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Of mice, men and micros

A national survey of the importance attached to areas of study by teachers puts computer literacy ahead of a knowledge of classic literature, writes Jon Marcus.

Fewer than one in four teachers considered Shakespeare, Hemingway, Plato, or Steinbeck "absolutely essential to a high-school education", according to an independent public opinion research group.

Barely a fifth of teachers said an excellent academic education was the most important contribution to career success. Top of their list or priorities were basic reading, writing and arithmetic, good work habits and computer skills.

"I know academic subjects are important," one Alabama teacher told the pollsters. "But I also know that the main reason people get fired from their jobs is not about how smart they are but their inability to get along with their co-workers. " Teachers not only ranked the heavyweight academic subjects, such as advanced mathematics and classic literature, near the bottom of their list of essentials, but half admitted they view highly educated people "with some misgiving, seeing them as . . . elitist snobs".

The survey was conducted to aid educational reformers, and the research group Public Agenda does not usually comment on its own findings. But Deborah Wadsworth, the executive director, was moved to wonder: "If teachers are not ardent proponents of knowledge and learning, what can we expect from students or parents?" Academic groups reacted similarly. "It's an unfortunate simplification of educational needs," said Miles Myers, executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English. To assume that classic literature is unimportant, he said, shows a deep misunderstanding of the world. Even among literature teachers, only about a third classified Hemingway and Shakespeare as indispensable study topics.

"Few teachers see traditional high-level academic subjects - from literary classics to advanced maths - as essential, even when they themselves teach in that area," said Ms Wadsworth, whose husband is a Shakespeare scholar. "Teachers do not seem to be forceful advocates of advanced learning and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake."

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