23 May 2011

Blame Gatsby

Reason: Hit & Run | Tim Cavanaugh | Froshes Can't Handle Queen's English: Blame Gatsby (or Wolfsheim)

College comp teacher Kim Brooks has an ancient complaint: The kids these days don't know a participle from a predicate.

But her diagnosis in this Salon essay is new: High school teachers wasted time with literature when they should have been teaching students to read and write. Brooks writes:
[In high school] I lived for English, for reading. I spent so much of my adolescence feeling different and awkward, and those first canonical books I read, those first discoveries of Joyce, of Keats, of Sylvia Plath and Fitzgerald, were a revelation. Without them, I probably would have turned to hard drugs, or worse, one of those Young Life chapters so popular with my peers...

Only now, a decade and a half later, after seven years of teaching college composition, have I started to consider the possibility that talking about classics might be a profound waste of time for the average high school student, the student who is college-bound but not particularly gifted in letters or inspired by the literary arts. I've begun to wonder if this typical high school English class, dividing its curriculum between standardized test preparation and the reading of canonical texts, might occupy a central place in the creation of a generation of college students who, simply put, cannot write...

Was it really so essential that these students read Faulkner? Most of them, frankly, seem to struggle with plain old contemporary prose, the level of writing one might find in, say, the New Yorker. Wouldn't they have been better off, or at least better prepared for the type of college work most will take on (pre-professional, that is), learning to support an argument or use a comma?
I’d go further than Brooks. I question whether teaching “canonical” books and teaching English usage are part of the same general subject area.
Agreed. Paul Graham had a good essay on this a few years ago.  His thesis was that it is historical accident that we teach literature and language in the same classroom, and the two ought to be separated.

I would guess that how you feel about the relative merits of teaching high schoolers literature and language correlate strongly with whether you think education should be primarily consumption or investment.

I was discussing the place of lit in English classes with Mrs SB7, who has just started her career as a high school English teacher.  She was asking me what sorts of things I remembered (and remembered fondly) from my high school classes.

It occurred to me that a great majority of the assignemnts I received in English class could be broadly called literary criticism or analysis. There were a few exceptions — one one-act play, a biographic speech, a handful of poems — but nineteen assignments out of twenty were literary analysis.

And yet we had read absolutely no literary analysis! There was nothing at all to learn from. I might as well have had an art teacher who never bothered to show us a painting, or a journalism teacher who neglected to show us a newspaper.  We were attempting to do this analysis completely blind, and I think it is the cause of a lot of the frustration I, my classmates, and the students in Mrs SB7's school feel.

Not only did we not read literary analysis in English, I think I hardly read any non-fiction in school at all. (Not counting text books, which are really a class unto themselves.) Isaac's Storm was one of the optional books on one summer reading list. We read one biography of our choosing, once.* Other than that... nothing.

Everything I wrote in high school English, History, Civics, and so forth — excepting those three assignments mentioned above** — was non-fiction. And everything I read was fictional.  What was I supposed to be learning from? What was my reference? How are you supposed to get better at writing if you never read, and read the sorts of things you are trying to write? Reading Shakespeare is fine, but you can read the entire first folio front to back four times over and it won't give you any idea how to comment on Shakespeare, to say nothing of doing so intelligently.

* I went with Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, and still remember it fondly.
** We were assigned to write a one-act play without ever having read one of those either.

PS Later in his post Cavanaugh talks about a profile of David Mamet and his opinions about education and literature and writing and his politics.  By coincidence, I just mentioned this memo from Mamet to the writers of The Unit to Mrs SB7.  It is the sort of thing I should have been shown by an English teacher in high school if they were going to have me spend that much time analyzing drama.

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