I understand why literature that is in the public domain finds favor in the eyes of assessment and curriculum publishing companies:
1. It’s free! Who doesn’t like free stuff? Besides, even when the content itself is free, the company still has to sink a lot of money into it. Passage selection, data entry, researching copyright to make sure it is in the public domain, proofreading, formatting, reviewing, preparing for external review, graphic design, QA. The process is more costly than the passage itself.
2. The quality of the material is presumably not up for debate. Who’s going to have the temerity to say that he or she doesn’t think kids should read a poem by Emily Dickinson or Wordsworth?
3. The writing is generally good to great. (I’m not talking about classics now, but about these unknown texts that I see excerpted from published essays, letters, stories.) Did people just write better 100 years ago? They certainly wrote differently. (More to come on this last.)
Which all makes it sound like the world of public domain literature is a great big treasure chest of high-quality reading passages perfectly suited for assessment.
However. That treasure chest may be a little wooden Trojan horse wheeling in troubles unforeseen:
1. The world has changed a lot in the last 100-300 years. In terms of how we think about gender, race, social classes, social relationships, government, labor, marriage, families, values, religion, science, technology. International relations. Economics. And that’s just a short list off the top of my head. Some of the attitudes and concepts are simply outdated and appear old-fashioned; others appear downright offensive or even cruel and oppressive. Not to mention the language, which brings us to the following.
2. How we use language has also changed. I do like the complicated architecture of the 17th-18th century sentence. I’m charmed by the ease with which Swift, Johnson, et al toss the polysyllabic words as if tossing handfuls of confetti in a parade of wits. But. This seems a matter for classroom instruction, rather than assessment–unless we know for a certainty that there has been thorough classroom instruction with texts of like complexity.
3. How we use language has also changed. Part II. As attitudes evolve, language evolves. Attitudes and terms once considered acceptable are now considered intolerant and offensive, respectively.
4. How we use language has also changed. Part III. Words once considered standard are now considered high-faluting and are relegated to the realm of academia or appropriate only in the most formal settings. So the content of a poem may be appropriate for a young child, but the vocabulary renders the poem too difficult to use for any grade lower than 10. We can’t present high schoolers with literature written for elementary school children.
5. Passage length may be a problem. When this happens, editors may excerpt from public domain material. Sometimes this results in text that lacks context or that appears choppy, with ideas that seem disconnected, even if this was not the case in the original text.
Should we teach students so that they are able to read classic literature? Anyone who knows me would respond with something along the lines of “Do the stars shine? Does my dog bark at the mail carrier? Is the sea salty?” Why, that would be a resounding yes.
Should we include classic literature on reading tests? That would be an affirmative, sir, especially if such inclusion is required by the standards to be assessed.
How about including literature of unfamiliar and complex syntax, unfamiliar and difficult vocabulary, and, possibly, questionable quality that may only be considered because it is in the public domain and therefore may be used freely with nary a by your leave? That’s a negative.
All the publishing companies do it. I don’t mean to pick on anyone in particular. And the Great Pineapple Debacle makes such public domain passage selection all the more attractive to publishing companies who would prefer (naturally, like all of us) to receive more positive attention than negative.
Balance is what we need. And thoughtful consideration of the passage, whether it might be of interest to the audience, whether its literary value outweighs its disadvantages, and whether we can unreservedly justify its use for this purpose.