Tuesday, August 26, 2008

"pictureless chains of black print"

Yet another depressing article about the teaching of English in these here United States. Apparently, the rising generation--those "digital natives"--are so radically and profoundly different from any human being that preceded them that they cannot access the printed word anymore. It simply can't be done. Or, maybe it's just that they find everyone who was born before them, and everything those people endured, boring. It's an old and tired argument:


Until we do a better job of introducing contemporary culture into our reading lists, matching books to readers and getting our students to buy in to the whole process, literature teachers will continue to fuel the reading crisis.

That sentence seems to fit the article's title: "We're Teaching Books That Don't Stack Up." And it fits the bumper-sticker synopses that I've read from several bloggers who have linked to the article. It's all our fault for forcing children to, you know, participate in the history of the world.

However, there is more going on here than initially meets the eye. Yes, the author flogs the usual suspects: classic literature is boring, kids can't relate, they want something contemporary, reading is boring, and so on. But there's another culprit on the scene, and the folks talking about the article are decidedly not talking about it:


"Butchering." That's what one of my former students, a young man who loves creative writing but rarely gets to do any at school, called English class. He was referring to the endless picking apart of linguistic details that loses teens in a haze of "So what?" The reading quizzes that turn, say, "Hamlet" into a Q&A on facts, symbols and themes. The thesis-driven essay assignments that require students to write about a novel they can't muster any passion for ("The Scarlet Letter" is high on teens' list of most dreaded). I'll never forget what one parent, bemoaning his daughter's aversion to great books after she took AP English Literature, wrote to me: "What I've seen teachers do is take living, breathing works of art and transform them into dessicated lab specimens fit for dissection."

So let's give the classics a break, for once, shall we? They've surived many generations and there is no reason why they cannot be appreciated by many more. It's our English teachers who are getting in the way--who are turning art into a chore. Even "The Scarlet Letter" can be saved. The Wife used to teach it to inner-city New York teens, years ago, and it was their single favorite book of the year. Why? Because she helped them find the soap opera within it. She helped them connect with the living, breathing human beings inside the story.

That used to be what English teachers did. They helped students understand literature that was a little bit challenging, a little bit above their heads. They gave them access.

Now, I guess, too many of them just give quizzes.

Education is about one thing, and one thing only. Really and truly, it is. We make things so damned complicated, but it's really all just this: Education gives children access to the world in all its variety and complexity, so that they will be prepared, someday, to inherit it. The end. All the skills, all the content, all the 3Rs boil down to just that. Because otherwise it's just noise.

So does it matter whether every single high school graduate can remember the components of a grasshopper's digestive tract? No. They will not all be scientists. But they will all be human beings, and as such, they need to understand the interrelatedness of living things. Because when they inherit the earth, I'd prefer it if they didn't destroy it. They will be human beings, and as such, they need to be able to look at aspects of this complicated world from multiple viewpoints--to see things the way scientists do, sometimes, and the way historians do at other times.

When I was in the classroom, I did not expect all of my students to become the next Dylan Thomas; but I did want them to be able to use literature of all sorts to understand how the world looks, tastes, and feels to different people. And I wanted them to be comfortable enough with writing in all sorts of genres to be able to communicate to other people how they thought the world looked, tasted, and felt. Because you need to be able to walk around in other people's shoes, if you're going to be any use as a human being (see? I learned that from "To Kill a Mockingbird").

You want to know what's going to be on the test, kids? Yorick's skull is going to be on the test. Because you're all headed there in the end (that's right, kids. Where be your gibes now?), and what you do with the time you have--the short, short time you have--actually does matter.

Or maybe it doesn't. I don't know. "Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the gravedigger puts on the forceps," Mr. Beckett says. And he should know.

So does it all matter or doesn't it? Your paper should be five paragraphs long and as devoid of interesting content as possible. And please...I have a 125 of these things to grade. Neatness counts.

1 comment:

Heather said...

HOLY CRAP?!
Are the monsters at the gate STILL saying this crap?!

Bunches of Idjots.

Garg!
H