39 Steps Backward or How Richard Hannay was Killed by the Common Core Anarchists

Back in the early 70s when I was a student, my New York City high school decided upon a unique approach to teaching English to its students. Each term was devoted to a different type of literature or what we call today genre. One term, I read three Shakespeare tragedies, another term I read four science fiction novels, and so on. By the way, there was no genre called Informational text. Why? I don’t really know, but something tells me that the administration of that school felt that all our required social studies and science classes may have already filled that void. Nevertheless, when I was a junior, I had a great teacher who introduced me to one of my most favorite types of literature—mysteries. In her class, I clearly remember reading two pieces of literature that held me spellbound. One was Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier and the other was The 39 Steps by John Buchan. Unbeknownst to me at that time was the fact that both were made into motion pictures by Alfred Hitchcock. And even though those two films are considered classics, I prefer both novels hands down.

I tutor many students and two weeks ago one of my students needed help in analyzing an excerpt from The 39 Steps. Of course it was just an excerpt because as we all know Mr. Coleman feels it is a waste of time for students to possibly read and enjoy a whole novel. But what was even more amazing was the fact that this excerpt was in a 6th grade common core workbook. Obviously, I read it in high school and remembered that many concepts had to be explained to us at that time. I recall being fascinated learning about the cultural differences between us Americans and the British in the waning days of its Empire. The book is obviously beyond the scope of an average sixth grader. But I had to confirm this for myself. I decided to use common core’s favorite readability formula on this excerpt—Lexile. Lo and behold, but not surprisingly, the Lexile score was 960. To put it in terms that we old teachers understand, the book is on the 10th-11th grade level. After all, to Arne, David and Bill, rigor is the “code word” of the day.

Before I begin to discuss the difficulty my student had with the text because of this dastardly curriculum, it is important to understand why this piece of literature is important and why it should be taught to high school students. The 39 Steps is one of the first examples of what I call the spy thriller. It is also the prototype of the man-on-the-run action adventure. From this thriller would eventually come the works of Ian Fleming, John le Carre, Robert Ludlum, Alan Furst and Daniel Silva. It also introduced some common plot devices that are so well known today that we consider them almost clichés. We have in this one book an ordinary man drawn into a secret world of intrigue and who risks his life for the good of his nation. Basically, it is first authentic spy novel.

The excerpt my student read was the first couple of pages from the book. The excerpt starts with the protagonist’s experience in visiting London from South Africa where he is mining engineer. Richard Hannay is described in this excerpt as being somewhat uncomfortable on this trip to his native land. He feels out of place and bored. All of a sudden, upon returning to his apartment, one of his neighbors barges in to his “flat” and after suspiciously checking all of the rooms say this sentence: ‘Pardon,’ he said, ‘I’m a bit rattled tonight. You see, I happen at this moment to be dead.’

What did this common core workbook want the student to do with the text? First, he had to read it twice. Of course, a close reading had to be done. His task was to circle key phrases that showed the “tone” of the passage. This was difficult for him because of two reasons. First, he had no understanding what was meant by tone and I had to explain and give him concrete examples of this common core concept. Next, the passage itself floored him because he had no background information to hook into. He had no conception that the main character was a colonial from a British African colony and that he felt out of place now in his mother country. Why should he know any of this when this curriculum forbids students from using any background information—especially in the area of social studies—when pieces of text are analyzed?

I had to figure out why this student was really having so much trouble. I spent most of my teaching career diagnosing learning problems and like the author of the above novel, I had to get a real handle on this mystery. First, I asked him about the setting. Where and when was the main character? I said what year do you think the passage is taking place in? He said that he thought the story was happening at the present time. He was surprised when I said it was about 100 years ago. He asked how I knew. I pointed out that in the passage that his mother country still had colonies. Then I had to explain what was meant by a colony and mother country. Of course, I pointed out that once we were a colony of Britain.

Next, I asked him for the exact location of the character. His first answer was Scotland. I asked why? He gave that answer because the passage said that he came from Scotland and now he was visiting. Then he started to rattle other locations mentioned in the passage. Finally, he admitted that he really does not know where exactly the character was because the story mentioned so many names that he never heard of. He did not know where London, Vancouver, New Zealand or the United Kingdom was. I then told him that the character was in Great Britain in the city of London which is its capital. I explained that Great Britain is often called the United Kingdom. I pulled out the Ipad and pointed to the UK on a world map. I tried to explain that it is called the UK because once upon a time the UK was made up of the kingdoms of Scotland, England, Wales, and part of Ireland that united into one country like our country which we call the United States. Next, I had to explain that once Great Britain had many colonies in the early 20th century. I went on to explain that once Canada where the city of Vancouver is located, New Zealand and South Africa where the main character came from was at the time the passage was written were colonies of Great Britain. I then had him reread the part that said that he went to live with his father in South Africa at the age of six and has not been back to Britain since that time.

Once I explained all this, he finally concluded that that the character was probably unhappy because he felt out of place. Now he was able to circle some phrases that showed the character’s unhappiness. As we looked for phrases showing the tone, he started to ask me the meaning of many other words. He had no clue what was meant by the word “flat” in the sentence “My ‘flat’ was in the first floor of a new block behind Langham Place.” Even though the next few sentences described what the flat looked like, he did not understand that it meant an apartment. Another word that confused him was “liftman” which, of course, was the elevator operator for the apartment. He kept asking why the passage used the wrong words to describe things. I had to explain that British English and American English often use different words to say the same thing. This could have been a lesson in and of itself.

Now, of course, he had to answer a few multiple choice common core questions. One question asked from which point of view the passage was written and another question asked which literary devices the author used within the passage. A third question asked which event represented rising action in the passage. Obviously all these questions were structural in nature and had absolutely nothing to do with the plot or ideas in the passage. The final task was for the student to write a short response in which he had to describe the theme of the passage. The teacher added this short response question by hand because the rule was that every passage needed for the student to write a short response to prepare for the test. In my view, there was no way the student would be able to figure out the theme of the passage from the excerpt because the excerpt ended too soon. Most of the passage described the character as being bored and only the last paragraph was beginning to transition into the true nature of the story. Obviously, the student felt that the theme of the passage had to do with the characters unhappiness and boredom which represented the bulk of the passage.

A week later, I asked my student what was the answer to the teacher’s short response question. When he told me, I could not believe what I was hearing. His answer that the general theme was boredom was incorrect. The answer, according to the teacher, was that the protagonist was going to embark on an unexpected and exciting adventure. The student had to infer all this from the last sentence in which the character’s neighbor said that “I happen at this moment to be dead.” According to the teacher, that last sentence represented evidence that an unexpected adventure was about to happen. Yes, that is one of the story’s themes if one knew the rest of the plot, but from that excerpt, such a conclusion represented a jump higher than vaulting over the Grand Canyon.

What the student was asked showed to me the utter ridiculous nature of the Common Core. Here is a great piece of literature that was completely destroyed by the tasks the student was expected to do. First, the passage was inappropriate for his age. Only a student who has taken high school global history would have an inkling of understanding as to the background of the story. In addition, there is no purpose giving any student an excerpt which does not show the true nature of the genre it represents. They might as well excerpt the first scene of Macbeth and asked the students to describe the setting or even the complete theme of that famous drama.

When I read The 39 Steps, I recall so many lively discussions. It was the time of the Vietnam War. One discussion I distinctly remember centered on the theme of risking your life for your country when your nation in itself was deeply flawed. We also discussed some of the political issues brought out in the novel, such as powerful industrialists profiting from wars and conflicts between nations and that it was in the interest of such people to forment war. The discussions that we had over this book represent real higher level thinking skills. It is the type of critical thinking skills that create a citizenry that questions its government. It is the type of learning that creates a true educated citizenry that is able to participate in relevant political discourse. Forcing students to read and describe the structure of a passage five years above grade level is not education, but frustration that will lead to a hatred of learning because it is purposeless. Whereas this novel gave me a life-long love of spy novels and got me thinking about wider issues, the excerpt my student read led to confusion, misunderstanding and a feeling of inadequacy.