Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

A Thought Experiment, and a Suggestion

with 10 comments

Let me through out a couple of statements here and see what you think about them.

Kids really hate math.   All those abstractions turn them off, and practically nobody but math majors likes them anyway.   So, okay, let’s give them some of that if we have to, but let’s concentrate instead on the fun stuff like how to calculate betting odds and weird science statistics.  That way, maybe some of those kids will actually decide they like math and be willing to do some after they leave school.

History is really boring.  All those dates, and all those people from years ago who did stuff that just doesn’t make sense any more.  Kids hate history, and no wonder.   Instead of feeding them all that, we should concentrate on things like the history of rock music or the sexual revolution of the Sixties.  That way, maybe some kids will decide they like history and read it on their own time after they leave school.

Physics is really hard.   Maybe all those concepts were interesting to physicists once, or even physics majors now, but for most of us now they’re just hard to understand.  Instead of trying to force students to understand what’s so difficult for them, we should concentrate on common sense things like simple Newtonian mechanics.

The reason most of you out there will find what I just said to be outrageous is because you think math, history and physics are areas of study that have content students should learn wheither they like it or not, and whether they find it difficult or not.

The purpose of middle school and high school education in math, history and physics isn’t to induce a love of the subject in the students, but to make sure they learn basic concepts and operations.  If they also decide they love the subject, that’s nice, but not part of the goal.

I don’t think the Canon constitutes a “narrow slice” of literature.  It is, in fact, the broadest possible sample of literature, and includes books that could be classified in all of the genres, and plays and poetry as well. 

The decision to teach a book–rather than just to read it–cannot be about how students might love it and be inspired to read more, any more than the decision to teach one mathematical concept rather than another, or to teach one period of history rather than another, can be based on what we think students will like and emotionally respond to.

Almost all intellectual disciplines are difficult to learn at first, and frustrating at first.   We get beyond that point and what began as dificult becomes easy.  At that point, what started out as easy often begins to seem boring.

The long, complicated sentences f nineteenth century authors aren’t “good writing for their time,” they’re good writing.  The problem lies in the fact that our education is reading has been so dumbed down that we don’t know how to function in the face of subordinate clauses anymore.

And yet, being able to read complex sentences, subordinate clauses and all, isn’t a negligible skill.  Someday, take a look at the periodicals of the Victorian era covering things like politics, public policy, even science.  They were aimed for an audience of educated laymen, doctors and lawyers and businessmen who liked to keep up on things on the side.  They present articles so dense, and writing so complex, we wouldn’t expect most graduate students in the field to understand them these days. 

But society was better off when ordinary educated laymen not only could understand writing of that difficulty, but actually sought it out.

Literature does not exist in the curriculum so that we can induce students to “love reading.”  If that was the only point to it, then there would be no point to it, and it would rightly be removed from the list of subjects we expects students to master.

Literature exists in the curriculum because there are certain kinds of reading skills we need students to have, and because it represents part of the intellectual history of this civilization, and therefore presents ideas and works students ought to know if they are to function fully in the here and now.

I’ve never read Jennifer Cruise, but I know why The Scarlet Letter ought to be in the curriculum and I can see no reason, looking online to find out something about the book, why Bet Me should be there.

Like it or hate it, The Scarlet Letter is an extremely important work in the history of American letters.  It represents an entire generation’s attempt to make terms with its history and to fashion a new and uniquely American identity.  It presents one of the earliest attempts to define and negotiate an enduring theme in American public life, one we deal with even now, and even on this newsgroup–the nature of guilt and responsibility, the claims of the head and the heart, the tug of war between the people we now call “liberals” and “conservatives.”

Do I “like” The Scarlet Letter? As a matter of fact, I do.  I read it when I was very young, and on my own, not because it was assigned, and it engaged me and excited me and I read it over again just a week or so after I’d finished it the first time.

But none of that contitutes a reason for assigning the book in a class or making it a part of a curriculum.  If the other things did not exist, it would not belong in school.

What are the reasons for assigning Bet Me to students if the criteria is NOT “they might like it and get turned on to reading other stuff?” 

In other words, if you take literature seriously as an area of study, if you accept that it has content and skills that are necessary for students to learn–why would you assign a contemporary genre novel in class at all?  Most books that fall into that category (including mine) are ephemeral.   They don’t require students to develop or exercise higher order reading skills.  They don’t usually deal with enduring themes or point the way to the development of those themes in the culture at large.

The one case in which I can see assigning such stuff in class is not in a literature course, but in composition, where what you want is a simplified form of some literary form or device to teach to students who have not in fact learned what they should have learned in high school.

Janet did it with a book of mine, and I’ve done it with Terry  Pratchett’s Small  Gods–but that’s not teaching literature, it’s getting students to develop the skills they need to eventually read literature.

Why assign a contemporary romance novel when you can assign Sense and  Sensibility?  Why assign Raymond Chandler when you can assign Crime and  Punishment, or The Brothers Karamazov, or even Sherlock Holmes? 

Those of you who want English classes to be full of your favorite novels are doing the same thing the people who are assigning Judy  Blume do–you’re desperately fishing for something that will make the students “like” the subject.

It’s irrelevant if students like it.

It’s very relevant that they learn it.

Written by janeh

March 26th, 2009 at 4:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

10 Responses to 'A Thought Experiment, and a Suggestion'

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  1. I am reminded more and more of a class I took in education. During a discussion on the advantages and disadvantages of various methods of teaching French as a second language, the instructor said that while there was evidence that one approach was generally effective (IIRC, it was one with narrow aims and lots of rote learning), students generally disliked it and there wasn’t much point in introducing a program if it was so much disliked that students would never study French again once released from the program.

    On the one hand, I agree with Jane. Some things need to be learned to carry on our culture and to enable our students to participate in it as fully as they are able. Not all – maybe only a tiny minority – of students are going to like the more tedious parts of acquiring at least minimal competency in those areas. Moreover, different students will have different levels of interest in different areas. Put these two ideas together – students learn better and more if they are interested. Students are often not interested in what adults think they should be (or will need) and you have a problem.

    I think that the problem is two-fold. One, we as a culture do not have a shared idea of what an educated person should know. Two, we do not have the idea that perserverence and endurance are virtues – that even children should keep working at something that’s initially unappealing until they get at least a basic level of skill in it. Or, in the case of sports or music lessons, at least give it a term’s worth of effort before giving up!


    26 Mar 09 at 7:46 am

  2. I agree completely. Yet, when the specifics are discussed, I seem to do a 180. I think I’m a victim of this culture which treats high schoolers (and increasing college students) as infants who are free from responsibility and aren’t expected to face any challenges.

    It may be an aspect of the therapeutic culture, or perhaps something else. I am reminded of when you once wrote about baby boomers who have regressed to an adolescent sex-life. Whatever it is, it values the puer psychology (eternal boy) over the senex (wise old man).

    What’s odd these days is how children are treated as adults -eager to learn, endless possibilities- while teenagers are treated as babies -unable to control their emotions, hopelessly dumb.

    I don’t know where I’m going with this. I want high standards to be upheld, and teenagers treated as adults. I agreed with Mark Steyn when he suggested high school should be shortened to two years. Society seems to be eager to dumb everything down and value youth, however.


    26 Mar 09 at 10:55 am

  3. OK, first I’m not at all sure that the analogy with physics and math is apt, but if it is, then I think perhaps one of the reasons why this country is so deficient in physicists and mathematicians is that many students never really pursue those fields because they feel they are ‘too hard’. Please, I am NOT advocating making stuff EASIER or ‘trivial’ (you keep calling it ‘fun’ and I’d prefer ‘good’); I am advocating making stuff interesting and relevant.

    As for ‘carrying on our culture’; heck, I’m not sure how/why having read Scarlet Letter “carries on the culture” particularly if the reader(s) think it is dull, and outdated. Indeed the teaching of literature must include teaching to tools that help students understand that what appears to be tedious is quite the opposite. I was a lit major for a long time and loved my courses, but I went to college at time when learning for the sake of learning was paramount. And even then, virtually all my profs truely WANTED their students to appreciate good writing…to WANT to read it, to enjoy the reading. If that’s your definition of ‘fun’, then I can go with it.

    Rarely did I run into a prof who assigned something simply because it ‘ought to be read’ regardless of whether students could work with it or not.

    But I think there is a progression. Let me try a couple of analogies. My brother hated cauliflower (my substitue for brocolli here). So my mother took a recipe for a wonderful (and truely unhealty…but it was the 50’2 afte all) sauce that combined bacon, cream cheese, cheddar and heave cream and used it with the cauliflower. After his initial “I HATE cauliflower’ tantrum, my brother tried it and admitted it wasn’t so bad. Each time we had cauliflower after that my mother would reduce the ‘trappings’ little by little. In a couple months my brother was pretty good about eathing the healthy stuff solo.

    And one from my own teaching. I teach philosophy and have for 30 years. Most philosophers are pretty awful writers. When I teach intro I almost always start the course with The Plato’s Apology; then we go with the Symposium. Good writing, interesting topics. Then we can get into the heavier Platonic stuff…and the students have some confidence and some camaradie with Plato. I’ll also throw in a little William James who was, not exaclty a great philosopher, but used vigorous prose (and was the popularizer of Pragmatism).

    All I am advocating here is that there is plenty of good writing out there that is not part of the ‘canon’ (and in God’s name, who gets to say what that is anyway???) that may bring more students to a love of good writing (and a love of reading…I am refuse to gear beginning courses to only those who already have that or who will go on and major in literature or philosophy).

    I agree that we do not have a shared idea of what an educated person should know (and don’t see that as a necessarily bad thing). I do not agree that perseverence and endurance are valuable in and of themselves but only in relation to external goals. Persevering is something for the sake of perseverence is in some cases no different than banging one’s head into a wall until one passes out. Life is short and I am a pragmatist.

    Janet Lewis

    26 Mar 09 at 11:07 am

  4. ” OK, first I’m not at all sure that the analogy with physics and math is apt, but if it is, then I think perhaps one of the reasons why this country is so deficient in physicists and mathematicians is that many students never really pursue those fields because they feel they are ‘too hard’. ”

    I understand this sentiment. When deciding what to major in at college I had the impression that physics and math were too hard, so I thought maybe I’d go the easy route and major in Business.

    I ended up graduating with a degree in Applied Math. After taking a few courses I fell in love with math. I also enjoyed physics and wish I would have studied that subject further.

    I think for those reasons I have a unique perspective on your attitude. Math and physics is perceived as ‘too hard’ because, well, it is hard. It’s difficult and requires a lot of effort and hours at the library to get. I don’t think we should try to trick high schoolers into thinking it’s fun or easy. Everything that is worth doing or knowing is requires a lot of hard work and effort. (Isn’t that the American dream? If you work hard you will succeed?)

    Individuals who want to spend the rest of their lives playing can try to pursue a career in sports. Serious subjects shouldn’t be turned into a game.


    26 Mar 09 at 11:23 am

  5. There are people like Jane who were born loving the written word, but they are rare. Somehow, we have come to the point of expecting that, if we shove enough books at a kid, he/she will love reading . . . and . . . (quantum leap), will end up devouring the classics and absorbing all that comes with them. Perhaps this thinking is part of our “magic pill” philosophy (nothing takes time and/or work to overcome; just take a pill, and all the world will be right!).

    Kids have to be taught to love literature. They need to understand at an early age what constitutes a good story and how a reader should approach reading. They need practice and patience and discussion (not stupid worksheets)to begin to understand how to read literature and what it has to say to them. I haven’t seen it often, because by the time I got them they were pretty callous, but I have seen the light bulb go on, and an adolescent suddenly understands. It’s beautiful!

    I held on to my 1988 copyrite jr. high lit books as long as I could (carefully repairing them during the summers), because they contained good literature by good authors. They were food for discussion and starting points for writing. They were wonderful models for good grammar. Unfortunately, the powers that be dictated a new curriculum. Now, most of the stories focus on ethnic diversity and are written by people I’ve never heard of. The kids are singularly unimpressed; one asked for last year’s book.

    Dear Lord, how is one to teach with one’s hands tied behind one’s back? One can’t . . . which is why I’m hanging it up. God help the future of education!


    26 Mar 09 at 1:47 pm

  6. It’s not that Raymond Chandler is “better” than The Scarlet Letter. It’s that they BOTH have things to teach, some of them the same things. If students will read and enjoy one, and not read or enjoy the other, why not choose the enjoyable one?

    What value is there in assigning reading that won’t be done? Lightweight, non-content reading isn’t teaching anything new, true. I’m not advocating using poor writing to try to teach reading skills. But there is plenty of good literature that doesn’t get included in the canon. Branch out a bit. Explore good non-canon writing and teach from that. In some ways, limiting one’s teaching to the canon is the easy way out for the teacher. One can find any number of critiques, essays and pre-digested lesson plans on what Hawthorne or Faulkner or Hemingway *means* and there you go. That’s what students should learn from reading X.

    And once students have learned HOW to read from this non-canonical literature, and gained the skills of analysis and thought, then they can learn the core literature of the culture, either as part of the curriculum or on their own. I don’t see why it’s necessary that both purposes, learning the skills of critical reading, and learning the core literature, *must* be combined. I think it tends to defeat the accomplishment of both purposes.

    I don’t think math, physics or history can be directly related to developing the skills of reading. Math & physics both have extremely logical progressions of skills that *must* be learned in order to build to the next level of complexity. No one is going to skip multiplication and just jump into calculus. Anyone who has had a decent history class knows that dates have nothing to do with it, and that it’s the relationships between people and their needs that informs historical actions. Any reasonably good history teacher can make even ancient history relevant and exciting. It’s just stories, after all. The fact that most of them don’t do this is another essay entirely.

    But we expect students who can barely parse the microwave directions on their lunch correctly to jump into The Scarlet Letter, and get something meaningful out of it? Or, gawd help us, Moby Dick?

    All I’m saying is that non-canonical literature can be good (in the absolute sense), that it can have cultural value, and that it can teach the same things canonical literature might, *if the students read it.* But if they don’t or won’t read canonical stuff right off, and they will read the non-canonical things, why not use that as a tool to teach the skills?

    Once someone has the skills they can read the canon, or the parts of it they want to. Having the confidence that they have the skills to tackle it and derive some value from would make it less intimidating and more enjoyable for its own sake.


    26 Mar 09 at 2:02 pm

  7. I’ve been reading the last batch of posts and comments with great interest, but without much to say: I don’t have kids and don’t know a lot about US education these days. But maybe it is helpful to hear about another paradigm. Here in Russia, 13-year-olds have a summer reading list that consists of all of Dostoevsky, most of Tolstoy, most of Turgenev, all of Chekhov’s plays and a lot of his short stories. (By that time they’ve already read most of Pushkin, including his long narrative poems, Lermontov, and most of the major Golden and Silver Age poets). And they read it all. They don’t die. They may not understand it all, but they are perfectly capable of reading it.

    I don’t think that God passed out more brains in Russia than in the US. The Russian kids I know are pretty much like the American kids I know. But they have to read what you’d call the Russian canon. Everyone reads it. Their parents — even if they are drunks and bums — think it’s a good idea to read all this. So they do. And they can.

    BTW, @cperkins, foreign language training here is also excellent. Why? Because they know that, unfortunately, to learn a foreign language you need to do a lot of boring, but necessary, rote work. So they make the kids do it.

    Of course there are flakes and drop outs and street kids. But most of the kids here read 1200 pages of War and Peace (with all the French still in French) by the time they are 13 or 14. So (sorry if this is obvious) teenagers are not universally incapable of reading anything that is old, irrelevant, hard to understand, old-fashioned, long and boring. They learn how to read well — they are forced to learn how to read — by the time they are 8 or so, and then they are forced to keep reading. They can’t go on to the next grade until they master certain skills and test well on oral and written exams. It’s grueling, and parents are worried that their kids are stressed, but man, it’s a literate society. People read French novels on the subway.


    26 Mar 09 at 2:32 pm

  8. I don’t have children and I’ve lived in Australia for 35 years so I can’t discuss the US system.

    But Jane says kids hate math and they do but you need to define “math”. They need arithmetic as a tool and some basic algebra. (Is 2 for $3 a bargain if the price per item is $1.40?) I’d like them to at least read a book called “How to Lie with Statistics” which has no equations in it but does have good explanations of some of the tricks used in advertising.

    As for physics, I’d like them to know why you should drive slower in the rain or why you should slow down rounding a curve. That is simple Newtonian mechanics.


    26 Mar 09 at 4:36 pm

  9. The argument seems to flip back and forth between teaching particular works for their own sake, and teaching reading skills. Surely these do not require exactly the same reading list? Yesterday, we were talking about reading skills. That THE SCARLET LETTER makes a more important cultural point may be true, but it is certainly irrelevant. (Whatever happened to “showing the way we live now” by the way?)

    No doubt all sorts of wonderful things are to be found in the Literary Canon. I’ll not comment on that without a list of titles. What I said was that the books assigned to my generation were a narrow, and to my way of thinking a dull slice of literature, and that you sounded no happier with the present set. Since most of those works are not something you have claimed as part of the Literary Canon, I fail to see how recommending a wider sample constitutes an attack on the same. If you can convince junior high and high school teachers to teach Cononical romance and adventure, all well and good. But what I was taught did nothing to promote any sort of reading, and things look little better today.

    We’re also confusing something else. A decent high school education gives all the physics and mathematics–and for that matter all the chemistry and biology–that many adults will find necessary.

    But the Great Conversation is another matter. If you want people to go on doing something all their lives and believe both they and the country will be the better for it, it might be worth some extra effort to make the experience pleasureable.

    For myself, whenever I’ve had occasion to teach history, I’ve done my level best to make it interesting to the students. I can only give them the barest sampling in a semester or so, but if I can convince them that this is important and interesting stuff, they’ll go on learning it all their lives. This does not–I hope–mean I expected them to learn less, but their are a lot of ways to package that information.

    My History teachers, I think, agreed with me. My English teachers were of the Grim Literary Duty school. So I went on taking History courses as long as I could, and continued to study on my own. Meantime I stopped taking English courses at the earliest possible stage, and I am pleased to say that my fiction shelves contain to this day almost nothing of which they would approve.

    There’s a lesson in there somewhere.


    26 Mar 09 at 4:57 pm

  10. Stories in history are more important than dates. I certainly attribute my interest in history to the stories. But the dates are important, too, as I discovered when trying to teach a science course with a history of science component. If a student doesn’t have at least a vague idea of the chronological order of The Greeks (well, actually only one or two of them), the Industrial Revolution and the Renaissance, he or she is going to have real difficulty understanding even a very simplified version of the development of scientific ideas. It would be even better, of course, if they could tie science into philosophy and technology through the ages, but this was only high school.

    Stories and dates are both important.


    27 Mar 09 at 6:42 am

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