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A Trip Back to High School English

January 18, 2014

While browsing through Andrew Sullivan’s blog, I stumbled upon a short post called “Kids Can’t Handle the Fiction?” (semi-permeable paywall), which brought me to two articles about teaching novels to high school students.  The first, from Natasha Vargas-Cooper, argues that high school English classes ought to focus more on nonfiction, which teenagers would better be able to understand.  The second, a response from Margaret Eby, sympathizes with Vargas-Cooper’s position but suggests that the point of novels is the confusion or ambiguity which they present.

I can see it both ways.  I do wish I’d been exposed to more nonfiction before I got to college.  When I took a class devoted to reading nonfiction I didn’t have much of a vocabulary for discussing it.  On the other hand, I believe the ambiguities which Eby highlights provide fertile ground for conversations, and I’d hate to see that lost.  But I’m not an expert in pedagogy, so maybe I’m off-base on that count.

I can, however, tap back into my high school student mindset, and from that perspective I don’t see how a change from novels to nonfiction would really change anything.

Ninth-grade English did its best to kill my love of reading.  This was not intentional, of course, but despite being avid reader for all my life, that class made me seriously reconsider that relationship.  The way the material was presented sucked all the fun out of the works.  Poe’s “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” were only significant for being structurally similar stories.  Long Day’s Journey into Night was merely a source of alcohol-related vocabulary words.  Great Expectations existed.

Worst of all was Shakespeare.  Nowadays, Shakespeare is my absolute favorite writer.  Even his bad plays fascinate me (looking at you, Pericles), and a thunderstorm doesn’t pass with some quote from King Lear.  But after ninth-grade English, I held the stereotypical high school student view of Shakespeare: old writer dude who wrote incomprehensibly and who teachers liked for some odd reason.  That year we read Julius Caesar, and none of the political drama or personal relationships shone through.  Nope, it was just a random assemblage of metaphors and similes and puns which are no longer funny.  No wonder I hated it so much.

So far, it just sounds like bad teaching.  Try hard enough and you can make any subject boring.  But if I go forward in time just one year, I start doubting that’s the case.  In middle school, I read The Grapes of Wrath for fun, and despite being unable to quite relate to the plight of the Dust Bowl farmer, I still enjoyed the book.  But then it was assigned as summer reading for tenth-grade English.  Second time around and going through it was like pulling teeth.  And I can’t blame teaching there, because my teacher that year was great and energetic and almost made me care about Hawthorne.

In fact, what happened with me and The Grapes of Wrath repeated itself quite a bit in high school English classes.  Nineteen Eighty-FourBrave New WorldLord of the Flies: all books I loved when read for pleasure but semi-loathed when assigned for class.  And this is what I’m trying to get at: high school reading is homework.  What high school student enjoys doing homework?  Even if it’s a subject they like, they will feel some bit of resentment for being required to do it.

Why would a change to nonfiction appeal more to high school students?  Sure they could more easily relate, as Vargas-Cooper might say, to literal mounting-climbing than metaphorical mountain-climbing, but that doesn’t change the school setting.  Dickens or Didion, Brontë or Baldwin, homework is homework.  It’s still a time-suck, something keeping me from watching dumb videos on the Internet.

I’m certainly not arguing to eliminate assigned reading, nor am I saying that nonfiction shouldn’t be in high school English classes.  But unless high school students magically have changed since I graduated, I can’t imagine a curriculum change will make classes more appealing.

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