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Broccoli. Or Maybe Broccoli 2.

with 5 comments

Because I really don’t remember if I gave this title to a post already, and I’m too lazy to look it up.

First, I’m going to apologize to Janet.  I will say in my defense that I anticipated I would have to.  Sorry, I took the “more contemporary” in Janet’s comment to mean, well, right now.   Janet only meant “late enough in time so that there was actually plumbing.”

But something has finally occured to me, and that’s that I think I understand where Robert is coming from when he says that I and other people who teach literature approach reading like “eating your broccoli.”

Here’s the thing–I enjoy what I read, or I wouldn’t read it.  Sometimes I do get into a situation where I  have to read something as a professional obligation, but once I got past graduate school, that happened a lot less than you’d think.  

In general,  I read what I like, and as often as possible I read what I love–but what I love is very rarely genre fiction. 

If I was going to put together five books to take with me to be stranded for life on a desert island, the very first out of the box would be Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, and Jose Saramago’s Blindness would come next.  Even Sherlock Holmes would only make it if I got to take ten instead of five.

But the fact that I like a book, or even love it, isn’t a reason to assign it to students or make it part of a curriculum in  English literature.

For one thing, we don’t all like the same things.   Janet thinks students will like Dickens, but Robert hated the one Dickens novel he was assigned in school.  My sons read Beowulf and Gilgamesh as small children and took to them as if they were superhero movies, but John doesn’t think he’d be able to stand them and wants Faulkner and Hemingway instead.  Everybody but Cheryl seems to think that Silas Marner is an evil plot to murder small children.

I’m not sure it’s really possible to give reasons for why we like something.  I know that several of you have criteria you think you’re using, but I think it’s mostly subjective. 

There’s the issue of the “good story,” for instance.  Most of you say you like a book if it has a “good story,” but what is a good story, exactly?  Robert came up with a set of rules to define that, and some of the rest of you have your own, but the simple fact is that a “good story” is whatever interests you.  It is not an objective criterion to judge a book.

Treasure Island bored me silly.   I could never get all the way through the book, and much as I like Hemingway’s writing, not only The Old Man and the Sea but all his go-out-and-hunt-things novels made my eyes glaze over. 

What makes a “good story” for me are intricate details of personal relationships between characters, a hero or heroine who undergoes a deep and permanent internal change because of the events of the novel,  and a narrative arc that concerns a character’s ability to finally walk out on a person or situation that is harming him.  Or her.

My guess is that what makes me happy when I read would make a lot of the rest of you bored or annoyed, and there’s no reason why that shouldn’t be so.   We don’t all like the same food, either.

But I get the feeling from some of the comments here that some of you think that people who teach English insist on reading and assigning books that they know are boring or distasteful, because those books are “good for us.”

The fact is, however, that part of the reason that people become English majors is the fact that what they actually like, what makes them happy, what they enjoy, are the same books you find boring–and what they find boring are the same books you enjoy.

For better or for worse, the criteria for selecting books for instruction has to rely on something other than taste, or a mad dash to find books students are going to “like.”

In fact,  I think that mad dash is how we ended up with all this Judy Blume.  We need something relevant!   We need something students will be interested in!

There’s something truly insane about restricting a curriculum to what sixteen year olds will be “interested in.”   They don’t actually know what they’re interested in.   Their experience of the world is limited, and that goes for even the ones with the kinds of advantages that took them on a tour of Prague at the age of seven.

Two of my abiding passions at the moment are things I knew nothing about until my early twenties.  Hell, in high school, I didn’t even realize there was such a thing as a harpsichord.

Sixteen year olds live in a bubble of a world with little or no connection to most of the great fields of human endeavor.   Most of them know little to nothing about history, literature, philosophy, muisic, science, mathematics, or those “other cultures” educationists are always babbling about.

At least part of the point of an elementary or a high school curriculum has to be to introduce students to those things.  Listening to an hour of Bach or a lecture on the instruments in a symphony orchestra may feel like being forced to eat your broccoli, but without those things our sixteen year old’s understanding of music comes down to The All American Rejects and  Brittney  Spears.

What’s more, students, like the rest of us, tend to take what is as “normal,” and probably eternal.  One of the reasons the culture is ‘coarse,” as  Victor David Hanson puts it, is that our media is saturated with coarseness.  Just as important, however, is the fact that our students see nothing else.

Some of the best things in life are distasteful at first acquaintance.  Eating your broccoli is a chore until you begin to like broccoli.  

And when your parents tell you that vegetables are delicious, you’re often convinced they must be lying.

If you ask me why I choose to read a book, I’ll tell you that I like it.  If you ask me why we should teach a certain book, or why that book is “good” or “bad,” my likes and dislikes do not, and should not, come into it.

But the fact that there are objectively good reasons to include a book in a curriculum doesn’t preclude my liking it, or even loving it–those are just two different questions with two different types of answers.

Written by janeh

March 25th, 2009 at 6:20 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Broccoli. Or Maybe Broccoli 2.'

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  1. Well I certainly do agree that assigning books based on whether you ‘like’ them or not is not a particularly useful thing to do and I also agree that we all have different tastes to a degree. (I learned long ago NEVER to assign a book that I was in love with to my students because invariably they hated the book and then I would get angry at them).

    But I am trying to do more here then assign a ‘my favorites list. I do beleive that I (and lots of other people) am able to differentiate between what I like and what the students I teach will find not unattractive. Granted there is a bit of ‘eating brocolli’ in my list (Tin Roof Blowdown, e.g. is not only well written but paints a picture of post Katrina New Orleans that, frankly, I think students should be exposed to). I try to use both content and form in selecting books that can engage students.

    I am not a fan of ‘The Canon’ and do not beleive that students should have read Chaucer only because then they will know that Chaucer was somehow an ‘important’ writer. I don’t assign Agamemnon because I want students to know that Aeschylus was a classic Greek poet, but because some of the scenes (Clytemnestra standing over Agamemnon’s body are both visually and orally compelling and that’s because of the writing). What I want my students to work with is exactly ‘how’ the author works to create a picture or a character or a dilemma.

    I read lots of stuff that i would not compel ANYONE to read. And there are lots of ‘classics’ out there that I would not compely ANYONE to read ever (brocolli, hell, I beleive Moby Dick is more akin to Castor Oil).

    Janet Lewis

    25 Mar 09 at 1:07 pm

  2. How do you decide what to teach, then? Not all English majors agree! I expect all of them have something that they teach because it’s required, or because they think it represents and important type of poetry or stage in the development of the novel, but which they don’t find very appealing. I assume that not all teachers who use the popular modern novels find them particularly interesting – particularly not year after year!

    I think I am a bit more a fan of the Canon than Janet – although I could never get through Moby Dick either. But when I try to think of criteria, I come up with things like longevity, and influence on the culture over time, which leads back towards the Canon.

    The odd thing is that I don’t think I’ve read the Canon. I mean, I know who Chaucer was. I’ve never been assigned anything by him in any course. I know the names of some of the stories and have read modern English bits of one or two. And yet, I think Chaucer’s existance should be common knowledge for my culture. That’s not strictly logical – but there’s something about being able to say this is where we come from; this is when the whole business of telling lively tales in a language everyone spoke began that appeals to me as much as the little I can remember of the stories themselves do.


    25 Mar 09 at 1:31 pm

  3. [The computer just ate my response. Perhaps it felt I was running on too long?]

    I’m not yielding ground, but let me restate my earlier grousings.

    Yes, by all means see that students are familiar with important cultural markers, see that they have exposure to the full spectrum of English literature, and have the tools to read fiction and non-fiction, recognizing allusions and detecting biases.

    But they’re not getting that full spectrum. They’re getting badly-written propaganda pieces (Jane’s complaint) or a very narrow slice of literature, omiting much that many of us find entertaining and enlightening (Robert’s complaint–but Jane herself likes that narrow slice.)

    By all means see that they sample some broccoli, but if they HAVE sampled it, and it’s clearly an ordeal, another green leafy vegetable might be in order. In any event, they ought to sample some carrots and cabbage as well. Academia is big on diversity today. Perhaps the English Department could try a little.

    And it’s important that the kids find something they like if for no other reason because if they don’t, they’re unlikely to read enough of anything to develop those necessary tools. You’re better off with a student who actually reads Jennifer Crusie’s BET ME than with one who does the Cliff’s Notes of THE SCARLET LETTER. The reader will have learned to pick things out of a text by himself.

    English departments spend YEARS implicitly teaching young people that reading novels is one of those things you have to get through to get to the adult world–like acne and morning assemblies. Then when the escapees drop fiction reading off with their rented caps and gowns, English teachers blame the kids and the culture. Kids are what they are, and the culture is beyond their reach. I think English departments would get better results by focusing on the things they can control. Putting a little Drake, Laumer or Heinlein, some Brackett, Howard or Crusie on the list of literature to be sampled would be a good start.


    25 Mar 09 at 4:55 pm

  4. Imagine that. “Read this Raymond Chandler. Then read this Robert Crais. Compare and contrast, boys and girls. Compare and contrast.”

    Love of reading comes when one encounters good writing. Cultural awareness comes from reading the base materials of the culture, as well as reading widely in current literature. Why in the world do we think we can serve both purposes at once in school? Especially middle & high school?


    25 Mar 09 at 8:43 pm

  5. I love Heinlein but I fear using his books would cause a fire fight. “Starship Trooper” is often attacked as fascist and “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” has group marriage and a form of lynch law.

    Lymaree has a good point about 2 purposes. I’ve noticed that the 18th century writers seem to have a style involving long, complicated sentences. No doubt they were good writers for their contempoary audience, but I find them hard to read.


    26 Mar 09 at 1:20 am

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