Monday, April 26, 2010

Literature in High School

I go back and forth on high school English, and Ta-Nehisi Coates sums it up nicely:
I hated Macbeth in eleventh grade, because someone tried to teach it to me like a rule-book. I loved it in twelfth grade because it wasn't really taught to me at all. Someone basically handed it to me for class, and said let's talk about. There was no pressure to understand "technique," but after I got the beauty of the thing, I was all about technique.

I go back and forth on high school English literature assignments because I think they're are several competing goals. First, to provide a base of common cultural reference. In this case, assigning great works of literature is much like telling the kids to eat broccoli. They taste bad, but are good for you. Second, great works of literature usually illuminate some universal thing in the human condition and may help students understand their lives better. Lust, love, fear, paranoia, obsession, etc. This, however, doesn't really help a 16 year-old. They just don't have the life experience to adequately appreciate great books written by adults about important human things. Maybe they can understand it to a point or certain specific works, but not fully and not even all of them can get that far. Third, the assignments serve simply as an object to teach literary analysis. In this case, what is assigned isn't all that important as long as you can identify the theme, character, etc. Great novels provide a broader topic to discuss these things than mediocre works. And then there's the analysis of verse, like Shakespeare and poetry, which is even more detailed. Lastly, there's the we need to teach kids how to write and English class makes the most sense angle. Consequently, they write about literature because of the class topic, but it doesn't really matter what the literature is. It's all about putting an argument into words.

These are all worthwhile goals. I just fear that many students, myself included, are turned off by the formal, antiseptic approach to literature common in high school classes, and then add to that how we are forcing students to read these works when they cannot fully comprehend them, and it may poison the well of literature for the rest of their lives.

A great novel possesses a certain mystique, mystery, and magic. It consists simply of words on paper, but you empathize with the characters. You relate to them and the situation that they find themselves in. If the author is good, then you finish the book with some emotional reaction and a question about how you personally would react in those circumstances. For example, the finale of A Tale of Two Cities is over the top, at least in my opinion, but who doesn't admire Sydney Carton's bravery? Rejoice at his redemption? And perhaps most importantly, ask if they would do the same in his position?

An astute reader then wonders, much like after a magician's trick, how did the author pull it off? And then proceeds to examine the plot, setting, character, theme, foreshadowing, pacing, conflict, etc. But they saw the magic first. Forcing a student to dissect a novel they haven't seen the magic in is simply torture. Personally, I've never looked at a novel I thought sucked, Catcher in the Rye comes to mind, analyzed it, and come away with greater appreciation.

1 comment:

Flavia said...

Personally, I've never looked at a novel I thought sucked. . . analyzed it, and come away with greater appreciation.

I more or less agree with this statement, and there's plenty of literature (pretty much all of the Romantic poets, for example), that I just can't like no matter how much I'm bound to admire its artistry, etc. But if you're already reading a work you don't like, talking about it in formal terms at least gives you something to say and do--and something more productive than, "I don't like this."

I mean, I didn't like high school physics. But I had to learn it.

I understand that you (and Ta-Nehisi) are arguing that badly-taught or simply irrelevant-seeming classes may turn students off something they'd otherwise like, and that in the case of English this might mean alienating students from reading--and that physics, by contrast, isn't something that most people can take on as a hobby or pastime.

But I'm not sure they're so different, or that the teaching of English should defer to student tastes or preferences any more than the teaching of physics. Literature does exist to give people pleasure. But literature classes exist to make students more sophisticated readers and analyzers of literature as art, craft, and culture.

People often assume that because reading is a pleasurable activity (for many), then so should analyzing literature be. But most things that are pleasurable are not things we study in school, because we assume that pleasure to be intuitively obvious: we don't study baseball, in part because people like it all on their own. Similarly, we don't believe we have to teach people how to enjoy the experience of reading a gripping novel.

Not everyone who likes reading will find analyzing literature pleasurable, and that's fine. Not everyone who appreciates the existence of gravity will find studying physics pleasurable, either.

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