Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

The Arrrggghhhh Factor

with 4 comments

I’m having one of those, you know, moments.

So I’ll just put in a couple of things, and go drink tea.

First, I didn’t say, yesterday, that students are not influenced by what they read.

I said they weren’t being influenced by what they haven’t read.

The rise of modernism in literature may or may not be the cause of all kinds of things, but it isn’t going to cause them in anybody who hasn’t read it.

Yes, Robert is out of date.  The vast majority of college students get through school these days reading no fiction at all.

None.  Zip.  Zero.  Not so much as a single short story or poem.

As for grades 7 to 12, the trend is to go to nonfiction “life stories,” like Into the Void and My Sister’s Keeper, not fiction of any sort, never mind things like Silas Marner or even Catcher in the Rye.

Next time you hear a conflict about something like Catcher, by the way, pay attention to the details–the book was almost always assigned in an “honours” course or “gifted student” program.

Second, yes, I do think that what happens is that what begins in high culture trickles down to more popular forms over time.

But I wasn’t thinking of “stories about depressed women in suburbia” as I was thinking about approaches and techniques.

Stream of consciousness, which was an outrageous inovation when Joyce did it, is now standard throughout popular literature, as is the untrustworthy narrator, which made it from Ford Maddox Ford to Agatha Christie in just about ten years.

Third, yes, it was once the job of universities to introduce young people to ideas–and if you go to Harvard or Duke or Johns Hopkins, that just might happen.

But over two thirds of all college students in the US go to third and fourth tier institutions, and those don’t bother with ideas of any kind if they can help it.

Distribution requirements are thin on the ground, and generally consist of enough “English” courses to make the university feel it’s taught its students how to write, and math through “college algebra,” which is just algebra as we knew it in high school.

There’s no fiction, no philosophy, no political science, very little history–and these colleges don’t usually offer majors in this kind of thing, either.   The “English” courses either offer no fiction and poetry at all, or stick in a single short story and a single poem at the end to teach “the reader response essay.”

These days, the three most likely short stories to be the only ones students read are Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” (where the title character kills her lover and sleeps next to his corpse for twenty years), Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” and Poe’s “The Telltale Heart.”  The poem tends to be something by Robert Frost.

Fourth, I think you can blame English teachers for a lot and get away with it, but I balk at blaming them for Homer Simpson.

Personally, if I had to blame the “there’s nothing I’d be willing to die for” crowd on something or somebody, I’d lean toward the money.

Because although some of us are richer than others, even the poorest of us live better than the middle classes did fifty years ago.  And what look like the people who do not–the homeless on the streets–turn out, on investigation, to be more complicated cases than you’d think.

Sometimes I wonder if human being evolved to live by strife–not warfare but hardship.  I wonder if we’re wired to contend with hardship, and if, when we have nothing to contend with, something goes wrong in our heads.

But I’ve got harpsichords as well as tea, and I’m out of here.

Written by janeh

December 5th, 2010 at 7:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'The Arrrggghhhh Factor'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'The Arrrggghhhh Factor'.

  1. A little context, if you please! From yesterday’s blog:

    “If people these days are affected by narrative at all, they’re affected by the narratives they see on television and in the movies–and what do they get from that? Star Wars. Harry Potter. Lord of the Rings.

    If the key turning out a nation of guys like my six was narrative, we’d be the most responsible, adult, upright nation in the history of the planet.”

    Hence my observation that while these movies–and I threw in Spider-Man–were popular, narratives of adult behavior and responsibility were vastly outnumbered by those portraying Homer Simpson and his ilk. You were not, I think, giving English departments credit for STAR WARS, and I didn’t imply they had a hand in THE SIMPSONS. But if we’re considering the effect of narrative on behavior we must consider the common as well as the exceptional narrative.

    I did observe that twice since WWII English departments and the literary establishment generally have been confronted with large numbers of students reading voluntarily long novels making important points–first ATLAS SHRUGGED and then THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Both times, instead of seizing the chance to teach literary analysis and criticism, the English departments treated the books and authors with contempt. The students who concluded that English Literature as defined in the university had nothing to do with well-written novels on important subjects were doing what we mostly do–working out meaning from usage.

    Like laid-off auto workers, “gypsy” English professors are the victims of bad choices made by their industry. Where we are now was not inevitable.

    Prosperity making life too sweet to risk is a possible. That will take more thought than defending myself against misreadings.


    5 Dec 10 at 9:39 am

  2. I had excellent English teachers in high school 55 years ago, back when we still diagrammed sentences and such stuff, and we read a lot of the “great literature” in those classes. But I also learned that the surest way to insure that I would LOATHE a book was to have to read it for a class.

    I do not remember which year it was that our class section was reading something utterly loathsome and boring, (perhaps it was “Return of the Native”) and the other section was reading “Ivanhoe” and loathing IT. I started reading “Ivanhoe” on my own, and enjoyed it very much. That is when I realized that for me, anyway, it is a VERY bad idea to be forced to read something which might otherwise be enjoyable.

    My mother taught me to read when I was 3, which means that I have been addicted to reading for 70 years now. But darn it, *I* want to choose the book, and be able to read it without the spectre of having to analyze it in some way that will please a teacher hanging over me.

    In college I made darn sure to major in a science (Math), partly because science majors did not have to take English.
    I read a lot, though, for Philosophy, German Literature (in German), History, etc.

    When “Atlas Shrugged” came out in paperback a few years after I had graduated from college, both my husband and I read it through in as close to one sitting as was physically possible. AS was the FIRST book I had ever read that made me realize that I was supposed to be using my brain for something besides getting good grades in school, that THINKING was valuable on its own, that I was allowed to think my own thoughts and form my own opinions.

    Which proves, perhaps, that it is possible to graduate from Swarthmore and still be clueless and almost brain dead!


    5 Dec 10 at 12:58 pm

  3. I would think that the character of a person to take responsibility for themselves or others is formed long before they encounter literature of any description. That’s taught by parental example, and by parents actually allowing children to make decisions, and more importantly, make mistakes in decisions and *take the consequences.*

    That’s awfully thin on the ground these days. I’d say almost the first real choice most kids get to make, independent of parents, is the one to smoke, take drugs, or have sex, along about middle school, when they can finally be out of parental vision for a few hours. They’ve had damn little practice, most of them, having been scheduled into lockstep activities with their peers, during and after school. When kids do screw up (ask any teacher) the parents often do their darndest to eliminate real consequences to the kids. Is it any wonder that when faced with their first decisions, and ones of such potentially life-changing import, they screw up? Some kids are literally never asked what they’d like to do, or left to their own devices to make ANY decisions.

    When my son failed his Spanish class one term through not doing the homework, he went to summer school, even though it was inconvenient for the whole family. Many of his peers had parents who somehow managed to work around that, for reasons of their own. I think the lessons he learned in attending the “loser school” were far more valuable to him than a little make-up Spanish.

    Literature might reinforce parental example and teaching, but it can never replace it. I doubt it can teach duty, responsibility, or compassion in the absence of parental education.


    5 Dec 10 at 2:44 pm

  4. Agree with Lymaree as far as good families go, though “not as much influence” isn’t the same as “no influence.” And some of us don’t have good families–or indeed, much of any family.

    I agree with dottc that being forced to read a book doesn’t improve the experience, and to be dragged back and forth over a book you didn’t want to read in the first place can be downright agonizing. HOWEVER:

    We still need to expose the next generation to literature–and painting, and music and sculpture, but maybe literature most of all. And I’d much rather they read honest fiction than the sort of MEMOIRS OF CHIEF RED COUD “nonfiction” that’s growing all too common.

    I think a lot of the problem is teaching technique. When I started reading “the books ABOUT the books” I was amazed at how much discussion of themes. parallels and construction enhanced my understanding and enjoyment of those books, and sometimes of other books as well. This never happened in class. My teachers kept asking me what the character had for breakfast–presumably to ensure that we’d all read the material–and never got around to why the author should have been describing breakfast at all.

    Though, again, I think the schools miss a bet if assigned fiction doesn’t cover the best of a very broad range of fiction. I still think too many people confuse “literature” with “fiction approved by the English Department” and so miss works which would have entertained and enlightened them. The way to literature is broad, but the gate of school assignments can be shockingly narrow.

    No reason for it. It’s just their policy.


    5 Dec 10 at 7:22 pm

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 737 access attempts in the last 7 days.