Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

She Loves You, Yeah…

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First, let me say that I’m in the middle of finishing a book, and I’m late, due to the Big PRroblem which is still not entirely resolved–or even sort of, yet–so my posts to this blog may get a little sketchy.

Also,  I have a new book coming out in about a month, called Living Witness, and when it does, I’m going to be blogging at SMP for a week. 

So, you know, heads up.

But a couple of thins.  I still reject the idea that it is part of the job of English courese in elementary school and high school to teach “a love of reading.”  It’s a nice bonus if you can get it, but you wouldn’t ask the math teacher to make a “love of algebra” or  the science teacher to make a “love of biology” as one of the main goals of their teaching, and there’s no reason why English teachers should be expected to take on the psychological reconstruction of their students in a quest that is bound to fail ninety nine percent of the time anyway.

The purpose of taaching literature in high school is to make sure students are acquainted with literary forms and how to interpret them and to provide a (largely superficial) acquaintance with the touchstone works of the culture.  I’m not asking that students read Chaucer in high school.  I’m asking att they not receive a high school diploma without knowing who Chaucer was and why The Canterbury Tales is a milestone in the development of literature in English. 

That last is a lot easier and less onerous than most of you imagine.  “It was the first serious literary written in English instead of Latin so that it could be read by an audience that included a rising middle class of merchants as well as classically trained scholars and ecclesiastics” isn’t that hard a concept to grasp.

I also think that some of you have a very restricted idea of what the Canon is, and Robert seems to think that it includes everything he was asked to read in English classes.

In my experience, high school English classes in most places teach little or nothing of the Canon.   What they like are modern or contemporary books written to be “thoughful” and to “deal with issues” considered “important.”  That is, I think, how we end up with so many high school students asked to read To Kill A Mockingbird, which is a nice enough but largely minor novel with a bad case of Lord  Peter Wimsey syndrome.

Lord Peter Wimsey syndrome is what I call it when a woman writer invents  The Perfect Man–the one she’d like to marry, but can’d find–and turns him into the hero of her fiction.  Atticus Finch is ridculously pefect, and that is one of the reasons why Mockingbird is unlikely ever to actually make it into the  Canon. 

One of the other favorites of high school English courses that’s unlikely ever to make it into the Canon is  Catcher in the Rye, a book whose main virtue seems to be that so many people want to ban it.   It’s beautifully written.  The prose is incredibly clean in every possible way.  It just has litle or nothing to say unless you take adolescent angst to be necessarily insightful, which I don’t. 

But if you don’t mind my saying so, the inclusion of these two books on most high school reading lists is the result of that urge to teach students to “love to read,” mostly by giving them things teachers think they will find “interesting’ and “relevant.” 

It would make more sense to me simply to give students classics, different ones of different difficulty over time.  Classics are classics because people have read them year after year after year.

And no, getting the book assigned in English classes doesn’t turn it into a classic.  If that’s the only way the book is surviving, it will fall out of sight soon enough.

There weren’t even any university courses in English literature in American colleges and universities before the twentieth century, and right up until the 1950s the rule in such courses was that no book was included that hadn’t been in print for at least fifty years.  

You may find Joyce’s Ulysses annoying, but it sold to generations of readers who never had it assigned to them in any class.  And that goes double, or better, for  Dickens, who made it in print for a hundred years before he was ever assigned in a  course.  

Some books have survived because they’ve made an enormous impact on the culture, including on people who have never read them–Gone With The  Wind is one, so is Atlas  Shrugged. 

Robert suggests that some of Heinlein woul dhave to be included, but at least at this point nothing he’s done seems to me to hae risen to the level of all-pervasive public consciousness that pushes books into the status of cultural icons.  And some books that look as if they’re going to make it, because they’re enormously popular when they’re first published, disappear into nothingness a few years later.

Right now, I am so disappointed and frustrated with the contents of high school English courses in all but a very few top-end prep schools that I’m about to scream.  The book my younger son brings home from ninth grade  English make my teeth hurt.  The assignments he’s given just make me tired.  There seems to me to be no point to any of it, and I can’t imagine that he’s actually learning anything.

Last summer, he read The Odyssey.  In translation, of course, but start to finish, and he had a good time with mosters and disasters and all that good old classical swordplay.  Bill read Julius Ceasar to Matt when Matt was only six or so, and Matt still remembers most of it–which means that he knew more of Shakespeare than most of the people he went to high school with.

If I was going to yell and scream about education in  English these days on any level–elementary, high school, university–it wouldn’t be that the offerings are snobbish and dull, or that they’re politicaly correct, but that they’re negligible.

Too often,  English teachers these days are teaching nothing at all.

Written by janeh

March 30th, 2009 at 7:02 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'She Loves You, Yeah…'

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  1. Why limit the negligibility to English teachers? My impression is that between “teaching to the test” and all the administrative crap teachers need to deal with, they have about 2 minutes an hour to actually introduce anything vital or interesting to their students, regardless of their subject area.

    What you and Bill did as parents, introducing your kids to great works outside school, and as they were interested in them, is probably the better way to go. Unless you’re going to serve on the local school board’s curriculum committee (which is likely to be an exercise in frustration anyway) there’s not much you can do to influence which works are used in the classroom. If the tests mention Work A, then Work A must be taught. So the test-makers rule the curriculum.

    As for the assignments…sigh. My kids too spent (wasted) way too much of their young lives filling in stupid, useless work sheets, whose sole purpose was to give teachers something to prove they were giving out homework in the easiest possible form to grade. Worksheets ought to be banned, unless they’re concrete like math problems.


    30 Mar 09 at 11:48 am

  2. Can’t quarrel with using classics, and can’t quarrel (much) with a 50 year rule. But it would be easier to agree or disagree with a high school version of “The Canon According to Jane.” The Great Works, the Five Foot Book Shelf and the St John’s University reading list contain a great deal I wouldn’t foist on anyone, and relatively little suitable for high school.

    Certainly any effort to broaden the readings would be worthwhile. I’d say the present bunch–and MOCKINGBIRD is an excellent example–is not intended to “raise issues” but to tell the class what to think about an issue. Ideally, it’s an “issue” already settled–at least in academic circles. Not much chance of anyone in class suggesting that Atticus Finch was wrong, and if anyone does, Teacher will lead the wolf pack.

    I will, however, hold to it hammer and tong that English teachers should encourage a love of reading. High school algebra and geometry may very well be all the math they need. High school reading is not an end point–nor do I believe the effort would be futile 99% of the time with the right material. At the very least, they could stop discouraging reading.

    My observation that it would be hard to avoid Heinlein was based on a comment that:

    Certain works are important because they represent the introduction into the culture at large of a particular set of ideas, images, or tropes without which the culture as we know it would not exist.

    If that’s the criterion, Heinlein’s too important to our understanding of the future to be disregarded. Prior to Heinlein, barring discussion of End Times, whether Christian or Communist, there’s an implicit assumption of a future just like the present (mainstream) or just like the present with rockets (SF). It’s hard to get around Heinlein’s role in painting out that all those wonderful machines were going to change people, politics and society. Almost the only way to avoid admiting early Heinlein’s tremendous importance is to acknowledge a prior claim by Rudyard Kipling for “As Easy as ABC” and a few related stories. EARLY Heinlein, mind. I’m talking about the stories contained in THE PAST THROUGH TOMORROW, all of which were published more than 50 years ago. By the time he wrote STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, 20 years later, those early notions were universally adopted.

    And a correction to an earlier comment. I had referred to Laumer’s “The Last Command” (1967) and Drake’s “The Tank Lords.” The Laumer was correct, and Drake did write a story called “The Tank Lords” but I was thinking of “The Butcher’s Bill” (1974). I expect both stories to outlast a great many I have been assigned.

    As regards Joyce and Dickens, however, while they no doubt have their fans–I never met one who wasn’t an English teacher, but let that go–let’s not exagerate their longevity. Two generation of Joyce before he showed up on the RRL would be two VERY short generations, and I wsa being dragged kicking and screaming through GREAT EXPECTATIONS before Dickens had been dead a hundred years–nor do I believe the experiment began with me.

    Kipling, of course, has effectively been under the ban for around a century. ATLAS SHRUGGED, GONE WITH THE WIND, and THE LORD OF THE RINGS are all past 50 years of sustained critical and academic outrage. Robert E. Howard is starting to come out in critical editions. H.P. Lovecraft is in the Library of America. Would anyone care to look up the authors Edmund Wilson pushed so hard, and see where they stand today?


    30 Mar 09 at 5:17 pm

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