unsubstantiated claim that 70 percent of the people who called his psychic hotline were minorities, and 85 percent had money troubles. The statistic would have been troubling if it were right. Being wrong just makes it offensive.

“This American Life” has since pulled the audio of Glass’ stories from its website.

I’m not trying to conflate the ethical violations of one man with those of another. But both men lied. They violated one of the basic rules of nonfiction writing, which is: Don’t make stuff up.

The difference is the magnitude of Daisey’s transgression vs. those of Glass. Daisey did not spend years writing fictions and passing them off as truth to national magazines and public-radio programs. He told a story that was mostly true but included nonexistent interviews, made-up details and incidents that didn’t happen the way Daisey said they happened. And he passed it off as a completely factual piece.

To his credit, Daisey eventually apologized. It took a public shaming on “This American Life,” a defiant rebuttal on his website and a barrage of more criticism from places like Poynter,  Slate, and elsewhere. Still, he apologized.

Stephen Glass’ crimes were of greater magnitude and he never went to the lengths Daisey did for contrition. Glass, for all we know, never worked a psychic hotline in his life. On the way to telling that whopper, he made sweeping generalizations about a segment of the population.

Daisey got caught once and the retribution was swift and brutal. Glass was caught lying dozens of times. His fall from grace is well documented — and, without question, his crimes are worse.

The only good thing to come out of the Stephen Glass scandal was this movie.

The producers of “This American Life” took the right first step Friday in pulling the Stephen Glass episodes. Here’s what should happen next: Host Ira Glass should announce on the next episode what they did with the other fabricated stories, why they did it and why it took so long to correct the record.

What about Daisey? He’s a talented artist and a captivating storyteller.

I just won’t believe him anymore.