We’re Teaching Books That Don’t Stack Up

Our provost sent this link to English faculty members this morning.

One of my recent juniors was particularly eloquent on the subject. After having sat in my classroom for a year forcefully projecting his boredom, he started an e-mail dialogue with me over the summer. “The reason for studying fiction escapes me,” he wrote. “Why waste time thinking about fabricated situations when there are plenty of real situations that need solutions? Cloning, ozone depletion, and alternate fuels are a few of the countless problems that need to be addressed by the next generation, my generation.”

Okay, you may think, this is a kid geared to excel in history and science, not literature. But read his closing words: “Granted fiction has a place in this world, but it is not in the classroom. It is beside the night lamp next to your bed, the car ride to the beach, the soft glow of a fireplace. Fiction is about spending beautiful days indoors because you can’t wait to get to the next page. Because I like science fiction, my Shakespeare, my Fitzgerald, my Dickinson are Haldeman, Asimov, Herbert. They dare me to think and question my beliefs.”

So there you have it: A smart teen and motivated reader goes to high-school English class and discovers that the classics have nothing to offer him. “The reason I did not participate in class,” he admitted, “was that I found the reading a chore.” — Nancy Schnog, The Washington Post

A person is sitting under a tree, reading a book. The glowing sun is low on the horizon, casting long, lazy shadows.

While I think it’s an important part of a liberal arts education that a student know something about the great, formative stories of his or her nation and/or tongue, I can sympathize with Schnog. Several students in my “History and Future of the Book” course last term reported that school made them fall out of love with reading. And I’m not surprised, when I see how many English majors arrive on campus with the idea that studying a work means memorizing the contents of the Big Dusty Book of Literary Meanings (you know, the one that says blue symbolizes peace, and that if you can match up a detail in the story with a detail from what Wikipedia says about the author’s life, then your job interpreting the text is done).  I realize that high school students generally aren’t ready for college-level critical thinking, but I’m still surprised at how tightly some students cling to the expectation that my job is to tell them what a passage means, and that their job is to memorize what I say and spit it back.

I enjoy teaching “Introduction to Literary Study” and “Writing about Literature” because I’m free to sample different time periods, genres, and geographical zones.  Likewise, I get a lot of flexibility when I teach “Drama as Literature” — I can cover anything that counts as drama.  I always hope that somewhere along the way students will encounter a text that inspires them to dig beneath the surface.