We are doomed, etc.
Something always happens to spoil my morning. Today, it was an article in The Globe & Mail, suggesting that we should do away with the old, crusty idea of teaching students literature, and just let them read, well, whatever the heck they want to.
For the past three years, Dr. Ivey has been involved with a project at a Virginia school in which 300 Grade 8 English students were allowed full choice over their reading with few strings or work attached, other than classroom discussions about shared themes and small group conversations if several students had read the same book. The goal was to get every student engaged in reading – the kind that you do in your own free time.
Why are we moving the reading we do on our own time into the classroom? Because, I suppose, we don’t read on our own time otherwise. So it would make sense to get the kids reading, but the thing that puzzles me is, exactly how are you going to develop literacy beyond the basic level without discussing the book? And how are you going to discuss the book if everyone’s reading a different book?
There’s a distressing overtone to this article. The suggestion is that simply reading is good enough. Dr. Ivey herself confuses the goals of any decent English curriculum:
And to those who argue in favour of a common base of knowledge through class-assigned novels, she scoffs: “The experience of being assigned a book is extremely common. Having knowledge of [that book] is rare.”
But the point of high-school English is not to make sure everyone can quote Hamlet, as this article continually suggests. It’s to make sure that students have the literacy skills to understand Hamlet, and anything else they may read in the future, including half-witted lifestyle articles in The Globe & Mail. The aim of teaching literature at the high-school level is not to teach literature itself, but to teach students how to read it.
We don’t let math students solve the equations they want to solve. We don’t let chemistry students run the experiments they want to run. We don’t do these things because we want these students to learn a set of principles. But with literature, we throw up our hands and say, what the hell; let the universities teach principles to those who want to learn them.
This is important. If fiction becomes a game for people with MA’s, fiction is doomed. The audience that literary fiction should engage includes literate, educated people with degrees in things like aquatic ecology and mechanical engineering—literate, educated people who haven’t taken an English course since high school. Our schools can’t throw up their hands and leave it up to the universities.
We need to improve the way English courses are taught. But declaring that we’ll be happy as long as the kids are reading surely isn’t the solution.