Total effect, redux

March 30, 2010 by · 6 Comments 

An article in yesterday’s Globe and Mail advocated moving away from the practice of assigning classes of schoolchildren a single book to study and toward allowing students to exercise more choice in their reading material for school:

Reading for pleasure – and not because there’s an essay due tomorrow – has been linked to scholastic achievement. Some education researchers have argued that means letting students – particularly in middle school and especially boys – freely choose what pages they want to turn.

“There’s this belief that if you are going to go to a college you have to read certain things,” says Gay Ivey, a professor of reading education at James Madison University in Virginia. “When you think about the kinds of things that very successful, educated, productive people read in their adult lives, they aren’t breaking down the doors of Barnes & Noble to get a copy of The Scarlet Letter.”

True enough. They also aren’t breaking down the doors of Barnes & Noble to get their hands on an algebra textbook, but this doesn’t seem to deter educators from assigning math problems to students. This is where the argument that students should be allowed to choose what they read in school falls flat: it assumes that English literature – unlike, say, math or chemistry – is a subject that requires no familiarity with its background or history. The history of the English novel stretches back to the 18th century, to Defoe and Richardson and Fielding. The history of the novel stretches back even further, to Cervantes and Lady Murasaki. Beyond that, modern English literature can’t be understood without a firm grounding in the classics: in Dante and Homer and the Bible.

Of course, teachers of English literature in middle school classrooms won’t want to hear this, precisely because their students are steeped in the ephemera of modernity – in the X-Box and World of Warcraft and text messaging. Teaching students about the past, and having them immerse themselves in worlds that may seem foreign to them, requires work: it requires teachers to actually teach.

“Ours is the first age in history which has asked the child what he would tolerate learning,” wrote Flannery O’Connor in an essay titled “Total Effect and the Eighth Grade.” That essay was first published in the Georgia Bulletin on March 21, 1963. It is not hard to imagine O’Connor’s response, 47 years later, upon reading the following in The Globe and Mail:

Pam Allyn, a literary expert and the author of What to Read When who runs an organization that educates teachers, agrees that the time has come to abandon the class novel – leaving it to selected high school English classes designed to teach the classics. While some teachers can be effective with the approach, she says that often students tell themselves: “I have to get through this book. I’ve got to learn to understand it the way my teacher wants me to.” That can be boring for good readers, she says, and “devastating” for struggling students.

It’s not hard to imagine how O’Connor – an incisive and uncompromising social critic – would have responded to such a statement, because her likely response is contained in her 1963 essay:

In other ages the attention of children was held by Homer and Virgil, among others, but, by the reverse evolutionary process, that is no longer possible; our children are too stupid now to enter into the past imaginatively. No one asks the student if algebra pleases him or if he finds it satisfactory that some French verbs are irregular, but if he prefers Hersey to Hawthorne, his taste must prevail.

Of course, finding any modern students who even know who John Hersey is, let alone have read any of his books, would be impossible. The modern-day equivalent is likely Stephenie Meyer or the Gossip Girl novels, which should illustrate just how far “the reverse evolutionary process” has regressed us as a culture.

And there are no doubt all sorts of educational theorists (and others) who will work themselves into fits of self-righteous lather over O’Connor’s assessment of children “too stupid now to enter into the past imaginatively,” but this seems to me to be self-evident. The Globe article underscores this when it states that students assigned To Kill a Mockingbird or Wuthering Heights “were turning the pages not with anticipation but with groans.” Not that this is the students’ fault – or, at least, not entirely. It is the responsibility of teachers to convince their students that history – even the history of English literature – did not begin on the day those students were born. It is the teacher’s responsibility to provide students with the tools necessary “to enter the past imaginatively.”

This is important because culture, like anything, does not exist in a vacuum. Students can’t understand where we are today if they remain ignorant of where we’ve been. Teaching the classics is not merely a sop to parents who believe that “what makes a more educated person is if they can quote Hamlet,” in the words of one educator quoted in the Globe article. Rather, it provides essential background for understanding how our society has evolved and what has brought us to our current historical moment. Students may find such inquiry boring (although a good teacher should be able to render it infinitely less so), but that is not material. The purpose of education is to foster knowledge, understanding, and character, not to reinforce attitudes that students already hold.

O’Connor has the last word on pretty much everything, so it is appropriate to give her the last word here:

The high-school English teacher will be fulfilling his responsibility if he furnishes the student a guided opportunity, though the best writing of the past, to come, in time, to an understanding of the best writing of the present. He will teach literature, not social studies or little lessons in democracy or the culture of many lands.

And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.


6 Responses to “Total effect, redux”
  1. Robert J. Wiersema says:

    There are middle schools assigning Wuthering Heights?

    I see your point, SB, and I largely agree with it, but with a significant caveat: if we’re talking about middle school (which the article seems to be singling out), I think a little more flexibility and a little less … indoctrination? … into the history of the novel might be beneficial. At that age, kids are learning to think critically, and if that can be used as an opportunity to foster a pleasure in reading, rather than creating an impression that it’s a task and a sacred duty, it might be significant in the long run…

    Oh, and one thing about the English novel: “Defoe and Richardson and Fielding”? No Aphra Behn? Bad feminist!

  2. Andrew S says:

    I can only see this movement as motivated by declining literacy. The struggle now, apparently, is not to interest kids in literature but to teach them to read at all. There’s a tacit admission that kids won’t read at all on their own, so the goal of a high-school English program is to get them to read, period. The educators pushing this are all about literacy, and not in the least about literature.

    But … at the high-school level, I don’t think it’s necessary to subject kids to the history of literature. We’re trying to equip them with the tools to read above a basic level, and there’s no reason we can’t do that with contemporary novels … except for the problem of sneaking said novels past school boards and conservative parents.

    Which leads to the next point: teachers continue to use the same old books because the process of introducing a new novel is so difficult; someone is always ready to go to the school board. Am I alone in thinking that allowing the kids (and their parents) to choose their own books is, in part, a matter of taking the easy way out?

  3. Sarah says:

    I could not agree with you more. A major component of my grade 7, 8, 9 English classes was the book the class voted on and chose to read in addition to our curriculum (I remember Woolf, Austen, Orwell, Salinger and Steinbeck during these years – such a great foundation.) The result: a heated discussion of Lord of the Flies as influence upon Killing Mr. Griffin by Lois Duncan. You don’t get that without a basic knowledge of the most crucial texts that have been written over the past 100 years. (Though I’m partial to Golding.)

  4. August says:

    Have you read Oroonoko? There’s a reason that book was forgotten for so long, and I dare say it ain’t Behn’s fiddly bits.

    I tend to agree with Steven, but I also think lack of equality of opportunity across school boards sometimes comes into play when setting curricula. I guarantee you part of why I read The Stone Angel in school is because the English dept hadn’t been allotted money for new books since the ’70s. Even my science texts were sold old my friends were finding their parents’ names written in them. (Did you know there are whole high schools devoted to teaching arts based curricula in Ontario? I had no idea until I was in my 3rd year of school and realized these were the people I was competing for scholarships with…)

  5. DGM says:

    This policy of letting children choose what novel to read sounds like part of a general trend in current education: talking down to the students’ level rather than making them work to reach a more adult level of thinking. I don’t have the link, but there was a story in the Globe and Mail a few years back where some consultant or other recommended using simpler language in order to better relate to students: “teach” rather than “educate” was the example I recall from his list of recommended word substitutions.

    I do have to wonder about how education is being handled these days. Right now I’m in a retraining program with guys half my age, and while there are some good and hardworking people there, most of the students act like they have never been challenged in their lives. Half of the take-up time after every class is used up by students arguing over marks and answers to questions. The entitlement really is startling.

    Maybe it’s all cumulative: perhaps teachers have reached the point where they’ll let kids choose whatever comic book or teen-vampire dreck they want to read in class because the effort to get them to look at even simple novels like ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ or ‘Who Has Seen The Wind’ is no longer worth the migranes.

    And yes, because this line is probably expected after such a rant: GET OFF MY LAWN!

  6. Nic Boshart says:

    Beattie! Your awful captcha made me lose my comment again!

    Long response short: The so-called contemporary novels they teach in high school are completely boring and taught alongside the classics, make reading unfun. If kids can relate to reading, perhaps they will find a reason to work through harder books.

    Since I had to repost, you don’t get to see my clever W.O. Mitchell pun.