Thursday, July 28, 2011

On the classics: not teaching the canon does not mean not being intellectual

I spent the past weekend with two old college friends who both studied literature (one drama, one English) in college. I love both of these women dearly and value their opinions above almost everyone else's. The last two times we've gotten together, we've gotten into hot debates about my stance on reading canonical texts. This past weekend, they really made me think a lot about my position on this issue. I worry a lot about sounding strident. Also about sounding anti-intellectual. So I wanted to try to rehash a few points here (mostly for myself, as this blog is mostly for myself.)

The first and most important is that I DO absolutely believe passionately in liberal education. I'm an English teacher, for crying out loud!! Of course I want my students to read critically, to read difficult texts that challenge their thinking and their use of language, and to think about themes that are, if not universal, then nearly universal to modern human life.

The second thing is that we actually do miss a lot about modern human life if we only teach what the majority of English teachers still call "the classics," books like The Scarlet Letter, Romeo and Juliet, and Huckleberry Finn. These are three of the top ten titles in a study conducted in 1988, in the midst of the culture wars, about the most commonly taught books in American high schools. High schools are like the Alps of the culture wars--they didn't encroach very far. Now, granted, 1988 was a long time ago, but more recent studies in some regions have produced similar results. In 1988 the top ten book-length texts taught in high schools had barely changed from what they were twenty-five years earlier. There was only one book by a woman on the list. There were no books by people of color. Now, you may be saying, but that's only the top ten. I bet all of those schools have books by people of color on their syllabi, just not the same books. But that kind of proves the same point--even books that are practically canonized like Their Eyes Were Watching God or The House on Mango Street or, inscrutably to me, Black Boy still do not appear on these lists. I happen to love To Kill a Mockingbird, but its racial politics are not unproblematic. If that book is the only book featuring African American characters that students across the country read, then we have a problem.

The third thing (which I will try to make the last) is something I worry a lot about now: many English teachers have been persuaded that students should be able to read books that are not "classics," books that include young adult literature and lots of urban fiction. But these same English teachers still create a stark divide between these texts and "classics." It's true that students require more help reading difficult texts and so these texts are better taught as whole-class texts than read independently. But let's not reproduce the old distinction between "high" and "low" literature. Let's instead teach our students that the criteria of literary merit are not set in stone. They are, in fact, always changing, if ever so slightly. If we maintain this high/low divide--especially if we continue to teach the old "classics" while allowing students to read books that "mirror their experiences" by "lesser" authors, then what message are we sending about writers of color? There certainly are great ones out there. Let's teach them, too.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Distinction and Education, or, what really happens at cocktail parties?

Pop quiz: How many times in your life have you ever been at a cocktail party and heard someone make a hilarious or highly sophisticated reference to Hamlet or Great Expectations?

I ask this question because it is exactly the scenario that someone always brings up when you start trying to get people to talk about WHY we teach "the canon" or "the classics."

So, has it ever happened to you? Did you get it? Understanding a cultural allusion feels good. It makes you feel like you're part of the "in" crowd. It makes you feel smart.

What if you didn't get it? Did you feel dumb? Did you say that you didn't get it? (If so, you're very brave!) Did the people talking to you at the hypothetical cocktail party make you feel dumb? If so, then they were using their cultural capital in order to create a distinction between you and them: they're in, you're out.* In other words, they were being elitist. Most of the time, we Americans think that elitism is downright anti-American.

But, for some reason, good ol' anti-American elitism is alive and well in the halls of English education. And your English teacher wants you to be prepared. When she imagines the cocktail party, she imagines that the next thing that the people at the cocktail party are likely to do after making you feel stupid is to malign your high school English teacher, and teach you to curse her name. This is the fear that keeps people teaching The Scarlet Letter and Walden year after year after year. They think about those college professors who will sneer at their students' public school educations when they learn that the student can't correctly identify the author of Pride and Prejudice or The Jungle. And I can tell you, of the four titles mentioned in this paragraph, I, scholar of literature lo these many years, sure as hell hated three of the four when I read them in high school. Can you guess which one I liked?

You were right, it was Jane Austen. Because it's a romantic comedy!

Yes, we all know that it's not our job to make the students like school--it's our job to torture them--but here's the thing: there is ample evidence that assigning texts that kids don't like to read and that aren't interesting to kids is likely to cause them to read less and less over time, and to believe that they are not capable of critical reading. In fact, high school students on average read FEWER books per year than middle school students. And trust me, it's not because the books they're reading are longer.

For the record, I certainly don't think that being intellectual is the same thing as being elitist. I want my students to read widely and think deeply, to have an awareness of the world and of a variety of societies and cultures. I also think that there is absolutely something to be said for being part of a community of readers that shares background knowledge and stories and traditions. But then let's be clear: we're talking about something else there, not about what one needs to read. (This is where I would insert a clip of one of those Jay Leno street-ambush things where we go through Times Square asking people who wrote Romeo and Juliet and they all get it wrong.)

I'm not going to stop teaching Romeo and Juliet. Know why? Students LOVE Romeo and Juliet. They also LOVE The Odyssey. And these older texts have themes that speak to them and to our time, and lead us to have amazing discussions. But these are the questions we should be asking when we decide what texts to teach. We should not be worrying about the curses that will come down on us from future cocktail parties and college professors.

Do I hope that my students go off into the world quoting Shakespeare at cocktail parties? No, because let's be honest. That's super nerdy.

*the words "cultural capital" and "distinction" come from the work of the French cultural theorist Pierre Bordieu. Google him.