Monday, June 11 2007

English Class, Great Books, and American Culture

I was struck by this particular passage in a post by Dan Collins at Protein Wisdom:

“The traditional subject areas have been hijacked to promote fashionable causes such as gender awareness, the environment and anti-racism, while teachers are expected to help to achieve the Government’s social goals instead of imparting a body of academic knowledge to their students,” it says.

It brings to mind a recent mini-furor that erupted when the Fairfax County public library system announced it was reducing the number of books it has shelved and that many of those removed were under classics.  A lot of conservative pundits objected that removing classics from the library was a step on the road of the destruction of American culture, even though it turns out that they're reducing the number books on hand of some of the titles instead of removing particular books entirely, and that they had used an automated formula to pick out books which hadn't been checked out in years.

My question is this:  Why do we study English in school?  Specifically, what is the primary rationale behind the course curricula of high school English?  I know there are a number of reasons English is studied, and that all of them to some degree contribute to the course of study in English classes:
  1. To teach proper grammar and build vocabulary.
  2. To teach students to understand the written word, both factual,  fictional and poetic, and to write and interpret writing for both style and content.
  3. To give students an overview of the history of the written word and history as told through the written word, and to provide them with a basic understanding of classic literature which serves as a common cultural root.
  4. To teach social responsibility and cultural diversity through the written word by exposing students to a diverse body of literature.
  5. To attempt to teach students to enjoy reading for its own sake, and to foster a love of reading.
Number one is primarily accomplished in elementary school, although many high school students could use a refresher.  (Heck, I could use a refresher on proper plurals and possessives.)  Number two is technical in nature, and can be addressed by just about any choice of reading material.

Number three, the use of literature to establish a common cultural root, is the "body of academic knowledge" referred to by the quote at top.  Although the speaker was referring to all academic disciplines, English allows much more leeway for social engineering than, say, math or science.  Likewise, number four is the "government's social goals" alluded to in the quote.  Most high school English classes seem to choose works based on some combination of numbers three and four.

Books chosen to satisfy the demands of social multiculturalism (number four) were always my biggest problem in class.  They were often incredibly boring, often because they were chosen by a panel of adult English teachers, most female, to satisfy the goals and interests of adult English teachers.  For a male high school student, even one that loves reading, they satisfy nothing.  Slowing them down to attempt to both address the need to technically understand the written word by learning about the writer's use of stylistic elements (reason number two) and to keep all the class at the same point made them more unbearable.

Books chosen for historical context were sometimes marginally better.  We studied Shakespeare because a lot of later works make reference to his works, and it helps to properly understand the context of the original.  References to Hamlet, MacBeth, and Romeo and Juliet pop up everywhere.  But a lot of the old classics have lost their cultural relativity as time has passed.  A lot of modern culture relies on books not covered in high school English.  Most high school students that care about reading or would benefit from knowledge of the classics would learn more from Lord of the Rings than The Great Gatsby or The Old Man and the Sea.

The question is:  what literature is still culturally relevant today?  If you had to do a short list of what English students need to read to get American culture, what would be on it?

My list is as follows: The Illiad, The Odyssey, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, MacBeth, Dracula, Frankenstein, 1984, Animal Farm, the Time Machine.  Ideally, the list should include at least one of Bradbury's or Asimov's works, plus a Sherlock Holmes story (Hound of the Baskervilles, perhaps?).  There are a couple of real classics that would remain second string, such as A Tale of Two Cities, which while I found them to be boring, do serve a useful purpose.  About the only poetry on the list is Edgar Allen Poe's the Raven.

You'll notice no further mention of Goal Number Five.  That's because, paradoxically, the more effort you put into forcing people to read, the less likely they will be to read for fun.

Posted by: Civilis at 09: 09 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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