Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Being Bored

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Okay, let me see if I can clear up a few things here.

1) I wasn’t saying that teachers shouldn’t try to make the material they teach interesting and engaging for their students.  Of course they should.  The ability to do that is the mark of a good teacher.

I was arguing against determining the content of the course by what we think will interest the students.

Basic algebra is basic algebra.  A gifted teacher may be able to get students excited about that, but even if nobody can, we still have to teach basic algebra.

We shouldn’t be including books or excluding them in literature courses because we think our students will or will not be interested in them.  Books should be included in such courses because they are part of the cultural heritage that every student must know.

The fact that some students will choose not to know them–will not do the work–is no reason to stop teaching them.   Some students will always refuse to do the work.  That’s a fact of life.

2) What Lymaree is suggesting belongs in elementary and middle school, not in high school (and certainly not in college).   And that is, in fact, what we do in elementary school.

Personally, I think we’re mistaken.   We can teach technique with The  Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as well as with the latest popular novel, and then we kill two birds with one stone–we teach the technique and we acquaint the students with part of the Canon.

That said,  I think it’s funny that Lymaree chose Raymond Chandler, of all people, as an example.  I think Chandler is a terrible writer, overwrought and pretentious as hell.  I managed to force my way through exactly one book of his, and the second one became one of less than half a dozen than  I’ve ever failed to finish out of disgust.

You wouldn’t have gotten me interested by trying to shove  Chandler down my throat.  You’d have done better with Sayers, but she’s a pedestrian writer.  And neither of these authors present the kind of expanded vocabulary and complexity of sentence structure that we need to teach at this stage.

I do have at least one modern n ovel I think will wok in teaching technique in the sense I’ve been talking about it here.  That’s Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods, which is one of the most amazing extended metaphors out there, and which requires literally buckets of cultural literacy just to follow.

For composition–not for lit–Ido assign that, and it sometimes works. 

But that kind of thing should stop at the eighth grade.

3) As for high school–I don’t think we will ever get most people to take part in the Great  Conversation, and high school is not the place for getting anybody to do that.

Elementary school is for teaching technique, high school is for presenting an outline of the nature and contents of the culture, and of prsenting the basic fields of knowledges, why and how they’re important, and the touchstones of each that broadly educated people should know.

In a sane world, only ten to fifteen percent of students would ever get past this part in any formal way.  Of that ten to fifteen percent, about two thirds will not only be introduced to the Great Conversation, but understand it, and about half of those will choose to continue it. 

And, of course, some of the people who stop with high school will end up both introduced to the Great Conversation and pursuing it on their own time. 

I had a grandmother from a small island in Greece who taught herself to read first Greek and then English and who then became one of the most knowledgable people I’ve ever met on the subject of the classical ballet.  Some people do because they do.

High school, however, has exactly two tasks:  to teach the outlines of the culture and to make students understand what the standards are for including or excluding works in that outline, and that those standards are neither arbitrary or subjective.

Most high school teachers right now couldn’t do any of that to save their lives.

4) Try to think of the teaching of literature in high school (not in college) as an offshoot of the teaching of history.   Practically everything we think of as a result of the “cultural revolution” of the Sixties had occured almost a hundred years before in the Transcendentalist movement–fascination with Eastern religions, utopian communes, free love, you name it. 

In fact, the ideas that gave rise to that outbreak of radicalism and to several since are embedded deeply in American culture.  They go back before the Revolution, and they are in many ways the philosophical underpinnings of–The Scarlet Letter.

Or rather, the conflict between them and the original Calvinist  principles is. 

Good historical novels are always about the way we live now–nobody can write a historical novel in the sense of one that is true to the ideas and assumptions of the history, and that means that the ideas and assumptions are always the ones that exist now, but placed in a different context in order to illuminate them.

Someday, go back and listen to Hester Prynne’s lecture on love and adultery.  If you didn’t know where it came from, and I tweaked the language to be a little less formal, you’d have thought somebody had delivered it in Berkeley in 1968.

5) Robert complained, in an e-mail to me, that it is impossible to talk about The Canon withhout a list of books–but I don’t think it’s that simple.  

For one thing, there are really several Canons, not one.  All a Canon is is an official list of books.  People talk about the Star Trek cCanon as well as the “literary” one. 

If we’re going to use the Canon of Westsern intellectual  history–the most expansive one for academic purposes–it’s going to include nonfiction as well as fiction, history and philosophy as well as novels and plays and poems.  And there’s good reason to insist that it also include some music and some painting, sculpture and even architecture.

Nobody is ever going to learn all that.  Even people like me, who get a kick out of trying, couldn’t do it in a single lifetime.  

For the present half second, what I’m most interested in for my students is that they be able to see that there are other ways to live than the ones they’re used to, and other ways to think than the ones they’re used to–and to be able to put those things in context.

But for my very poorest students, the ones with the crack addicted mothers and the garage in the hallwys, Jane Austen is considerably more of a shock than science fiction (or problem novels) could ever be.

Written by janeh

March 27th, 2009 at 9:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Being Bored'

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  1. “Many canons” is true but disingenuous. If I’d agreed to teaching the Canon and then proposed Dianne Duane’s MY ENEMY, MY ALLY and THE ROMULAN WAY as canonical TREK, I’d have gotten very short shrift. (“And what is the length of a standard shrift?” he wonders.)
    We’ve been discussing the Western Literary Canon, and I really, REALLY can’t can’t speak to whether it has works which will fill certain purposes or whether it is in fact neither arbitrary nor subjective without some idea of the titles proposed for teaching. I just can’t. For one thing, I’d have expected TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD to be included in the Canon, and JEKYLL AND HYDE to be excluded.

    As for “killing two birds with one stone” that’s the optimist’s description of a program known to pessimists and realists as “starting two hares at once” or “losing track of the objective.” I don’t say it can’t be done. I do say the books would have to be chosen with great care. Not every literary exemplar is important otherwise, and not every book of historical importance is great literature.

    Mind you, if we’re only discussing assigned reading for the top 15% of a high school class, that improves the odds of meeting both criteria with a single reading list, and much of what reading I’ve proposed would fit nicely in grades 6-8. But it does beg the question of the remaining 85% who will also make lives for themselves and vote. Many would gain profit and pleasure from books if the habit and love of reading weren’t beaten out of them in school.

    About Chandler, I tend to agree. Though his short stories are generally more readable than his novels, none of them were good enough to be fetched out to my place of exile. And I’d have been thrilled to have either Austen or Stevenson on my reading list in high school.

    But I do not propose works of science fiction in order to shock–except, perhaps, English teachers. I propose them because they are (sometimes) both entertaining and the best approach to certain ideas. I think were Kipling’s “The Eyes of Allah” David Drake’s “The Tank Lords” and Keith Laumer’s “The Last Command” read somewhere around 7th or 8th grade–or later–they would raise some very interesting points concerning science vs popular opinion (Kipling) the tendency of wars to get out of hand (Drake) and the place of veterans in post-war society (Laumer) which I have not seen raised so well outside of the field. You may not have cared for OATH OF FEALTY but where within the Canon would you find an equally suitable work for discussing privacy, terrorism, security and conflicting loyalties–or the rise of variant cultures? For that matter, Kipling also lies under the Ban, and a day or two in class with “Drums of the Fore and Aft” might have better prepared us for several recent developments. It depends a lot on whether the criterion is “fiction which addresses questions which are not going away” or “fiction teacher likes to read.”


    27 Mar 09 at 6:07 pm

  2. Twice on a post, I know. But I feel I should say something in defense of my English teachers. The course they taught in junior high and high school was, and I think still is, “English”–reading skills, composition and literature all together. Even Freshman English was “Literature and Composition.” Except for a bit of Homer, nothing assigned us in junior high or high schol was a translation. (Could there have been a single year of “world lit?” It sounds vaguely right, but I can’t remember reading anything suitable.) Anyway, that took CYRANO and LE CID off the list of possibles, as well as all the Russian novelists except Ayn Rand. I think the rights and wrongs of translation are a separate topic.

    And I don’t think the required reading was sorted by ability levels–certainly not to the point of an upper 15%. The “X Lane” was the top quarter or third, though it was the college prep course. The current vogue for “gifted and talented” may be more selective.

    I don’t think the schools accomplished much of what I considered to be their goals–introduction to a wide spectrum of literature, encouraging the love of reading, improved critical reading and composition skills–but it’s not quite fair to denounce them for failing to achieve goals they didn’t have.

    As for “making the material they teach interesting and engaging to the students,” Someone REALLY needs to inform those running college Education courses. After Fifth Grade, and before college, I think I could still count and name every teacher who believed that.


    29 Mar 09 at 10:12 am

  3. I had a friend who taught – mostly post-secondary, some secondary – who was really frustrated with the increasing tendency to expect teachers to be entertainers, as she put it. She just couldn’t make herself do it, although she knew the material and could teach it.

    I am only glad I got out of school before they tried making learning more entertaining by having the students do projects and class presentations and little models of things. I’ve always found I learn best with the printed word.

    Not all students find the same thing entertaining, and not all teachers have (or should need to be) entertainers. (I know you said ‘interesting and engaging’, but I think there’s often a disconnect between what different groups of students find interesting and entertaining. There wasn’t a whole lot of what most of my classmates found interesting and entertaining that I found interesting at all.


    29 Mar 09 at 5:04 pm

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