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.

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