Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Tuesday Book Blogging: what you read in school

Over on Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog there's a discussion going on about what kind of literature is taught in school and how it is taught and which books should be used. I recently had a discussion about this with the friend who took me to opening day and her high school daughter. Can I just say, Berkeley High uses THE most depressing literature in their English classes? And they are all, of course, socially conscious.

Way to make reading all about duty and proper behavior. I agree with one commenter who said, "I have always found a lot of classroom pedagogy (particularly at the middle/high school level) to be more motivated by a perceived need to force a certain set of predetermined cultural signposts on students than by a desire to foster any love of learning. It's far more akin to forcing kids to eat vegetables than it is teaching them to make a nice salad."

I found myself wondering a) Why no humor? b) Why no essays? c) Why no short stories? Do they not count? I don't even know if they include any poetry. If they do, I hope it includes Billy Collins poem about students strapping the poem down to a chair, just to say you don't have to do that.

I asked my friend's daughter how long it took to read a novel. Two months. Two months!? That sounds like strapping a novel down to a chair and "beating it with a hose/to find out what it really means." Why not read something, get the gist, look at one piece, and move on? This is why I don't get why there are no essays or short stories in the mix. Or are there, and this is just Berkeley High?

One of the things I told my friend and her daughter was that I read The Great Gatsby in high school and didn't see what the fuss was about. Then I read it again in college and realized I didn't understand a lot of what was happening. Still wasn't my favorite, though. Then I read it again in my late 20's and realized how much had gone completely over my head as a naive college student. I read it again in my 30's and thought, "Boy, did I miss a lot of that book when I read it before." I need to read it again and see what else I find.

TNC had a great line in his entry: "For me, the love of books is premised on a kind of voluntary submission. The authors I love, are the authors I trust. I freely hand over a portion of my consciousness to their work, and settle back to see what they make of it."

It's tough. Obviously, I think literature, reading, critical analysis is important. But is there a way to do that that isn't (I hate the word) punitive--either to the students or to the writing? I think it's a shame that we have students read books because they are Great Literature when they don't have the experience to filter what's happening. But maybe the stretch is worth it. All I know is I've never considered The Scarlet Letter without a shudder.

What did you read in school that you think, "Boy, was I not ready for that"? And what you think would be great for students to read?


rajm said...

Horrifyingly this UK'an has never read any Scott Fitzgerald (maybe I read Gatsby as school but I can't remember doing so!) thanks for the prod to read it!

Julie said...

I felt the same way as you about "The Great Gatsby." It keeps getting greater every year of my life. "Madame Bovary" sure looked different once I was married with kids.
As a freshman in high school I felt totally unprepared for "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" by Salinger. Still, I think it made me realize that Literature would be the great love of my life; that there were books and authors which grow inside me with repeated readings.
BTW, I too am concerned about the grim reading that young people are fed these days.

Anonymous said...

Much to say, little time to say it right now, so in the meantime I leave you with this "scroll to the editor" from the children of Davis:


Anonymous said...

Returning to this discussion with a little more time to think ...

What did I read in school?

junior high school - some of the plays that have become my enduring favorites, especially Cyrano de Bergerac and Antigone

high school - a wide variety of novels, most of which I've never re-read, including A Separate Peace, Lord of the Flies, All the King's Men, The Bridge of San Luis Rey - also The Devil and Daniel Webster, which I absolutely loved, some plays and poems by Shakespeare, and T. S. Eliot's Sweeney among the Nightingales

On the one hand, I agree with Billy Collins that it would be wrong to beat a poem or a person "to find out what it really means" - but on the other hand, I have to say that my 12th grade English teacher's lesson on how to follow myth and metaphor in Eliot was the only high school class I ever took that actually inspired me to thank a teacher on the spot on the way out of the room.

As far as what people can and can't understand at different ages, I assume that anything I re-read now would make more and different sense to me now than it did then. I'm not sure that's as much of a comment on what we should and shouldn't have to read in school as it is a comment on how we will change over time no matter what we read.

When I was picking my own reading in junior high and high school, for what it's worth, I read equal parts great books, mystery, fantasy, and science fiction. The only books I really didn't want to read were the books with the explicit social message - and it didn't matter to whether they were by Salinger or Hinton when I was making up my mind. I was perfectly willing to read lots of depressing Russian novels of all sorts, but I had no desire to read any depressing American novels of any kind at all.

I'm not sure what to make of all of this, but I'm very curious to hear what others will have to say.