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January 17, 2014 6:57 AM   Subscribe

Why We Should Stop Teaching Novels To High School Students (Natasha Vargas-Cooper for Bookforum)
posted by box (160 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Have teenagers read stories containing themes and concepts they might relate to well, taught by teachers who understand those stories: great idea.

Stop teaching fiction entirely because of the personal and idiosyncratic tastes of Natasha Vargas-Cooper: very bad idea.
posted by kyrademon at 7:05 AM on January 17 [51 favorites]


The whole thing about teaching the New Journalism (e.g. Capote, Mailer) instead is kind of hillarious.

Capote's whole project was to employ the technique of the novel to tell true stories. If he was at all succesful in this and if Vargas-Cooper is write about the incomprehensibility of the novel to teenagers (which she's not), Capote's book should be just as incomprehensible.
posted by Jahaza at 7:11 AM on January 17 [6 favorites]


Maybe not teach so many novels that depend on some appreciation of post-adolescence to understand. But Tale of Two Cities? The Red Pony? The Lord of the Rings? Why not?
posted by ubiquity at 7:12 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


I agree that novels are not taught well in high school. I too remember those terrible reading comprehension questions that drained all the joy out of literature. But I think one of the best things about reading a book when you're too young to understand it is actually the second time you read it, when you're older. Wow! So much has changed! This is a completely different book than the one I read at 16!

No, the book is the same. It is you who have changed. And now you are really embarrassed by your marginalia.
posted by lollymccatburglar at 7:12 AM on January 17 [16 favorites]


I actually did read a number of the things on her recommended list in highschool English (chalk it up to a good teacher, I guess), and I agree that non-fiction can and should be a part of adolescent development. And I think she makes decent points about some of the books that are considered canon -- for me, reading the entirety of Dubliners for months in highschool will always top my loathe list. That being said, fiction is a broad, broad field and maybe the issue is just selecting more appropriate books.

(On preview, I loved Tale of Two Cities then, and I love it now.)
posted by likeatoaster at 7:13 AM on January 17 [2 favorites]


By this logic, then high school kids should read Spiderman comics.

And we shouldn't bother teaching about World War II in history class, because the teenage brain can bot process the difficulty and magnitude of soldiers trying to fight their way up Omaha Beach.
posted by Flood at 7:14 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


"Stop teaching fiction entirely because of the personal and idiosyncratic tastes of Natasha Vargas-Cooper: very bad idea."

Yeah, and also I have little faith that she and many of her peers wouldn't have the same sort of problems with the nonfiction than they did with the novels. Her error is that she's picking out the non-fiction books she voluntarily read as a teen, where she had turned to non-fiction because her experience with novels forced on her was unpleasant.

Well, I had a similar experience. I was an avid reader, but most of my high school teachers could have made straight porn uninteresting to teenage boys and so most (but not all) of what I was forced to read in high school I, too, found boring and occasionally hated. But I read hundreds of other novels on my own in high school, does that mean that those are what should have been taught? Of course not, I probably would have hated them, too.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:15 AM on January 17 [4 favorites]


Great title and interesting subject, but a more correct one would be

Why We Should Stop Teaching Novels To High School Students, Except This List of Novels I Like
posted by melissam at 7:16 AM on January 17 [16 favorites]


I half-agree with this. I went to a good public high school with excellent, engaging English teachers, but all of the books we read were either Shakespeare, about the Holocaust, about slavery, some dude comes of age, and/or over a hundred years old. I don't have a problem with any of those categories, but would it have hurt anyone to throw in something more relevant to modern teenagers? Or read some nonfiction and talk about its literary merits? I don't think it would have actually hurt anyone.
posted by troika at 7:17 AM on January 17 [7 favorites]


Uninspired instruction can suck the joy from novels in general but there's no excuse for not liking Jane Eyre.

No comment if you also like Wuthering Heights.
posted by fiercekitten at 7:19 AM on January 17 [7 favorites]


Surely Tumblr provides all the reading our childrens need?
posted by blue_beetle at 7:22 AM on January 17 [5 favorites]


She lost me at "treacherous precipice of thirty". Phone me back when you're looking down at 50, babe.
posted by scolbath at 7:22 AM on January 17 [24 favorites]


Yet when I finally read In Cold Blood, Into Thin Air, the works of Hunter S. Thompson and Joan Didion, I continually pleaded aloud to my friends in their twenties, “Why didn’t anyone make me read this in high school?!”

I took Crime and Punishment my senior year in high school, a lit class that fulfilled the requirement. We actually did read In Cold Blood. I'm not sure I would have benefited if I had discovered Hunter S. Thompson in a high school lit class. I think it would be better suited to college level classes, if it's to be taught at all. I loved reading it at the age of 19, because it felt like a subversive act.

I kind of get her point. But it sounds to me more like an argument to go back to some of these works later in life to see what has changed in your understanding. Not grasping the subtleties of literature is part of being young, including books which speak to the age of the reader.
posted by krinklyfig at 7:23 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


The thing I hated was the way they taught poetry, like poems were little puzzles that would yield a "meaning".
posted by thelonius at 7:24 AM on January 17 [27 favorites]


I loved Crime and Punishment, although I read it my senior year, when I really got what was going on in literature. I still haven't read anything more than the Cliff Notes version of A Tale of Two Cities, which I was assigned to in ninth grade.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:24 AM on January 17


I struggle so much with a belief that people are getting dumber--not necessarily dumber but unable to grapple with "big books" like Moby-Dick or The Brothers Karamazov or, hell, even old cliché War and Peace. We're replacing them with stuff that is, ultimately, non-fiction about ourselves. About our world, our time, us. Everything is about us. "I can relate to it" is a cop-out. If it's a great work of fiction, you'll relate to it by the time you get into it. But you have to be able to read about something that isn't about you.

Not sure where I'm going with this. But as a writer of fiction, with lofty goals for what I want to achieve with my art, it makes me sad.
posted by epilnivek at 7:25 AM on January 17 [19 favorites]


Honestly, a problem with teaching novels is simply that not everyone likes the same novels and students can't choose. You'd never expect a random group of 25 adults to like the same book, but we essentially expect that of HS students.

Also, a lot of students just don't read very fluently, and reading any extended work is awful for them, the more so the more the book diverges from the English with which they're familiar. In that respect, it would make sense to have many students read New Journalism-style pieces to build fluency and general cultural knowledge, but for students who already read a lot that's going to be a waste of time. If anything, I wasn't challenged enough by my HS English classes, and I was in a fairly good honors program.

I wonder if a way to do this would be to have mixed-difficulty but themed classes and allow students to choose. You'd need to do it right, so that all classes had a good mix of women authors and authors of color rather than just segregating them as a "theme" - but you could offer something like "Dreams, the Fantastic and Science Fiction" or "Writing About Living In The City" or "Crime and Punishment" and organize your readings so that students built fluency. You could even stage things so that in freshman year, you focus on extended reading so you assign mostly long journalism pieces and a long but simply written novel or memoir (this would have bored the socks off me, but presumably there'd be an alternative) and then build up so that by senior year people can read extended and more challenging books.
posted by Frowner at 7:25 AM on January 17 [20 favorites]


I don't even understand the premise, here. Teenagers can't relate to Hemingway, but can relate to Capote? I would have ignored the boring non-fiction in high school just like I ignored the boring fiction. (I gleefully read Catch-22 and Nineteen Eighty-Four but The Scarlet Letter? Last of the Mohicans? Christ on a crutch.)
posted by uncleozzy at 7:25 AM on January 17 [2 favorites]


The books I hated most in school were those that were supposed to be relevant to my life. S. E. Hinton how I hated you.
posted by interplanetjanet at 7:28 AM on January 17 [10 favorites]


I'm pleased to see the responses here.
With regards to the critique of The Sun Also Rises itself, I think part of this also comes from the infantilization of adolescents in many schools. Jake's injury is a very important aspect of that book and Hemingway's perspective, and is utterly worthy of discussion; an essential topic, probably, if you choose to teach that book.
Then again, my high school was really pro-literature (and writing in general) and, despite being religious and very conservative, they even taught us some of Chaucer's racier bits.
posted by staccato signals of constant information at 7:29 AM on January 17 [2 favorites]


"I don't have a problem with any of those categories, but would it have hurt anyone to throw in something more relevant to modern teenagers? Or read some nonfiction and talk about its literary merits? I don't think it would have actually hurt anyone."

I think there's a disconnect between what educators who collective decide what is, practically speaking, the American high-school literary canon and what most of these actual teenagers are equipped to productively read.

It's not that most teens aren't capable of really getting Shakespeare, and with the right teacher, all teens can get a great deal from Shakespeare.

The problem is that the works typically selected exist within a literary cultural context while, in contrast, a very large portion of these students, perhaps the majority, have read probably less than five adult books on their own.

Reading is, first and foremost, an enjoyable activity. Like watching a play or a film or listening to music. But to enjoy it, you need the cultural tools to interpret it. This sounds like an argument for jumping right into literary works in adolescent education right away. But reading itself, reading any long-form whether it be fiction or non-fiction, is a practiced activity, it's an acquired skill, you need to be comfortable reading and thinking about what you read, to lose yourself in it, before you can then acquire the tools you need to appreciate particular, and often more difficult, kinds of works.

In other words, teens should be given books to read that they want to read, that they enjoy reading, without regard to the literary sensibilities of educators. The books don't need to be serious, or have important themes, or be layered and amenable to deep analysis. They should be books that can acclimatize teens to the activity of reading books.

More than that, it should acclimatize them to reading books and thinking about books and talking about books. All you have to do is go to any fan site for a television show, or forums about other kinds of works, and you'll find teens enthusiastically discussing in great detail characters and stories and messages and what it means that something's "good". Kids want to talk about stuff like this, they do it all the time about the media they choose to consume. If you give them books to read that they really will want to read, and at a young enough age, they will learn to be comfortable with the activity of reading and the activity of talking about reading.

Then you can slowly work them into different kinds of literary expression, into the kinds of books that educators think that teens should be reading in school. Only when they've acquired the habits of reading a lot of fiction are they going to be able to develop the habits of reading literary fiction.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:31 AM on January 17 [13 favorites]


Also, I hated everything we read that was "relevant to modern teenagers". "Modern teenagers" are a diverse crowd, and I was way happier with Jane Eyre, Oscar Wilde, sixties essays and the WWI poets than the "relatable" stuff. Which isn't to say that no one should assign "modern teenager" books, but rather that kids should have some choices.

Also, representation is important. If you're going to get to the point of being able to read and enjoy Big Difficult Books Not About People Like You, you very often (but not always!) need to feel welcome and represented in literature, and a lot of kids don't. But representation is tricky - you can't just be like, "Here is a book about a black teen, students of color!" Some people are going to feel "represented" by science fiction novels or folklore or just something you'd never, ever expect.

I honestly think that boosting fluency, access and comfort at an early age would solve a LOT of the problems with teaching literature, and that mere tinkering - while it is going to have some astonishing successes in individual cases - isn't going to make a mass change. Kids who hate to read because it's hard or because they have never had a "wow, I LOVE this book" experience just aren't going to dig literature class.
posted by Frowner at 7:32 AM on January 17 [6 favorites]


We read Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, and A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin, in my freshman English class. So ... I think my high school novel experience is somewhat different from that of most people. I mean, we also read A Separate Peace and To Kill a Mockingbird that year, but still. Reading LeGuin for class was awesome for a teenager who loved nothing more than soaking in fantasy fiction. So I think there's something to be said for balance and taste.

(Of course, I also liked Steinbeck and Fitzgerald and Orwell, so there was that.)
posted by graymouser at 7:35 AM on January 17 [2 favorites]


uncleozzy: I hated Hawthorne in high school, too, but I love him now. I hated James Fenimore Cooper almost as much as Mark Twain did.

Others that just didn't work for me then: I hated Pride and Prejudice so much that I threw my copy on top of the roof of the school building immediately after taking the test over the book. Still hate that Jane Austen, too.
posted by epilnivek at 7:36 AM on January 17


With regards to the critique of The Sun Also Rises itself, I think part of this also comes from the infantilization of adolescents in many schools. Jake's injury is a very important aspect of that book and Hemingway's perspective, and is utterly worthy of discussion; an essential topic, probably, if you choose to teach that book.

Yeah, and picture how many parents would get insanely freaked out if a teacher was like "a central problem of this book is that the guy is impotent due to a war injury". The kids would probably be like "ew gross don't talk about sex Old Person" but ultimately it would open up the conversation.

You could also do a really good semester or year themed around war. Jesus god, you could include so much that was interesting, challenging, motivating, accessible - and you could frame the classics so that they made sense. Kids could look at WWI poetry in a context with other stuff and I bet a lot of them would be kind of interested (or very interested!) because it would fit with a body of knowledge that they were building for themselves.
posted by Frowner at 7:37 AM on January 17


Honestly, a problem with teaching novels is simply that not everyone likes the same novels and students can't choose. You'd never expect a random group of 25 adults to like the same book, but we essentially expect that of HS students.

We don't expect them to like these books, necessarily; "enjoy" is not a reasonable or useful objective or skill. There's plenty of value in reading books you don't like, too, so you can learn discernment and articulate why you don't like a book and even learn that it's okay not to like a "classic" book and that your opinion is valid even if it flies in the face of the opinions of the literary establishment.

I think it's great when students like books and obviously you should strive to provide a variety of books to appeal to a variety of tastes, but assuming the goal is to have students like or enjoy every novel they read kind of misses the point. It's great to have common points of literary reference but, more than that, explaining your issues with a book you've had to read for class instead of just saying "I don't like it" is hugely valuable.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 7:41 AM on January 17 [14 favorites]


Frowner, I totally agree. I should probably have rephrased my comment as more of a cultural comment than one particular to individual schools. In general, I just don't think we give teenagers enough credit when it comes to treating complex issues in a mature way.
(Then again, there is no question I have some serious biases, having come up through a privileged and challenging education)
posted by staccato signals of constant information at 7:42 AM on January 17


How much easier it would have been! The stakes, so high and clear: A group of people set out to climb Mount Everest. There is no metaphor to untangle! The mountain is, like, a big fucking deal on its own. People die on it. Will people die on this expedition? Probably! Tell us more, Jon Krakauer!

Metaphors are hard, man! Don't waste time trying teach about metaphors to teenagers!

Or something? I don't actually know what she's trying to say, here. Nonfiction can also be jammed with metaphors, so I guess not all metaphors are bad? Nonfiction can also be chosen and taught poorly, so I guess not all nonfiction is good?

I'm grateful to most of my high school English teachers, and to the school-within-a-school program I was in, where we designed a lot of our own classes and chose the books and themes we read. My mom was afraid I'd be forced to read Silas Marner and would hate literature forever. She was relieved when I started bringing home Gogol and Garcia Marquez and the like. I was, too.
posted by rtha at 7:43 AM on January 17 [2 favorites]


I remember being vastly amused at that age by how many reading assignments seemed to either directly reflect, or to be plausible metaphors for, the romantic and life-experience disappointments of middle-aged males in somewhat-underpaid professions that were less rewarding than they'd expected.

Calling one of my teachers Mr. Prufrock was probably not a good idea, though.
posted by CHoldredge at 7:43 AM on January 17 [18 favorites]


"enjoy" is not a reasonable or useful objective or skill

That sounds like my school days for sure.
posted by colie at 7:43 AM on January 17 [7 favorites]


You could also do a really good semester or year themed around war. Jesus god, you could include so much that was interesting, challenging, motivating, accessible - and you could frame the classics so that they made sense. Kids could look at WWI poetry in a context with other stuff and I bet a lot of them would be kind of interested (or very interested!) because it would fit with a body of knowledge that they were building for themselves.

A lot of schools do this. I know that educational expectations and the quality of teaching varies wildly, but these ideas are in fact present and, if you are studying education now, this is exactly the kind of thing you are taught and encouraged to do.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 7:44 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]


I suspect the main issue schools don't teach more modern texts is that, in general, those books contain passages that some parent somewhere (and student, frankly) is going to absolutely freak-out over. And, the last thing a school system wants is to be dragged onto the local ActionNews to defend the teaching of "objectionable" literature. So, they keep trotting-out the time-tested books.

Occasionally, you get a school that manages to get something more contemporary past the vigilantes, but, by-and-large, schools want to minimize the headaches.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:44 AM on January 17 [4 favorites]


I'm fairly certain we read In Cold Blood in high school. In the 1980s. But yes, it's hard to find books everybody will relate too.

And honestly I still don't like books that are about people with lives similar to mine. I like to read about things that are different. I live my life every day, I don't need to read a book about it.
posted by interplanetjanet at 7:50 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]


It sounds like they read the WRONG novels.

We read The Chrysalids (teens, sex & rebellion), The Diviners (teens, sex and angst), and - at my request late in high school - Zamiatin's We and 1984, so that's oppression, rebellion and (in We) poetic anarchy. Teen-jb could totally relate, and still read some damn fine literature.
posted by jb at 7:58 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


Why we should stop trying to force mefites to read the article
posted by memebake at 7:59 AM on January 17 [5 favorites]


would it have hurt anyone to throw in something more relevant to modern teenagers?

Part of the problem, I think, is how hard it is for adults to determine what is relevant to teenagers and how hard it is for teenagers to determine what what is (and will be) relevant to them. Trying to do this is a definition of teaching and learning. Part of the usefulness of reading and teaching novels (beyond the function of learning language and prose style and rhetoric) is in the opportunity to model "relevance" on a bigger scale than the when- and/or wherever the student and teacher are.
posted by octobersurprise at 8:00 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]


I agree with some of the author's points but disagree with her conclusion. In that, I think my take on this was well articulated by kyrademon.

I definitely had books assigned to me in junior high and high school that I and I assume many of my classmates were just not emotionally or intellectually mature enough to have any sort of meaningful interaction with at the time. The experience was not unlike taking Calculus before having a basic grasp of Algebra. I was assigned Jane Eyre twice in my academic career - once in 8th grade and then again as a college senior as part of my English major curriculum. Not surprisingly, the second experience was infinitely more fulfilling compared to the first which was a total slog. The first time wasn't just challenging, which I suppose is a decent academic goal, but totally meaningless.

I also agree with the point that there are some books where you simply need to be in a particular place in your life to fully appreciate, and frequently that time is not high school. I don't know that I will ever have a literary experience as purely affecting as when I read Great Expectations well into my 30s, when I could empathize with the journey Pip goes through in the novel in a way I just would have never been able to had it been assigned to me as a high school sophomore.

All of this seems like a great argument for reevaluating the traditional high school canon, not going full scorched earth.
posted by The Gooch at 8:01 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


I suspect the main issue schools don't teach more modern texts is that, in general, those books contain passages that some parent somewhere (and student, frankly) is going to absolutely freak-out over. And, the last thing a school system wants is to be dragged onto the local ActionNews to defend the teaching of "objectionable" literature. So, they keep trotting-out the time-tested books.

I think this, combined with a countervailing desire to have more representation for female authors/themes is why my high school English class took refuge in 19th century books with feminist themes so often. We still had a girl freak out because she thought The Awakening was teaching us all to be bad mothers and wives.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:02 AM on January 17


FWIW, I taught a novels class to a couple grades of middle school students, and had the freedom to select the books myself. I did my best to offer a variety of genres, and expected that none of my students would enjoy everything we read as a class, but hoped that they'd all find at least one in the lot they'd like enough to read on their own. I made a point of telling them this, and I think it helped keep the "if you don't like this book, you are a failure at reading" stuff at bay.

It being middle school, I was a lot more concerned with developing an appreciation for literature than with making sure they got any particular point of symbolism out of a book. Discussions were as book-club-style as I could manage, and the only real rule was no spoilers from anyone who'd read ahead. Good times. I was a genuinely terrible teacher, but I still feel OK about that part of the job.
posted by asperity at 8:04 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]



I think it's great when students like books and obviously you should strive to provide a variety of books to appeal to a variety of tastes, but assuming the goal is to have students like or enjoy every novel they read kind of misses the point. It's great to have common points of literary reference but, more than that, explaining your issues with a book you've had to read for class instead of just saying "I don't like it" is hugely valuable.


The thing is, when I have taught reading-based stuff to teenagers, "I didn't enjoy it so I didn't do it or I did the minimum" was pretty much the norm. I assume that this varies by student population - if you have a bunch of kids who expect to go to college and are worried about grades, I imagine they'll at least give stuff a shot. But the kids I was working with did not expect to go to college, didn't care much about grades and didn't want to do work they didn't enjoy. I felt at the time that it was more important to get them to associate reading with pleasure precisely so that they could become capable/motivated to read books with less obvious "enjoyable" qualities later.

But then, I reflect that I never read novels that I don't enjoy now as an adult. I read some novels that are depressing or difficult, but overall, I do enjoy the process of reading and thinking about them.
posted by Frowner at 8:04 AM on January 17 [5 favorites]


I live my life every day, I don't need to read a book about it.

Yeah, but we're the kind of people that will debate this kind of thing on Metafilter. I'm thinking about the kids for whom reading is an absolute slog. So why not throw a little John Green on the reading list. The advanced readers will zip right through/have already read it, and and it'll surely seem more interesting to the kids at the other end of the spectrum.
posted by troika at 8:05 AM on January 17


Not all teens will like the same books. But I think they have a greater chance of relating if the characters are at least going through the same sorts of things as they are.

Understanding and relating to middle-aged ennui/despair isn't natural for most teens. Angst and rebellion are.
posted by jb at 8:05 AM on January 17 [4 favorites]


When I took high school English we never had to read a complete novel. The teachers recommended novels for recreation and whenever somebody brought one up they gave the most enthusiastic encouragement, but there were zero chunks of assigned reading in excess of a couple dozen pages. There were assigned short stories by Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Steinbeck and so the more ambitious students read their novels with no pressure. It is sad when a student says that they hate Dickens, who is a fantastic author for young people, and they always have ever since their teacher when they were 16 made them plod through A Tale of Two Cities.

When I was in middle school our teacher made us plod through A Tale of Two Cities. That sucked.
posted by bukvich at 8:07 AM on January 17


The only good reason to stop teaching novels in middle and high school is that if they then seem passé or even somewhat taboo, kids will read like crazy.
posted by digitalprimate at 8:08 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


Read the article! I just read the first sentence of every paragraph. Just like I did with S. E. Hinton. I'm sorry S.E. I should give you another try.
posted by interplanetjanet at 8:09 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]


We don't expect them to like these books, necessarily; "enjoy" is not a reasonable or useful objective or skill. There's plenty of value in reading books you don't like, too...

I dunno. Why read novels if not for enjoyment? I see no value in reading books I don't like. Why should I want my kid to have to do that?
posted by lyssabee at 8:10 AM on January 17 [9 favorites]


You could also do a really good semester or year themed around war.

We did this my senior year of high school! Mainly World War I poetry, with some novels and videos and research thrown in. Extremely great class. A++++ would take again. I still get chills around DULCE ET DECORUM EST and I still love Robert Graves. I did a seminar on classics and war in college too and that was even more mind-bending and phenomenal. (I will say that it was an opt-in class and pretty graphic so probably works better in smaller classes.)
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:10 AM on January 17


My English Literature lessons ignited a love of novels.

My English Literature degree snuffed it out.
posted by dumdidumdum at 8:13 AM on January 17 [5 favorites]


"that I understood that Jake’s dick didn’t work. The word “impotence” never shows up in the book, and in my teenage mind it didn’t pose a huge problem between him and Lady Brett."

Sorry you had a shitty teacher. My American lit teacher spelled it out pretty explicitly for us and that was in catholic high school, 30 years ago. I loved TSAR and easily understood Lady Brett's dilemma, even though I was young and stupid. Teachers matter.
posted by toodleydoodley at 8:14 AM on January 17 [6 favorites]


I dunno. Why read novels if not for enjoyment? I see no value in reading books I don't like. Why should I want my kid to have to do that?

Because we trust that you as an adult who has (presumably) already completed school are capable of articulating disagreement and have the background to figure out what you do and don't want to read. I didn't really like Romeo and Juliet but I couldn't explain why, and I wouldn't have known I disliked it if I hadn't read it. Conversely, we read A Prayer for Owen Meany in high school which I LOVED, and I never would have known that if I hadn't had to read it. Other kids in my class didn't like it. That'll happen, and we could discuss why which was beneficial to all of us.

We ask kids to do a lot of stuff that they don't like. We also ask adults to do a lot of stuff that they don't like. It's part of learning and it's part of life. Yes, I think learning should be enjoyable where possible, and I also think learning is great and awesome and cool, but that doesn't mean it's always easy and it doesn't mean it's always fun. Getting a good education is really hard.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:17 AM on January 17 [11 favorites]


Teachers matter.

That's sortof the point of the article. That teaching novels well takes more time/effort than most teachers have these days, and the alternative - teaching them badly - is counterproductive.
posted by memebake at 8:17 AM on January 17


No, the book is the same. It is you who have changed. And now you are really embarrassed by your marginalia.

As should be anyone that writes in a book. Or "hi-lites." Or, heaven forfend, dog-ears the pages. Fie upon thee! That's why God made notebooks and pencils.
posted by Celsius1414 at 8:17 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


"I didn't enjoy it so I didn't do it or I did the minimum" was pretty much the norm. I assume that this varies by student population - if you have a bunch of kids who expect to go to college and are worried about grades, I imagine they'll at least give stuff a shot

I don't know. I was always a smart kid and probably expected to go to college, but ... I didn't read most of the junk that was assigned. They assigned us The Joy Luck Club in 9th grade. Ask a fourteen-year-old boy to read that. Go ahead. See how many pages he reads, I don't care who he is. (The answer is "fewer than ten.")
posted by uncleozzy at 8:18 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


My daughter is a Freshman, an this year they read To Kill a Mockingbird and Romeo & Juliet. She didn't really love either of them, but her teacher required a "project" for each, and these were my daughter's way to access the stories and themes. I read through each project' raw text (before she made it into a fake journal or family tree scrapbook thing), and I could tell that she got more from TKaM.

This is significant to me because for TKaM they just read the book and discussed it, which is safe but fine. But for R&J, they only read excerpts and then watched the Baz Luhrman movie. Excerpts? Heck, the language is the best thing! Me being me, I declaimed a bunch of passages from memory and read more from the book whenever I saw it out. (She took to hiding it under a shrub, I think.)

And so even when a teenager is shown a movie of other teenagers flouting their parents to explore romantic love, delivering that material the wrong way -- i.e., in disjoint sections -- can suck the life out of it. *sigh*
posted by wenestvedt at 8:20 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


You could also do a really good semester or year themed around war. // We did this my senior year of high school!

Me too! But not war. My senior year we had a half-year themed course, Honors Seminar in Humanities, taught by a pair of history and English teachers. The theme changed every year, my year it was "The City and the Suburbs." It was a great class, we'd read a lot of fiction/non-fiction on the English half and discuss the actual history on the history half. It was the class I got the most out of, by far. It's a pity that it wasn't every year (though it was a lot of extra work for the teachers, so I understand).
posted by troika at 8:23 AM on January 17


"We don't expect them to like these books, necessarily; 'enjoy' is not a reasonable or useful objective or skill. There's plenty of value in reading books you don't like, too..."

The vast majority of adults I know have never learned this with regard to any form of art; I think it's extremely revealing that this attitude is being forced down children's throats. Maybe the two things are connected.

That fact is, expanding what it means to "enjoy" art is an advanced aesthetic achievement. You get there slowly, through gently prodding the limits of what's enjoyable, through finding pleasure in thinking and talking about works that are not primarily "enjoyable" in some immediately visceral respect, through discovering pleasure in having found yourself in territory that was at first unpleasurable. Over time, your interaction with art changes, you learn that what it can do that is good and, yes, enjoyable is extremely varied and multilayered.

You learn this by exploration. You don't learn this by being force-fed and told that enjoyment is not the point. Because, ultimately, enjoyment is always the point. It's just that enjoyment can, and should, come to mean many very different and subtle things.

If you're telling teens that enjoyment isn't the point, you're both wrong and you've made a good start on permanently stunting their aesthetics with the aim of doing the opposite.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 8:23 AM on January 17 [11 favorites]


I don't know. I was always a smart kid and probably expected to go to college, but ... I didn't read most of the junk that was assigned. They assigned us The Joy Luck Club in 9th grade. Ask a fourteen-year-old boy to read that. Go ahead. See how many pages he reads, I don't care who he is. (The answer is "fewer than ten.")

Almost makes me want to tally up the number of novels we read with female vs male protagonists in high school. I actually think The Joy Luck Club is a great, accessible novel about the relationships between mothers and children Sure, it's girly, but what relevance did A Farewell to Arms have to my life?

(The way Hemingway treated Catherine appalled me even then.)

I'm with lyssabee. It took me slogging through Ulysses in graduate school to feel I'd finally earned the right to read what I want, and to stop reading things that bored me. What a revelation. The eras of compulsory reading always correlate with the lowest levels of casual reading for me; I'm a reader when I can engage with whatever thrills me, and not when I can't. These days, I read mostly middle grade novels. I still read more (and in a more engaged way) than many people I know.

The question is: is the goal of high school English to promote lifelong literacy? Or is it something else?
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:24 AM on January 17 [6 favorites]


In High School, we read Important Novels. And that isn't a good criteria for making a young teenager slog through a load of text -- it's importance in the historical sense doesn't make it a good read. I remember discovering in a locked cupboard a hoard of fantasy novels -- Forgotten Beasts of Eld, by Patricia McKillip -- and asking the teacher why we weren't reading this instead. Her answer was revealing "Oh, that's just something fun to read we used to use to encourage reading for classes of students who wouldn't otherwise read." Considering most of my classmates were just reading the cliff notes or skimming the Jane Austin selections and other boring reads she had selected, I question her selection criteria. Of course, SF&F has always been a literary ghetto, even if people actually read it to enjoy instead of trying to absorb it's historical significance.
posted by Blackanvil at 8:24 AM on January 17 [4 favorites]


One change I'd make: teach the novels in reverse chronological order.

Two advantages: you acclimate the students by slow degrees to past modes of thought and expression, and you shake up, rather than enforce, the teleological assumption that teens tend to bring to class--the idea that written later necessarily equals written better.
posted by Iridic at 8:30 AM on January 17 [7 favorites]


There's also the oft-forgotten point that some of the point of middle/high school literature classes is to teach kids how to read and understand literature, beyond simply rolling through the words.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:37 AM on January 17


Fast Food Nation and Into the Wild and other narrative nonfiction books do get assigned in high school - my library can never keep enough copies of Into the Wild on the shelves when it's reading assignment time. And I expect we'll see even more of a trend towards that because of the Common Core standards.

Like the author of the article, I read a bunch of stuff in high school that I didn't have the life experience to understand. But I think there's an urgency borne of the fact that teachers know that some of these students will never read a novel again if they can help it, or at any rate not one written before 1950. High school is your only chance to get these folks reading Dickens or Steinbeck or Hemingway.

I really want there to be more freely chosen reading in high school, and students who have fluency issues in particular should be reading something they'll get something from instead of reading the Scarlet Letter Cliff Notes. But when a quarter of Americans don't read a single book in a given year, of course teachers are going to try to cram as much as possible of the treasures of literature into those four years.
posted by Jeanne at 8:42 AM on January 17 [2 favorites]


Now that I think about it, how to skim through boring text and pull out the important bits is a useful skill. I use it all the time at work.
posted by interplanetjanet at 8:42 AM on January 17


Other things "not relevant" to teenagers: Chemistry, American History, Trigonometry, Music History, German, Latin, Earth Science, Calculus, ...
posted by straight at 8:46 AM on January 17 [13 favorites]


The question is: is the goal of high school English to promote lifelong literacy? Or is it something else?

That should really be the goal of third grade English.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:47 AM on January 17 [6 favorites]


There's also the oft-forgotten point that some of the point of middle/high school literature classes is to teach kids how to read and understand literature, beyond simply rolling through the words.

One of the things I've always found odd about modern schooling is the artificial separation we teach between kinds of narratives. Just like how we rarely teach kids to look at music the way we do poetry, or vice versa, there's no reason that "important" works of written fiction "necessarily" need to be the ones that students use their fledgling analytic skills on. We can teach metaphor and theme through movies or television just as easily--can teach kids to be more astute consumers of stories rather than just passive observers--without also dealing with, say, difficulties of historical reference or relevance or the very fact that many children and adults find reading in and of itself a difficult act. Of course, that involves allowing them to wallow in low culture a bit, and most parents don't like the sound of that. Even if most parents aren't exactly consuming massive amounts of high culture artifacts in any given year, themselves, much less reading those books very deeply.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:48 AM on January 17 [2 favorites]



Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion

Cool, she wants this taught in high school? I mean, she might have a problem with the scene where a 5 year old kid is tripping on LSD, in terms of getting it through the parents. But I'm cool with the intent.

But otherwise I disagree without just about everything in the FPP.
posted by angrycat at 8:49 AM on January 17


Of course, SF&F has always been a literary ghetto, even if people actually read it to enjoy instead of trying to absorb it's historical significance.

You can fool your teachers by getting them to assign early 20th century Russian SF&F. Or SF by authors who made their names in literary fiction/non-fiction. One time, we even read some 16th century SF&F (More's Utopia).

Not that there aren't some literary gems hiding out on the regular SF&F shelves - Ray Bradbury is totally legit, even to the genre-haters, and Fahrenheit 451 is a great piece for teaching simile, metaphor and imagery. Octavia Butler's Kindred is stunning, and would make for a powerful classroom discussion of race and the history of slavery.

I've had people tell me that teens don't understand metaphor; one friend (who now has an excellent sense of metaphor) swears that he lost his understanding for a time as a teen. But I remember being very appreciative of metaphor throughout my teens - everything I wrote was heavily packed with similes and metaphors (perhaps overly so). But maybe that was because I read lots of fantasy in which images can be both literal and metaphorical at the same time (eg Eustace turning into a dragon in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader).
posted by jb at 8:52 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


We read Joan Didion in high school, and I hated it. Conversely, we read Les Misérables, and I loved it.

In conclusion, teenage minds are a land of contrasts.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:53 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]


I enquire now as to the genesis of a philologist and assert the following:
1. A young man cannot possibly know what Greeks and Romans are.
2. He does not know whether he is suited for finding out about them.
— Friedrich Nietzsche, Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen
posted by Pater Aletheias at 9:01 AM on January 17 [2 favorites]


I think this article makes a strong point, that forcing high school kids to read books they can't relate to is actively harmful. I hope that a high school English curriculum is diverse enough that every student gets a couple of books they do like. (I mean, I hated Pride & Prejudice in senior English, but then we got to read Hamlet so it was OK).

My nephew read In Cold Blood just this year in junior English, and mentioned it to me. I think he found it interesting and disturbing. So then I read it and I found it interesting and disturbing and thought it was a good choice for a high school class. Also pleased that his teacher went into Capote's own relationship with the subjects and all the gay subtext, and he understood all that. It's an interesting book as a postmodern narrative as well as being an interesting story about a gruesome murder. Good stuff all around.

Serious question: why do schools not teach Harry Potter in high school English?
posted by Nelson at 9:09 AM on January 17 [2 favorites]


But I think there's an urgency borne of the fact that teachers know that some of these students will never read a novel again if they can help it, or at any rate not one written before 1950. High school is your only chance to get these folks reading Dickens or Steinbeck or Hemingway.

I maintain that this is part of the problem, not the solution.
posted by lyssabee at 9:13 AM on January 17 [10 favorites]


Jeanne, I agree re: the Common Core standards and am very interested to see how they address this particular phenomenon. As I understand them, the whole point is to teach students how to be more discerning readers, and to learn how to read books better/glean the most information from them.
posted by lyssabee at 9:16 AM on January 17


"I maintain that this is part of the problem, not the solution."

Yep. Me, too.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 9:30 AM on January 17


Geezy Creezy, I thought they were softballing us too much freshman year when they had us reading The Outsiders and Billy Budd. Then again I read the complete works of Poe in fifth grade, so I had no requirement that my reading be relatable to be enjoyable. I really don't buy the argument that there's some magic threshold of personal relevance that will make a reader out of someone not inclined to do so. Even the relevant reading (mostly popular journalism and age-appropriate memoirs) selected for the college comp classes I taught was almost universally ignored by the students. Then again I'm willing to accept that I'm just a teacher-pleasing Lisa Simpson in this regard because I've never been able to understand why so many people assume that assigned reading is automatically something to resist and reject. I usually asked for recommendations from my HS English teachers, which I how I ended up reading Gawain and the Green Knight, The Idylls of the King, The Mists of Avalon and The Once and Future King.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 9:34 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


If you're telling teens that enjoyment isn't the point, you're both wrong and you've made a good start on permanently stunting their aesthetics with the aim of doing the opposite.

Yeah, we're only here for a short time so, ultimately, the point of learning practically anything should be enjoyment and intellectual satisfaction. There's nothing at all wrong with wanting kids to enjoy reading or trying to make reading more enjoyable for them. There's nothing wrong with telling them that enjoyment is the point. OTOH, there's a difference between "enjoyment" as pure gratification and "enjoyment" as capacity to contemplate with knowledge and pleasure the history and culture that precedes you. By definition, one needs to learn the latter kind of enjoyment and like any kind of learning it isn't all leisure.

If we're employing a definition of "enjoyment" here that corresponds more to "leisurely gratification," as in—"I see no value in reading books I don't like. Why should I want my kid to have to do that?"—then the real question is why teach reading at all? Just gesture at shelves and say "If you feel like reading anything, knock yourself out."
posted by octobersurprise at 9:34 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


In some ways, asking a bunch of people who already like to read what your average kid should read is maybe not the most productive way to start.

I would not presume to tell a school what to teach, these days, because I assume they are all locked into Whatever Will Be On the Assessment Tests. I mostly feel compassion for any teacher trying to inject any amount of joy into an ironclad reading list aimed at gaming a test and getting into the right college.

Reading has always been a joy to me, but turned out to be kind of a chore to my kid, so far. He's like his dad, whose love of reading came later (and who still isn't as rabid as I am about it). So I still read to him, as long as he'll let me, just so he gets to hear the stories that I think are important or meant a lot to me. He also gets stories through movies of course, and when he's older, we'll go to plays and concerts. He loves myths, and we'll probably get around to some comic-book version of the Odyssey and Iliad at some point, and he'll know who Homer was even if he never reads the actual poems. I'm taking advantage of his current ignorance of what is considered a "boy" or "girl" book to read him Harriet the Spy and the Secret Garden, because they have great characters and stories, thought the language is a little obscure. I don't want the difficulty of reading to keep him from having heard those stories.

I want his actual reading to improve, and it is, slowly, with his teacher's help. But he may always be more of an audiobook/movie-based consumer of stories. I'm trying to make my peace with that, because lots of people function perfectly well that way, or come to books only when they can't get their stories elsewhere.
posted by emjaybee at 9:37 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]


Also, it may or may not be relevant to mention that my college education was the western canon (including math, science, and music) with exactly two elective classes and the entire rest of the curriculum being mandatory. For the entire student body.

So I'm not someone who's going to argue that good and difficult literature doesn't have a place in education. Far from it.

But, at the risk of repeating myself, students need a whole bunch of skills and tools before they're ready to get that much from this literature (or they need an exceptional teacher and a lot of time). Those skills and tools include simply being comfortable with reading. And, as shocking and uncomfortable to some as this fact is, the average American high school student is not comfortable reading. Some of them are. But then those who are comfortable reading are not necessarily equipped with the experience and skills to get very much from the literary fiction that's thought to be best for them to read. Again, really good teachers can compensate for this. But so can really good students.

Education shouldn't rely upon exceptional teachers or exceptional students for success because then success will be exceptional.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 9:38 AM on January 17 [5 favorites]


Nelson: "I think this article makes a strong point, that forcing high school kids to read books they can't relate to is actively harmful."

That was certainly the case with me.

In middle school, I was a voracious reader. It was mostly SF&F, but I read a ton; if it was anything even arguably a SF&F classic back in the '90s, I'd read it by the time I was 13. Then I started high school.

Emma - as a 13-year-old guy's introduction to Jane Austen. The Good Earth. I don't even recall what it was about, but I remember the teacher blowing two whole lessons beating the symbolism of an egg to death. The Grapes of Wrath. The Catcher in the Rye. The Joy Luck Club. Various Shakespeare plays (only later salvaged for me by Ethan Hawke and Patrick Stewart movies). Wuthering Heights. A Tale of Two Cities. I don't even recall the rest.

The time I'd spent reading for enjoyment was quickly displaced by time I spent reading books I hated for joyless classes. By the time I got home from practice, slogged through 40 or 50 show-your-work math problems, read a couple hundred pages of Moby Dick, chemistry and physics, that last thing on Earth I wanted to do was spend another single second in front of a book.

Once finished the miserable slog that was high school English class, I'd stopped reading for enjoyment entirely. And 20 years later, that's still mostly true. I pick up the odd biography or historical non-fiction from time-to-time. Or maybe re-read Tolkein. But I don't enjoy it to the degree I used to.
posted by Vox Nihili at 9:39 AM on January 17


Common Core is a big deal in a lot of communities and, as was mentioned up-thread, is making ripples in many curricula. I just read the list of exemplar texts for grades 9-10 and 11-12, and there are some pretty difficult -- and some pretty wonderful -- works on the lists. Here's are some titles pulled pretty much at random.

For grades 9-10, see pages 9 to 11 for a list that's all over:
Lee, Harper. To Kill A Mockingbird
Shaara, Michael. The Killer Angels
Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club
Sophocles. Oedipus Rex
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Macbeth
Ionesco, Eugene. Rhinoceros (whaaaa?)
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Ozymandias.”
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Raven.”
Wiesel, Elie. “Hope, Despair and Memory.”
Kurlansky, Mark. Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World
Mann, Charles C. Before Columbus: The Americas of 1491
Walker, Jearl. “Amusement Park Physics.”
Preston, Richard. The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency/U.S. Department of Energy: Recommended Levels of Insulation
In grades 11-12 (pages 11 to 13), more chestnuts come out: Jane Eyre, Great Gatsby, and “The Cask of Amontillado.” But also David McCullough's 1776, Neil deGrasse Tyson, FedViews by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, and Atul Gawande.

I can't tell if this is to modernize the canon, or just to give teachers more choice, but there's good stuff here that's also difficult. I think I approve.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:43 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


How is this not just anti-intellectualism at a certain level?

I agree that overdoing it and pushing too much reading on kids that are unprepared to read at a particular pace or level might be actively harmful, but that's not remotely the same thing as saying that teaching novels in school ruins reading for kids. To this day, some of my favorite novels are books I encountered through the public school system, both in grade school and in college.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:44 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]


The modern world is pretty much tailored to what is enjoyable to a 13-year-old boy. Emma and Wuthering Heights are good starts as far as offering different perspectives.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 9:44 AM on January 17 [7 favorites]


I maintain that this is part of the problem, not the solution.

Exactly. But it's a problem that's really hard to find a solution to, and it's hard to know how much an 11th-grade English teacher can do to solve it.

My own intuition is that if you let high school students do a lot more freely chosen reading than they do now, they're more likely to develop a habit for reading and think of reading as something that can be pretty great, and when they come to a point in their lives when they're ready for Hemingway, it will be there for them. But I suspect a lot of English teachers would say that if you let students choose their own reading material, you're leaving it to luck whether they ever get exposed to something that's truly challenging or mind-bending, and even if they keep reading throughout their adult lives, what's the point if they never get a taste of something that's really "serious literature"?

(And I think a lot of English teachers are the kind of people who can find what's amazing or heartbreaking in works that a lot of students can't get through, so there's a bit of an attitude of "if I can just show them how AWESOME this is, it will change their lives!" that doesn't necessarily work out.)

I think if you can make sure that students are reading fluently in early elementary school, and reading a lot for fun in late elementary school, they'll develop the skills they need to read more sophisticated literature and get something out of it by the time they're in high school -- and they may still hate a lot of the assigned reading, like I did, but still be able to engage with it in a more interesting way than just "it sucks." But it's such a big, organic process, and it depends on years and years of getting it right, not just on one teacher.
posted by Jeanne at 9:49 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


In eighth grade, my English teacher allowed us to vote on which Shakespeare play the class would study. He offhandedly mentioned that Macbeth was the bloodiest play, so of course we all voted for Macbeth. To this day I love Macbeth.

Seems like a good compromise: present a few options and let the students pick. And mention which one has the most fighting.
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:51 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


"But I suspect a lot of English teachers would say that if you let students choose their own reading material, you're leaving it to luck whether they ever get exposed to something that's truly challenging or mind-bending, and even if they keep reading throughout their adult lives, what's the point if they never get a taste of something that's really 'serious literature'?"

See my previous comment to make it clear that I certainly value serious literature.

But with regard to what all high school students are taught and what will serve them the best, I think it's far more important to make lifelong readers of them of anything than it is that they have read a few great books. Putting the priority of exposing them to a few great books over a true habit of reading is, I think, deeply misplaced priorities and is very damaging.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 9:53 AM on January 17 [2 favorites]


Recommended Levels of Insulation

What a fascinating suggestion for high school reading! I'm serious. Does anyone have a copy of the actual EPA document that's recommended? I went looking and all I found was a bunch of blog posts mocking the idea. I think it's kind of a brilliant idea assuming you only spend a class or two on it.
posted by Nelson at 9:56 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


There is a big cultural component to this, in the US, at least. The belief is that books are "boring" and "difficult," especially novels that attempt literary quality which is why garbage like Dan Brown is popular. Why should we expect our youths to read for pleasure when most people don't?

Is this idea--that reading is dull, tedious work--as prevalent in other cultures that have a greater esteem for literature?
posted by Kitty Stardust at 9:59 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


The modern world is pretty much tailored to what is enjoyable to a 13-year-old boy. Emma and Wuthering Heights are good starts as far as offering different perspectives.

I disgree, but only because they were written in the 19th century and refer to a whole world of experience and to a language that adds another layer of foreignness that makes it overly hard.

There are many modern books (like Hunger Games) that have both a female protagonist and a compelling storyline. Jane Eyre was a revelation to 15-year-old me, but that was largely because Jane is basically a young, independent, passionate woman fighting back against a world that hates young independent passionate women. I was her, in many ways. The 19th-century language and setting was something I was willing to work around.

Of course, flip that around and you see why so many of the male coming-of-age stories (hello, Separate Peace) were about as compelling to me as laundry instructions. Those weren't my struggles, and on top of that, they were set in a world and among people that were completely foreign to me.
posted by emjaybee at 10:07 AM on January 17 [5 favorites]


But for R&J, they only read excerpts and then watched the Baz Luhrman movie.

I taught English to ninth graders and Romeo and Juliet was required. I would have done a mischief to myself if it weren't for the Baz Luhrman movie. My kids had NO frame of reference for any literature written before 1985, let alone Shakespearian English.

The works of Shakespeare were performed for the illiterate, not read by the masses. You don't have to read it to get the impact, and I have ALWAYS maintained that if the language is hard to understand, watching a play or movie first will help immeasurably with understanding.

Later, we did an exercise where we excerpted scenes and re-wrote them in modern language. Then the kids performed them. You would not BELIEVE how well they did. I was shocked!

Not every kid is prepared to understand older works. So don't dog the movie man.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:08 AM on January 17 [4 favorites]


I had a brilliant literature teacher in high school:

Our school, in the South in Louisiana, was half white half African American, and the kids almost completely self-segregated in their social interactions. But one of the English teachers taught an elective literature course that was Shakespeare (specifically the political plays) the first half of the year, and African American novels the second half of the year. There was no way to sign up for only half the year -- you had to do the whole thing if you wanted to take the class.

She succeeded in attracting a bicultural class that had some pretty serious and open discussions on topics of race.
posted by antinomia at 10:09 AM on January 17 [4 favorites]


Kitty Stardust: "The modern world is pretty much tailored to what is enjoyable to a 13-year-old boy. Emma and Wuthering Heights are good starts as far as offering different perspectives."

Putting aside the question of whether or not that's actually true, do you think that a 13-year-old boy is aware of that, or even cares? Or has the requisite knowledge to act upon that?

Broadening viewpoints by presenting challenging, new material is obviously a worthwhile goal. But that's only accomplished by latching onto something people already know and relate to. To your average, American, 13-year-old boy in public school, Emma is utterly unrelatable. It's an insipid, tedious, difficult-to-read novel centering around romance (a concept probably only known through Jared commercials and romance subplots in action movies), where a bunch of ridiculous people from a time and place they have no concept of do approximately nothing.

That doesn't foster deeper thought or understanding. It fosters resentment of the subject matter and almost anything associated with it. Especially when it's simply part of a curriculum of other equally alien novels.

I think this is emblematic of the issue being discussed further up in the thread, in that at the age these books are being taught, the vast majority of the students simply don't have the knowledge or experience to appreciate, understand, or relate to them. So rather than teaching an appreciation for learning, and facing new ideas, English classes utterly fail to engage most of the students, and teach them that reading is challenging, joyless, rote, and only to be done on the whims of a professor.
posted by Vox Nihili at 10:10 AM on January 17 [2 favorites]


The question is: is the goal of high school English to promote lifelong literacy? Or is it something else?

I'd actually say the goal of high school English (beyond "pass the state assessment tests") is more to promote cultural literacy and to learn reading comprehension/analysis skills more than to promote lifelong literacy. Reading the highlights of the Western canon is the "eating your vegetables" of literature: it doesn't matter if you enjoy it or not, but you kind of need to in order to have a foundation for a balanced literature diet. Or even more broadly, a balanced media diet.

I always liked reading though, so even the worst of the assigned reading did little to crush my leisure reading. Plus, I was in Harry Potter fandom throughout high school, and when your hobby is essentially analyzing literature, you know you're not exactly the kind of student who needs to be forced to engage with literature. So even as I agonized over my teacher's frankly ridiculous, overwrought methods of teaching symbolism for Tale of Two Cities in my freshman year, I was still dissecting the symbolism of Prisoner of Azkaban for fun in my free time.
posted by yasaman at 10:11 AM on January 17 [2 favorites]


By this logic, then high school kids should read Spiderman comics.

I'm pretty sure that Spider-Man is not yet considered nonfiction.

And we shouldn't bother teaching about World War II in history class, because the teenage brain can bot process the difficulty and magnitude of soldiers trying to fight their way up Omaha Beach.

Sure they can. They've been storming Normandy for over a decade thanks to violent video games.
posted by Apocryphon at 10:11 AM on January 17


The Common Core Vs. Books: When Teachers Are Unable to Foster a Love of Reading in Students
posted by box at 10:15 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


That doesn't foster deeper thought or understanding. It fosters resentment of the subject matter and almost anything associated with it. Especially when it's simply part of a curriculum of other equally alien novels.

By that logic, I should detest all things related to chemistry, because my science classes were presented in a confusing, alienating way.

I do think you're right that a lot of kids don't have the historical background to understand 19th C. literature, but I don't think that's a reason to shrug one's shoulders and give up on it. Literature is the only way we have to access the subjective experiences of others. We can understand the universality of human experience across time is by reading the past. I don't see the benefit in telling kids that only people exactly like them, existing in their space and time, are worthy of their attention.

I have to agree with Mario Vargas Llosa here: "I am convinced that a society without literature, or a society in which literature has been relegated—like some hidden vice—to the margins of social and personal life, and transformed into something like a sectarian cult, is a society condemned to become spiritually barbaric, and even to jeopardize its freedom." It's not just coincidental that modern American society is severely lacking in basic empathy and literacy.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 10:29 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]


We read Joan Didion in high school, and I hated it. Conversely, we read Les Misérables, and I loved it.

In conclusion, teenage minds are a land of contrasts.


The thing that this conversation is missing is that this is true of all minds and all sorts of literature. I love Lev Grossman's work, and could give you a list of reasons why, to me, it's effective; I have several friends who absolutely despise it and could counter my arguments easily. Our conversations about why his work are or are not effective usually constitute surprisingly good literary criticism about gender and symbolism and broader cultural context.

But in school, students are taught that "Ugh, I hate this" is not a valid response to a work because that work has been deemed worthy by whoever selected the curriculum. I'd argue that the tendency to quash a reader's natural, subjective reaction to art actually does quite a bit to damage those discussions about art--as if writing and fiction could be divorced from passion and from our own personal contexts. The act of canonizing works and forcing readers to accept that canonization renders our interaction with those works far more dry and also squeezes other literatures out into the margins of discussion, no matter how effective those other works might actually be or how relevant they might be in conversation (and art is always in conversation with other art). In short, it's an artificial, unnatural way to interact with books. Yes, you can say more interesting things than "This is my favorite book ever" or "This is pap" but I genuinely think that beginning with the subjective is important, and most of the way we teach literature is built around rejecting the subjective entirely for some notion of objectivity that simply doesn't exist.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:30 AM on January 17 [7 favorites]


Much can be said here about fiction versus non-fiction and what ought to be read. Or not read. Suffice it for me to say: why bother with Capote when Mailer's Executioner's Song is a much much better book along the same lines and, they are both non fiction blended with some fictional stuff to make them work.
posted by Postroad at 10:33 AM on January 17


My highschool English classes were tedious as hell, because the teacher was always dragging the 'discussion' along by brute force of will, trying to keep two dozen or so students engaged, many of whom didn't really want to be there. There's only so much you can do to improve that.

When I very reluctantly took a lit class early in college, I was pleasantly surprised — okay, more than pleasantly surprised, floored — that people had actually done the reading! And wanted to discuss the book! And had interesting comments not stolen directly from Cliffs Notes! And where people weren't chuckling to each other and stage-whispering "fag!" every time somebody they didn't like started speaking! It was like bizarro world.

So, yeah, by all means try to find some more engaging books to read in highschool classes, but I think there's a hard limit on how much they can be improved, because they are by definition filled with highschool students, and highschool students are basically what you'd get if wolves had opposable thumbs and fewer redeeming qualities.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:36 AM on January 17 [4 favorites]


But for R&J, they only read excerpts and then watched the Baz Luhrman movie.

Heh. When I was in high school (back in the 70's) when we did R&J, we referenced the Zeffirelli film. Amazingly, there was this official educational package for schools with stills, some brief scenes, and soundtrack from the film.

Honestly, though, teaching only what the kids are interested in would seem to result in a long downhill slide. Twilight > Little Brother > Justin Bieber's memoirs > The back of a can of soup...

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with teaching the old titles, as long as worthy contemporary titles also make the cut.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:44 AM on January 17 [2 favorites]


And had interesting comments not stolen directly from Cliffs Notes!

I had a high school classmate who, unable to even get himself to read the SparkNotes for something, printed them out and kept them in his notebook, and then tried to answer a question during class from them. Naturally he failed, and got in trouble for it. I like to think of him a martyr to doing as little reading as possible in your life.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 10:44 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


If they'd taught Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in the schools, and gave out the necessary drugs to take for homework, The world would be a very different place today.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:47 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


But in school, students are taught that "Ugh, I hate this" is not a valid response to a work because that work has been deemed worthy by whoever selected the curriculum. I'd argue that the tendency to quash a reader's natural, subjective reaction to art actually does quite a bit to damage those discussions about art--as if writing and fiction could be divorced from passion and from our own personal contexts.

This is really true. I was in advanced literature classes throughout high school, and how students felt about the assigned reading was almost never discussed, as far as I can recall. Teachers quickly quashed any discussion about "ugh, I hated this book," before it got to the potentially interesting discussion of why students hated the book. I can't entirely blame them, because they had a lesson plan to get through and we had to pass the AP exams, etc. And too, once you open that Pandora's box, I can see how it would be hard to regain control of the class. God knows my response to "why don't you like Tale of Two Cities," would have been "Your method of teaching symbolism is terrible and I am gaining nothing from it," instead of my adult self's slightly more thoughtful criticism of "Dickens' style is unbearably prolix."

The only time I can recall a teacher specifically soliciting our subjective, emotional reactions beyond a cursory, "how did reading ____ go?" was when, post-AP exam, my AP English composition teacher did a brief poetry unit. Free of any actual assignments and grades, we instead just had freewheeling discussions of specific poems, and wrote and discussed some of our own poetry. I remember Eavan Boland's "Anorexic" had almost all of the class paying attention and having an emotional response.
posted by yasaman at 10:58 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]


@saulgoodman: How is this not just anti-intellectualism at a certain level?

That didn't come across - just, as others have said, that there's literature that school-age students may not 'get'. When I did English, there were some good choices such as Macbeth, Lord of the Flies, 1984 and Far from the Madding Crowd, where the motives were pretty accesible, and the plots powerful. But then we had Sons and Lovers, and were expected to write essays like "Compare and contrast Paul's relationships with Miriam and with Clara?". At 15, how would I know? And Paul's such a twit that I didn't care anyway.
posted by raygirvan at 11:12 AM on January 17


I read the Mario Vargas Llosa piece linked to above and I am curious what he would say about societies that do not have writing. Would oral storytelling "count" as literature?

Addressing the article, I would agree with some of the other people in this thread that there needs to be more "genre" fiction. I slogged through all kinds of novels in school, but I devoured Sci Fi & Fantasy at home. Even today, that's the only kind of fiction I read.

I had to read The Great Gatsby right at the same time that the first of my many bouts of clinical depression came on. Ugh. I said puckishly in my lit classes in high school -- and I still kind of believe it today -- that a lot of "great literature" would not have been produced if there had been proper psychiatric care available to the authors.
posted by dhens at 11:12 AM on January 17


for me, reading the entirety of Dubliners for months in highschool will always top my loathe list.

This is interesting, because, for me, reading the entirety of Dubliners in one sitting on a long lonely train ride through upstate New York is one of my best reading memories.

We read one story from the collection in high school, which possibly inspired me to pick up Dubliners as opposed to whatever other book. I actually think "one particular short story" is a great introduction to James Joyce.

I think the major problem is the way novels are taught in American schools, not that they are taught. The reading comprehension quizzes have to go. Slogging through one book over an entire semester is an awful idea. I really think there should be more focus on writing and analysis rather than "did you read the thing" and "do you know how to read".

In sum, novels are a land of contrasts.
posted by Sara C. at 11:26 AM on January 17 [2 favorites]


In that respect, it would make sense to have many students read New Journalism-style pieces to build fluency and general cultural knowledge, but for students who already read a lot that's going to be a waste of time.

I wonder if it would be better to focus on the short story, non-fiction, drama, and other forms in 9th and 10th grades, and leave the novel to 11th and 12th grades when students, at the very least, are going to be able to actually read the book and can likely be at least somewhat trusted with the assignment to go home and read large chunks of a novel.
posted by Sara C. at 11:37 AM on January 17


why teach reading at all? Just gesture at shelves and say "If you feel like reading anything, knock yourself out."

That is exactly the philosophy of a literacy program I used to participate in, aimed at disadvantaged children. They ran "reading circles" - after school/evening activities which treated reading as a thing you did for fun. We all got together and read books - any book we felt like. The organizers made an effort to get the books we wanted, whether those were 19th century novels or picture books about basketball stars.

This program was very successful: children who had never read before became competant and (more importantly) enthusiastic readers.
posted by jb at 11:40 AM on January 17 [7 favorites]


I struggle so much with a belief that people are getting dumber--not necessarily dumber but unable to grapple with "big books" like Moby-Dick or The Brothers Karamazov or, hell, even old cliché War and Peace.

I don't understand the thing with War and Peace being hard to read... it is long and there are a lot of russian names to keep track of, but it's basically a big soap opera. The writing style is fairly breezy (in translation at least) and the intellectual themes, unlike Dostoevsky, are not terribly abstract. I loved Dostoevsky as a teenager but, if someone let me teach high school english for some reason I would be totally stoked to go through War and Peace. You can learn a lot about what it means to be an adult from it, which is really what teenagers are most concerned about.
posted by ennui.bz at 11:41 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]


I mean, Tolstoy is a lot easier to read than Jane Austen IMHO... and has more blood.
posted by ennui.bz at 11:43 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


Probably the most influential thing from school on the person I am today is the literature assignments from junior high and high school. And we did a novel a month in high school (plus short stories and poems from the textbook), and a Shakespeare play a year. I didn't love all of it (I STAB YOU, A FAREWELL TO ARMS, I STAB YOU AND YOU DIE. IN THE RAIN. AND YOU TOO OWEN MEANY, YOU JACKASS DISRESPECTER OF YOUR READERS), but I read all of it, and the broad exposure to great novels in my native tongue helped me become a lover of language, a lover of literature, and a lover of humanity. Yeah, I didn't "get" everything in Gatsby when I was 15, but books like Gatsby helped me understand how much more there was for me to get.

Education should be about helping students understand who they are, sure, but it should also be about stretching their horizons and giving them glimpses of the great wide world, even if they're not mature enough to "get" it yet. Only ever giving children and teenagers "age-appropriate" material that they'll "understand" is absolutely deadly. Art is larger than that. You don't have to understand things to love them or see the beauty in them or be moved and changed by them, and only by challenging ourselves with things that we DON'T understand do we learn new things. And I don't want to say that art serves morality, I don't think it's that simple, but I think exposure to art helps us become moral human beings by exposing us to the many varieties of human experience and forcing us to think outside our narrow and habitual tracks. It's really impoverishing to NOT have opportunities to absorb great works of human art, whether those are literary or visual or whatever.

I suppose it goes without saying that with a novel a month, plus poetry and short stories, we read a good chunk of the American high school canon of classics, but there was plenty of space for contemporary novels and foreign-language works in translation. (To this day I am always trying to push "The Dwarf" by Par Lagerkvist on people, which we of course read paired with Machiavelli, and as an adult I'm casually and not-very-effectively studying Chinese, solely because the Chinese poetry we read in high school has stuck with me because of its beauty and after 20 years of loving it I'd like to be able to chase it into its own language instead of just loving it in translation.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:44 AM on January 17 [2 favorites]


Likewise, Moby Dick.

There are a lot of Big Important Themes, and it's a great book to pick apart in a small college lit section, but you can totally just read Moby Dick for fun, as an exciting quest/travel/adventure novel. When I read Moby Dick on a vacation a few years ago, I was shocked at what a page turner it is.

Anna Karenina was the first grownup novel I ever read, circa age 12. It's a total soap opera. A lot of it went over my head because, well, I was 12, but it's basically Downton Abbey in furs.
posted by Sara C. at 11:46 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


Kitty Stardust "By that logic, I should detest all things related to chemistry, because my science classes were presented in a confusing, alienating way.

I do think you're right that a lot of kids don't have the historical background to understand 19th C. literature, but I don't think that's a reason to shrug one's shoulders and give up on it. Literature is the only way we have to access the subjective experiences of others. We can understand the universality of human experience across time is by reading the past. I don't see the benefit in telling kids that only people exactly like them, existing in their space and time, are worthy of their attention."


I wasn't arguing that you should detest chemistry, but that it's the predictable result for any subject matter that is presented that way. It is particularly offensive with literature because the curriculum seems frozen in time, stocked almost entirely with works that came decades or centuries before the students studying them, and it emphatically does not need to be that way.

The bar also seems higher for success with literature. Where a high school chemistry class is usually considered a success if students learn about concepts like significant figures, atomic structure and repeatability, it seems that anything less than bestowing a breathless adoration of literature is a failure of high school English classes.

That also leads to the elephant in the room: in the last 100 years or so, literature has been forced to share the stage with music, movies, and video games, both as an entertainment medium and as a means for sharing the subjective experiences of others. And high school curricula have largely refused to acknowledge this. So instead of (e.g.) having a class where students watch The Godfather, then read the novel, and discuss the differences, the cultural impact, etc., teachers are largely content to keep teaching the same array of books they damned well know the majority of their students cannot possibly relate to, in the same monotonous, unenjoyable way.

In other words, English classes might do a lot more good if they taught the analytical skills in a way students could more likely relate to before moving on to more challenging material, rather than throwing The Grapes of Wrath at a bunch of teenagers and hoping that maybe one person out of the 30 in the class actually cares enough to read the thing.
posted by Vox Nihili at 11:46 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


the curriculum seems frozen in time, stocked almost entirely with works that came decades or centuries before the students studying them, and it emphatically does not need to be that way.

This is a great point.

Why do we need to grapple with teaching students the background that enables them to understand 19th century literature? Why not just give them 20th or 21st century literature?
posted by Sara C. at 11:49 AM on January 17


Because parents won't seek to ban most 19th century literature, a distinct danger with newer works.

That's not a GOOD reason, but it's a real one.
posted by Chrysostom at 11:57 AM on January 17 [2 favorites]


I'm not a teacher and I'm not in education, but I think what could have worked in the classes I took in high school would be to maybe teach themes rather than eras of literature and do maybe two or three themes per quarter and have a selection of books that are grouped according to theme from all the genres (SF&F, autobiography, romance, mystery, etc.) and let the kids choose what books they want to read. Then, each kid reports on the stuff they read and what they thought about it, and then the teacher can add in bits like, "Yeah, Raymond Chandler handled that theme this way because that's how noir works; look at the contrast between his style and how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle handled that same theme decades earlier."

That's a pie in the sky thing, I know. It also requires the teacher to have read all the books, but what's an English teacher doing not having read tons of books, both modern and classical?
posted by TrishaLynn at 12:00 PM on January 17


So instead of (e.g.) having a class where students watch The Godfather, then read the novel, and discuss the differences

"On a scale of one to ten, how good a decision was it to cut the wide-vagina subplot?"
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 12:00 PM on January 17 [5 favorites]


Why do we need to grapple with teaching students the background that enables them to understand 19th century literature? Why not just give them 20th or 21st century literature?

I would have hated a class that was just 20th century literature, to be honest. (To be honest, I really disliked a lot of the more recent books we read.) Not all students like the same books; not all curricula are designed the same. Ours was roughly synced with (or at least in communication with) the history programs, so that you did the Brontes the same year as 19th century British history came around. Why give up on teaching them Shakespeare or Ovid only for the sake of being modern?
posted by jetlagaddict at 12:01 PM on January 17 [3 favorites]


Vox Nihili: "It is particularly offensive with literature because the curriculum seems frozen in time, stocked almost entirely with works that came decades or centuries before the students studying them, and it emphatically does not need to be that way."

It isn't. Teachers teach plenty of 21st-century novels, and teaching a book-and-movie combo is an assignment as old as a hills. One of my favorite hobbies is poking through the literature teachers' rooms while doing school tours and getting argumentative about the novels. I was visiting a junior high a couple weeks ago and they had Johnny Tremaine and The Giver and Number the Stars and Bridge to Terabithia, but they also had Pretties/Uglies/Specials, Harry Potter, The Fault in Our Stars, Eleanor & Park, etc. Those are just a few that jumped out at me because I particularly liked them (being still a devoted reader of YA fiction); there was plenty more in lots more genres.

We've only had a parent demand a book be removed from the curriculum once in my 5 years on the school board, and it was Iggie's House. We obviously did not comply. (Insert full-body eye-roll here.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:01 PM on January 17 [3 favorites]


Well, I'm just keeping in mind that the author of TFA is a a bit closer to still being a teenager herself ("...on the treacherous precipice of thirty...") than she is to my age (on the treacherous precipice of forty seven.)

Just maybe the novel is not the best device for transmitting ideas, grand themes, to hormonal, boisterous, easily distracted, immature teenagers.

What I love about my favorite literature, some of which I was turned on to by High School Lit back in the early 1980s, is that it can still be complex and difficult to personally relate to. The Great Gatsby yields new meanings to me every few years when I reread it. 1984's theme of authoritarianism vs. individuality may be relevant forever. But when I was 14 I saw it as "Don't end up like Winston" and now I also see it as "Don't end up like O'Brien."

"Yet when I finally read In Cold Blood, Into Thin Air, the works of Hunter S. Thompson and Joan Didion, I continually pleaded aloud to my friends in their twenties, “Why didn’t anyone make me read this in high school?!”

As has been pointed out above, In Cold Blood is both: often taught in high schools (my kid read it last year), and: written to use certain styles commonly used by novels. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is regarded as being largely a work of fiction. And I read it as a high school student and found it to be no more immediately relate-able than Gatsby. But without Gatsby there would be no Raoul Duke. HST frequently acknowledged FSF as a major inspiration.

Literature isn't just about entertainment (though of course a lot of the great stuff is very entertaining) and education isn't supposed to be instantaneous. I wonder how she'll feel in another twenty years. And of course how I'll feel.
posted by Cookiebastard at 12:02 PM on January 17


I, too, bemoan the lack of Hurricane Katrina journalism in my tenth-grade English class back in 1998.
posted by GrapeApiary at 12:02 PM on January 17 [1 favorite]


"I think the major problem is the way novels are taught in American schools, not that they are taught."

I think both things are about equal.

Kids need to reach some level of casual and confident literacy before they're equipped to productively engage with many of the books they're being expected to read. As I've already written.

But, yes, I think that how these books are taught is a serious problem. However, I expect I won't get much agreement here because the overwhelming majority of most of the world's educational establishments agree on a pedagogical strategy of telling students what to think.

So all through high school and college you get teachers who ask students to read books and then walk them through their preferred analysis as if that analysis were self-evident and is the most important thing that students should get from that work.

Of course, different teachers have different interpretations and, over time, different interpretations go in and out of fashion. But students come away from these classes with what amounts to rote recitation of what they were expected to have experienced and learned. So, in that context, standardized testing on this stuff is not really any sort of radical, debasing pedagogical change, it's just a bit further along a path that we've already been on for a very long time.

Not all teachers teach like this. But most do.

I have the great fortune to have attended a college where a love of reading and intellectual discussion is the paramount virtue, and where it's taken for granted that the most important thing that a student can gain from a text is having deeply engaged with it, regardless of how they decide to understand it. I was not left burdened with an instructor's idiosyncratic analysis. Students were allowed to discover, on their own and especially cooperatively, what and how they wished to engage with in any given text.

Over the years, I've encountered a disheartening number of people whose understanding of these canonical books, which they read in high school or university, amounts to a short bullet-list of points supporting a particular and ultimately facile interpretation. They hardly remember anything else and their ability to engage the work in any other respect is nonexistent. These books aren't living, complex works for them; they're little more than signposts along the road to supposed "cultural literacy", a goal that has no meaning when it amounts to nothing more than a collection of sterile facts.

I would absolutely love for high school students to deeply engage with Shakespeare or Austen or Hemingway or Morrison; deeply engage in the way that I describe I experienced in college. But that requires that familiarity and practice, both in reading and in thinking about reading, that I previously discussed. If they haven't already acquired this, expecting them to do so within the context of material that is more difficult and less enjoyable for them is foolish.

So, assuming they haven't yet acquired those skills — and I don't expect them to, short of changing education from the beginning of primary school — then we should be giving them books to read that they want to read, allowing them to learn how to be comfortable reading and to enjoy reading, and then, further, use those books as the context for learning how to think about reading and how to talk about reading, as well.

It's absolutely false that non-literary works cannot be valuable for investigation. Of course they can. Is it true, as many claim, that the "great" works are "great" because they have some inherent merit that is extraordinary? With some caveats, I'll agree that there's truth to this. And so, yes, certainly, I think that people ought to read those books. But that the very best books are so very good does not mean that there's not considerable value to be found in the not-so-very-good books, especially for the purposes of providing a space in which young students learn to read, to truly read, to value books and to learn to think about what's going on under the surface of those books. Why those stories, why those characters, doing those things, presented in those ways?

I think that high school students are equipped to begin to deeply engage with books, and that there's a lot there they can find in those books, even when those books are the sort of books that most high school students would prefer to read instead of Dickens.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 12:05 PM on January 17 [3 favorites]


teaching a book-and-movie combo is an assignment as old as a hills.

One of the weirdest high school assignment I ever got was to write a paper comparing and contrasting Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth based on having read Hamlet and King Lear, and having seen the 1971 Roman Polanski version of Macbeth. It would have been a bad assignment, even if we had read all three, but only having seen the movie of one of them made it fairly surreal.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 12:11 PM on January 17 [1 favorite]


I'm seeing much more backlash against this idea than I would have expected here. Some of it is pretty... circumspect (I don't think the piece is arguing for tumblr over books, and yes I understand you're older than her but do you have to groan at her talking about being almost thirty?).

I felt this opinion when I was in high school, and I was an avid reader--that seems to be what she's writing about here, recognizing those feelings of dread and disinterest in plots and devices that aren't uniquely well suited to be used as tools for instruction in language, culture, history, and so on. I recognize that this difficulty (great works of fiction should be preserved, but for preteens?) is a tough one because we're so entrenched in it, but she's on to something and she's not the first to say as much aloud.

I gravitated to nonfiction in my high school years for much the same reason as she writes she turned away from most novels (I remember thoughts along the lines of, "ugh, enough florid metaphor, just tell me something") and I really haven't gained it back. My interest in nonfiction still takes precedence over the few novels I manage to get through in a given year. I wonder if better attention to curricula (e.g. is there any evidence to support reading a bunch of novels is better than other approaches for young learners?) would preserve the novel as a joy for older readers? Should curricula have any relationship to the intended audience that an author had in mind for his/her work? Is meaning stripped from a work when that audience doesn't align well? These are questions worth asking aloud.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 12:11 PM on January 17


let the kids choose what books they want to read. Then, each kid reports on the stuff they read and what they thought about it, and then the teacher can add in bits like, "Yeah, Raymond Chandler handled that theme this way because that's how noir works; look at the contrast between his style and how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle handled that same theme decades earlier."

FWIW, my 9th grade English class did something like this, and it was mostly a huge time suck and I know nothing at all about any of the novels I didn't get specifically assigned. Luckily I picked Fahrenheit 451, so at least it wasn't a complete waste of my time, but the two weeks of book report presentations? It would have been more enriching for me to have cut two weeks of class with the caveat that I was allowed to read any "literary" novel I wanted during that time.
posted by Sara C. at 12:16 PM on January 17


Not all students like the same books; not all curricula are designed the same.

Sure, but if educators are finding that actual comprehension of 19th century writing styles is a stumbling block for students, or that they're forced to do entire units on the social world of Jane Austen and the Brontes, maybe the issue isn't with the novel as a form, or dumb students. Maybe the issue is that students need to be given works from the literary canon that they are already equipped to understand.

(FWIW I hated most of the 20th century stuff we read in 9th-10th grades, too. I would be fully in support of banning books if we restricted it to banning The Pearl and The Old Man In The Sea.)
posted by Sara C. at 12:19 PM on January 17 [2 favorites]


why teach reading at all? Just gesture at shelves and say "If you feel like reading anything, knock yourself out."

I don't think it is at all impossible that such an approach would lead to better outcomes than what we do now.
posted by enn at 12:27 PM on January 17 [5 favorites]


Oh, and the problem with "book and movie" units in a curriculum is that Great Literature and Great Films don't often correspond.

So, you could assign The Great Gatsby and then have students watch Baz Luhrman's take on the book. (Great book, mediocre film.)

Or, you could assign The Godfather and then have students read the pulpy best-seller it's based on. (Great film, mediocre book.)

But what is the value in any of that, when The Great Gatsby as a novel and The Godfather as a film are just fine on their own without some mediocre supporting material thrown in?

All of that said, in college I took several courses where we mixed media in general, based on themes. So I took a course on Europe Between The Wars where we read The Sun Also Rises and watched Un Chien Andalou. I took a course on 20th century history and media where we read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and watched Bonnie And Clyde. I think a version of this style of curriculum could really work in high schools, though I think class times would be a huge hurdle to being able to do this well (these were 2 hour classes where we had time to watch an entire film during one class meeting).
posted by Sara C. at 12:29 PM on January 17 [1 favorite]


I loved Dostoevsky as a teenager but, if someone let me teach high school english for some reason I would be totally stoked to go through War and Peace. You can learn a lot about what it means to be an adult from it, which is really what teenagers are most concerned about.

Good luck. We're discussing a culture populated by many individuals who refuse to watch a lot of really good/important movies simply because they're in black-and-white. Getting them to dive into an old, imposing brick like W&P, would seem similarly wishful.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:44 PM on January 17 [1 favorite]


Sara C.: "I would be fully in support of banning books if we restricted it to banning The Pearl and The Old Man In The Sea."

Oh God, The Old Man and the Sea. "Christ metaphor, CHRIST METAPHOR!!! Have you yet picked up on the fact that this is a METAPHOR for CHRIST?!?!"
posted by Chrysostom at 12:45 PM on January 17 [2 favorites]


"Getting them to dive into an old, imposing brick like W&P, would seem similarly wishful."

I think I could do it. But then, War and Peace is by far my favorite novel and I can never find the end of interesting things in it. So, I would think this. Even so, I think its structure would make it much easier to teach than many novels that are much shorter.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 12:52 PM on January 17


Eh, I think the main problem with assigning War And Peace is that it's so goddamn long.

That said it would be fucking EPIC to do an entire course called, like, History, Culture, and The Russian Novel, where you devote most of the reading to War And Peace, with some shorter, lighter supplemental stuff (Pushkin? Chekhov?), and then do major units on art and 19th century European history. Read a little War And Peace, listen to Stravinsky, and talk about the Rite Of Spring riots. Read a little War And Peace, look at some Neoclassical paintings, and talk about the Napoleonic Wars. Etc.

Probably not for 9th graders, though.
posted by Sara C. at 12:57 PM on January 17


Ruthless Bunny: ...I have ALWAYS maintained that if the language is hard to understand, watching a play or movie first will help immeasurably with understanding.

Oh, I completely agree! I've already told my daughter that the Kenneth Branagh movies are quite good, and that I think it's a marvelous idea to watch them and get lost in the story and pretty people & settings. Then read the play, while remembering the movie.

But to intercut sections of the modern, more stylized Baz Luhrman movie with sections of the original play, well, that's just a mess.
posted by wenestvedt at 1:01 PM on January 17


The worst is that, at least when I was in 9th grade English, we slogged through the whole play first and only then were allowed to watch the movie. The Zeferelli movie, because I think that was right before the Luhrman version came out.
posted by Sara C. at 1:03 PM on January 17


That said, I have fond memories of reading Romeo And Juliet as a 14 year old. It's one of the few things my school at the time did well. I think plays are ideal to teach in an early high school setting, getting to read Shakespeare that isn't too daunting was exciting, and having it be something about people our age and a subject we all found compelling couldn't have been better.

I also feel like Romeo And Juliet is great to read as a 9th grader because it's a work that gets less interesting as you age, and will really never feel as fascinating as it does when you're 14.
posted by Sara C. at 1:13 PM on January 17


To your average, American, 13-year-old boy in public school, Emma is utterly unrelatable.

Even assuming that's somewhat true, why should Emma be harder for a boy to relate to than say, a science fiction novel like Nova? Why is a 19th century woman more alien than a space traveling cyborg? And if she is, why does that mean she must be struck from the syllabus? Eliminating items from educational syllabi on the grounds of student dislike seems like a poor standard to set. At that rate your "average American 13 year-old" won't be attending much school at all.

Now, ideally, "Why is this book hard to read?" and "Do you find this book boring? Why?" would be among the questions asked of students. In an educational context, difficulty and alienness is the point of reading a novel. The problem here isn't some particular novel, the problem is, that for a variety of reasons, teachers often can't adequately lead students through the novel they're reading.

So instead of (e.g.) having a class where students watch The Godfather, then read the novel, and discuss the differences, the cultural impact

For someone who is "particularly offended" by a curriculum "stocked almost entirely with works that came decades or centuries before the students studying them," it's humorous that you chose a 45 year old novel about mid-20th century gangsters to make your point with.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:20 PM on January 17 [9 favorites]


"What does the green light symbolize?
Money, of course: It's also green.
What should we make of TJ's eyes?
They're always watching, so they mean
to show Fitzgerald disapproves
of what the rich do to the poor."
The teacher's needle found its grooves.
I don't like reading anymore.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 1:20 PM on January 17 [2 favorites]


Penthouse called ms Vargas-Cooper's book Mad Men Unbuttoned “A dazzling pop-culture history of the 1960s. [Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s] zeal for detail is unparalleled. This is an opinionated, sexy history book for those who hate studying.”

Seems a bit undercooked to my way of thinking. So too the blog.

I think she's trying to get herself noticed. As which struggling journalist these days is not?

Why not just give them 20th or 21st century literature?

Test of time. Which sounds glib, but it really isn't. Granted, a lot of things survive on the strength of the academy and the canon, but many do not. Jane Austen can take care of herself very well, thanks very much. Ditto Dickens, Zola, Shakespeare - you get the idea. But if you start picking the latest great thing, you run the risk of teaching the current equivalent of Michael Arlen. Who he? Why, only the author of The Green Hat!

Better to lay a foundation of culture that is unlikely to wash away in ten or twenty years time. (Frankly, a bunch of stuff on her list is looking a little dated.)
posted by IndigoJones at 1:22 PM on January 17


If it was up to me, Naked Lunch, Blood Meridian, the short texts of Beckett, and 120 Days of Sodom would be the centerpieces of a curriculum that's focused on preparing high school students for the confusion, absurdity, devastation, and loss that they will experience as they begin to inherit a late capitalism that's about to come to a crashing halt, leaving them staggering, alone, without money or means, the older generations callously leaving them to fend for themselves. I'm not in charge of high school curricula, though.
posted by naju at 2:01 PM on January 17 [4 favorites]


Test of time.

FWIW I don't think curricula should center around this year's bestseller list, either.

But, you know, there are a lot of really and truly great books that are written in entirely readable modern prose style, and where you won't have to have special units on primogeniture.
posted by Sara C. at 2:12 PM on January 17


Even assuming that's somewhat true, why should Emma be harder for a boy to relate to than say, a science fiction novel like Nova? Why is a 19th century woman more alien than a space traveling cyborg?

Probably because of sexism. Emma has romance! Girl cooties!

A lot of these alternative suggestions seem no better in that respect than the traditional canon.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:15 PM on January 17 [4 favorites]


octobersurprise, I believe you missed my point about relatability.

All I was proposing was to start with something the students have interest and experience with as a method of developing the analytical skills and experience needed to actually get something out of a book like The Grapes of Wrath. The idea is to challenge the student on some fronts, not all.

I think it's fairly evident that in the example I gave, a well-known, influential movie like The Godfather is probably a better launching point for your average teenage boy than one of Jane Austen's 19th-century British soap operas. It also provides many opportunities to examine its enormous impact on modern cinema and storytelling, and is based on a fairly well-known novel as well, providing a point of discussion about the differences of storytelling and artistic choices in different media. But it could just as easily be substituted with The Lord of the Rings or Friday Night Lights or Blade Runner or The Lord of the Flies, or hell, even Harry Potter. There are a lot of good candidates. Guide students to find the art in things they already appreciate before you challenge them to find the art in things they do not.

As for reliability, it has to do with interests - the same reason I chose something like The Godfather as an example: the language is more modern than Austen, and more accessible to a modern audience. The movie was hugely influential and so even people who haven't seen it are familiar with it by reference, in addition to the entire mob drama genre it spawned. It has mass appeal and awareness in a way that Austen does not; especially with teenagers. And I don't mean to set off a derail on gender politics, but do you disagree that your typical teenage guy would have an easier time being interested in a story about cyborgs being hunted on their quest to shift the balance of interstellar power more interesting than the dating woes of 19th-century British aristocracy?

I'm aware that there are concerns beyond what 13-year-old boys like. Ideally everyone, regardless of tastes could be accommodated. But the best bet for preserving an appreciation in the classics and encouraging people to read is to ease them into it, not beat them over the head with Steinbeck/Tolstoy/Austen/whoever until they're turned off reading for good.
posted by Vox Nihili at 2:49 PM on January 17 [1 favorite]


Bah. Encountering people, situations, and worlds they don't relate to is precisely why high school students (and others) should read novels.
posted by synecdoche at 3:33 PM on January 17 [6 favorites]


"Encountering people, situations, and worlds they don't relate to is precisely why high school students (and others) should read novels."

It's one of the reason, yes. I believe that a lifetime of being an avid reader of fiction of all kinds is responsible for a significant portion of my ability to empathize with people unlike myself. I don't think that any other form of art, and particularly any other form of narrative art, even remotely does as good a job at presenting someone else's subjectivity. It is a tremendous part of the value of written fiction.

But it's one among several valuable aspects of fiction.

I really cannot understand why there's an either/or discussion about relatability, especially in the case of readers who are children. Clearly, what we look for in narrative fiction is that it — sometimes individually, and also collectively — provides us with both a representation of our own experiences and concerns and the experiences and concerns of people unlike ourselves. Restricting anyone's reading to either one or the other, whether they're adults or children, is to greatly diminish the value they can find in literature.

And particularly with children, and most particularly with children who are members of groups who are not of the dominant, privileged classes who are disproportionately represented in narrative fiction, it's important that part of what they read (and watch) represents aspects of their own experience. It's not pandering to them, it's the most normal thing in the world. Writers write about themselves, the dominant culture writes about itself, the norm for those who are privileged is to see themselves reflected in narrative fiction. An important aspect of narrative fiction, and novels, is to speak to what we recognize and experience, but in ways that elucidate or make new.

Satisfying that aspect of narrative fiction for various readers should be part of any literature curriculum. And presenting them with unfamiliar people and experiences should also be part of any literature curriculum.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 4:08 PM on January 17


When I finally learned to read at the beginning of the 3rd grade, quite some time after futile efforts to teach me had guttered to extinction and the last wisps of smoke had cleared away (and thank God they had), I soon became a compulsive reader.

By 4th grade, I'd read almost anything if my preferred genres (animal stories, myths and fairy tales, and science fiction) were in short supply; I read my mother's Redbook, McCall's, and Ladies' Home Journal from cover to cover most months, along with my father's Argosy, and Reader's Digest, for example, and any inability to understand words, phrases, or overall intent were very secondary to my need to position myself beneath a soothing cascade of written language.

And I developed strange quirks; I couldn't tolerate illustrations of the text even though I had loved them when they were the only parts of books I could grasp, and had to put my hand over the etchings in the library copy of Oliver Twist which I read in 5th grade, for instance; and I could not abide reading the same thing twice-- even in Jr High, when the last two volumes of Lord of the Rings were published in paperback ahead of the first, and I read them but then wanted to read the whole thing in one piece after The Fellowship of the Ring came out, some kind of weird nausea-inducing partial echo effect caused me to abandon the project 30 pages into The Two Towers.

When assigned reading I wouldn't have chosen for myself came along in 7th and subsequent grades, I was able to just drop it into the flow that fed my habit except for things I'd already read, such as A Tale of Two Cities, and things which were somehow too interesting, such as The Scarlet Letter, which forced me to become self-aware and think about it every couple of pages-- and poetry, which I could never get to flow in the first place.

Reading is strange, and for me has always been a little pathological, and I think we're harming a lot of kids (and reducing their value to society) by pushing it as relentlessly as we do.
posted by jamjam at 4:17 PM on January 17 [1 favorite]


Vox Nihili: "I think it's fairly evident that in the example I gave, a well-known, influential movie like The Godfather is probably a better launching point for your average teenage boy than one of Jane Austen's 19th-century British soap operas. "

And what about average teenage girls, or are -- as per usual in literature curricula -- boys' needs and experiences normative?

Vox Nihili: "It has mass appeal and awareness in a way that Austen does not; especially with teenagers. "

LMGTFY: Pride & Prejudice is the #2 download at Project Gutenberg for the last 30 days (and 4 of the top 100) and Jane Austen is #4, behind three much, much more prolific authors. Her novels have been adapted for film and television 15 times JUST SINCE THE YEAR 2000 by my quick count. Kiera Knightly was nominated for an Academy Award for her work in the 2005 P&P movie. Colin Firth's Mr. Darcy is distubingly memorialized by a statue. NO MASS APPEAL OR AWARENESS AT ALL.

Just say you don't want to read girl books and you don't consider what women read and write to be of interest. Jane Austen has a hell of a lot more proven mass appeal and awareness than Mario Puzo, 200 years on.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:38 PM on January 17 [20 favorites]


All I was proposing was to start with something the students have interest and experience with as a method of developing the analytical skills and experience needed to actually get something out of a book like The Grapes of Wrath.

Well, what age of students are we talking about here? I'd be a little surprised to learn that the average public school student is asked to read Steinbeck or Austen before the 10th grade, so by that time non-remedial students should have the analytical skills and experience needed to get something out of The Grapes of Wrath, a book which isn't, after all, more challenging than The Godfather, no less a melodrama, and separated in time only by about a decade and a half. If the average student can't get something out The Grapes Of Wrath by the 10th-12th grade, then the problem doesn't lie in the novel or novels, but in the teacher or the student's education up to that point.

Austen's maybe a little more difficult, removed as she in time and space, and 11th or 12th grade strikes me as the appropriate age to start her for the average student. But if anyone can relate to Austen's characters' concern with their social standing, it's high school students. And besides, the best way to develop the analytic skills necessary to read less familar prose is to actually do it.

So I don't think the presumed difficulty of either of these books is a good argument to dismiss these books from the classroom. That neither Steinbeck or Austen has automatic mass appeal among the 13-17 male demographic might be an argument to dismiss them, but only if you think that mass appeal among 13-17 year old boys should determine what gets taught in schools.

Restricting anyone's reading to either one or the other, whether they're adults or children, is to greatly diminish the value they can find in literature.

I don't think anyone's proposing to do that and when I look at the school Required Reading tables at my local Barnes & Noble's, there seems to be a pretty wide variety of genres and levels of difficulty represented.
posted by octobersurprise at 4:44 PM on January 17


I didn't read Emma in any of my high school English classes, but I had a somewhat weird school (it was public, but weird), but I know that my friends who took other English classes read Austen junior or senior year. Nobody was making 13-year-olds of any gender read Austen.

And since Emma in particular is about reading and manipulating unwritten social codes (and trying to set your friends up!), it seems like a great choice for junior/senior year English classes. Depending on how it's taught, of course, which really makes it no different from anything else. Pretty sure you could make people hate reading if you taught The Godfather badly, too.
posted by rtha at 5:05 PM on January 17 [2 favorites]


I don't know how much more plainly I can put this: I agree that encountering new ideas and concepts through literature is a patently good thing. I think we should encourage people to read.

I also think the public school system system does a pretty lousy job of fostering interest in reading, largely because of its dogged adherence to classics that most students will find uninteresting, coupled with the dogmatic way they are taught. So yes, I do think that general appeal of the subject matter among literally half of the student body matters. It matters for all of them.

Students would be better off reading pulpy Mass Effect novels and talking about the narrative differences between the film and book versions of Harry Potter than not reading at all. But instead the model seems to be "Read Classic_book by next Friday and write a report including at least 87 different instances of symbolism." And that's it. It sucks.

Also: my 9th grade, public school English class (in suburban Detroit) read Emma.
posted by Vox Nihili at 5:34 PM on January 17


and where you won't have to have special units on primogeniture.

You say this like it's a bad thing.

I've always been fascinated by the curiously British system of primogeniture. It shaped the British aristocracy into something quite different from most continental aristocracies.

That said, there's a curious conundrum in P & P: if their cousin Mr Collins is inheriting the estate due to primogeniture - and, more specifically, a legal entail limiting inheritance to male heirs in the male line only - why does he not have the family name Bennet?
posted by jb at 6:28 PM on January 17


I remember trying to get away with reading "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" for a solo project for Sophomore English and the teacher wouldn't let me, telling me, "you're going to read this and you're going to love it and get a lot out of it, but I'm not trying to turn your recreational reading into homework," and he gave me a list of books personally recomrecommended for me. I think I switched from Thomas Pynchon to John Barth when the first proved a little denser than I was in the mood for, and I did love it and gained a deeper understanding of the art of literature beyond just storytelling.

Everyone deserves a teacher like that. But not him specifically, because he retired early after he got dumped by a girl on the debate teteam he was coaching/fucking. *foghorn*
posted by elr at 7:44 PM on January 17 [1 favorite]


Students would be better off reading pulpy Mass Effect novels and talking about the narrative differences between the film and book versions of Harry Potter than not reading at all.

Nope
posted by Sara C. at 7:45 PM on January 17


You say this like it's a bad thing.

I don't necessarily think it's a bad thing.

But I think that if teachers are having a hard time getting their kids to engage with the material because they're tripping over the style, or because they aren't grasping the story because society has just changed too much, then, well, there's a whole world of extremely good books that don't take place 200 years ago.

You don't really have to go from Emma to Jaws, or Emma to nope nevermind why even read. You can go from Emma to Things Fall Apart and that's 100% fine.
posted by Sara C. at 7:51 PM on January 17 [1 favorite]


I came late to this party, but a few thoughts as a secondary Language Arts teacher (in training, on the market):

The author is right in the sense that novels--usually "classic" novels--are taught by rote, with the most basic of assessments done by students: a comprehension test, vocab quizzes, maybe a Book Report that summarizes the plot...and that's it. Most of us have had that kind of class and that kind of teacher.

What I have learned in my certification classes is that this topic, of what writing to teach and how, is central to pedagogical and curricular authorities in Language Arts. There are a number of theories and strategies to combat this.

The author is wrong in making it a binary choice. Fiction or non-fiction, choose one! How about both? If she thinks that non-fiction is genre that high school students will automatically cling to, I've got some news for her. It won't. There's plenty of non-fiction that would bore high schoolers to tears, every bit as much as the fiction she had to endure. Even the non-fiction on her very list!

So first of all, a balance between fiction and non-fiction is probably the wisest, and from what I understand of the new Common Core standards, non-fiction reading and writing is increasing. Much more important is how it is chosen, taught, and assessed.

There's no one right answer for each school, teacher, or class, but here's what Literature Arts class should generally do. First, let students pick a novel or piece of non-fiction from a larger group of selections that the teacher has made. Say, students pick one of five. They have some agency and feel empowered somewhat.

Students work in groups to read, discuss, write, debate, fact-check, etc. The teacher facilitates this work, but it is the students who create a portfolio of sorts that shows their understanding and connection with the work. Finally, students again choose how they would like to present to the class a work that demonstrably shows their understanding and connection to the work. A speech, a report, drawings, paintings, audio recordings, movies, and any combination of the above.

That is what LA class should be. The corporate control of public schools dictates that standardized tests suck up so much oxygen, it's not always possible to do the activities I outlined; there is simply not enough time for it.

Doing it right is possible. It will take time and money and patience, but it is possible.
posted by zardoz at 8:02 PM on January 17 [2 favorites]


I also think the public school system system does a pretty lousy job of fostering interest in reading, largely because of its dogged adherence to classics that most students will find uninteresting, coupled with the dogmatic way they are taught.

I'm skeptical that the situation is as grim as you say. IME, "classics" don't dominate secondary/high school reading lists like you claim they do and when the books are taught badly, they're taught half-assedly by teachers lacking the time or patience to teach them well, not because they insist on dogmatic instruction. I don't why you think that Harry Potter or Mass Effect can't be taught just as badly and I'm even more skeptical that the only remedy for bad teaching is no teaching at all.

Also, I don't think that simply "fostering interest in reading" is a sufficient goal for a language arts/literature education. Such an education should involve the acquisition of reading skills, but it should also (begin to) involve the acquisition of content knowledge, of what literature is and has been. It's unfair to deny students that out of a fear they can't handle anything harder than Harry Potter. Teaching English simply to foster interest in reading is like teaching Chemistry simply to foster interest in blowing shit up.
posted by octobersurprise at 8:36 AM on January 18 [2 favorites]


Students would be better off reading pulpy Mass Effect novels and talking about the narrative differences between the film and book versions of Harry Potter than not reading at all.

Nope


Not being snarky, but really? You think it's better not to read at all than to read pulp novels or compare the Harry Potter books and movies?

I was a voracious reader and a smart kid, and I loathed every single thing I read in high school English. I've since re-read some of those books and quite liked them. There are obviously exceptions to this (and many of you are the exceptions), but many kids just aren't going to get much out of the sophisticated adult novels with adult themes that are part of the canon. Getting kids to enjoy reading, even if it's by letting them pick books off the shelf--genre, pulp, whatever--needs to come before the classics, and some kids are still going to be developing their "enjoying reading" muscles in high school. Forcing literature onto kids that aren't ready for it because it might be your only chance to expose them to it is winning the battle to lose the war, in my opinion. What, exactly, are kids getting from that exposure if all they remember 5, 10, 20 years later is that it was tedious and painful and they haven't read a novel since then?

Comparing reading to chemistry and algebra is misguided, I think. Unless it's part of their job, most people aren't going to do chemistry and algebra problems for entertainment (or enrichment) when they're 30, but people will keep reading if they've learned it can be a pleasurable activity.
posted by Mavri at 9:11 AM on January 18 [3 favorites]


Getting kids to enjoy reading, even if it's by letting them pick books off the shelf--genre, pulp, whatever--needs to come before the classics

Obviously so. No one (or almost no one) is arguing that kids shouldn't be allowed to do that. The dispute is over what part of a student's education that should constitute. Some of it? All of it?

What, exactly, are kids getting from that exposure if all they remember 5, 10, 20 years later is that it was tedious and painful and they haven't read a novel since then?

What are kids getting if schools never expose them to anything harder than they choose to read at the time and they never read anything harder than they choose to afterwards? I don't know that there's much difference between the two. Now and then reading a contemporary novel or two doesn't seem like an accomplishment worth sacrificing the literary past to.

but people will keep reading if they've learned it can be a pleasurable activity.

Your case suggests that people will keep reading even if it wasn't a pleasurable activity. Some won't, it's true, but that's not a big deal, really. No one insists that adults take pleasure in working math problems or doing science experiments. Reading, and more particularly the study of literature, is a discipline like any other. Some people will take to it and some won't. Every student should get the help they need to excel, but it seems foolish not to challenge students out of a fear that they might not want to read novels 20 years later.
posted by octobersurprise at 10:15 AM on January 18


You think it's better not to read at all than to read pulp novels or compare the Harry Potter books and movies?

No, but I think Harry Potter can be ruined in the classroom as easily as The Scarlet Letter can, and I absolutely don't think the solution is to dumb down the books taught (most of Harry Potter is written at like a fifth grade reading level), nor do I think the solution is to abandon any idea of literary quality and just teach whatever. I'd have dropped out if my high school English class started reading airport novels because god forbid a boy have to read a book with the word "petticoat" in it.

I also don't think high school English is for inculcating a joy of reading. So if we're going to dumb down high school curricula to the point that learning about critical thinking, literary analysis, rhetoric, written communication, are no longer part of it, and instead it's just about "reading can be fun!", I don't know, maybe I would rather we just abolish school and let kids loose in the library and see what sticks.
posted by Sara C. at 10:23 AM on January 18 [3 favorites]


I liked High School English, and we were lucky to have mostly pretty good English teachers. I liked most of the standard classic HS reading list (But I had already read a good part of the curriculum two years before when my older brother had the assigned novels.) That said, personally I would hate to force anyone to read something that they didn't really want to. So if I had the power to re-design High School English for the 21st Century, it would be a real mental challenge to balance out these issues.
posted by ovvl at 3:06 PM on January 18


Students would be better off reading pulpy Mass Effect novels

Look, I'm as big a fan of the Mass Effect trilogy of games as anyone, and I've read the first three tie-in novels (Dietz's book is recommended by almost nobody in the fandom), and, by the Goddess, no, please, no. Not for high schoolers, not for anybody.
posted by Halloween Jack at 3:37 PM on January 18 [4 favorites]


Late, but as an addendum to Eyebrow McGee's comment, Hank Green and his collaborators may have contributed to the "continuing" Jane Austen zeitgeist with first "The Lizzie Bennett Diaries" a webseries/Tumblr/Twitter adaptation, and then the group's other two adaptations ("Welcome to Sanditon", "Emma Approved"). By taking the story to a new medium and a new audience (mostly made up of Nerdfighters). Most of the people I knew who were watching were women, but I'd be hella surprised if there weren't any young men watching as well.
posted by TrishaLynn at 7:22 AM on January 19 [1 favorite]


The Millions: The Common Core vs. Books
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 4:51 AM on January 20


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