Musings of the Great Eric

The Sin of High School English Class (or Why I Hate Classic Literature)

with 22 comments

It was towards the middle of my senior year of high school, just before senioritis took hold and rendered the rest of High School meaningless. We’d just finished covering a novel in AP English – I forget which one it was exactly, but that’s not important, except that it was yet another painfully boring work of literature. The teacher decided it was time to assign term papers – annual exercises in stupidity too narrow in scope and rigid in structure to have any real educational value beyond a lesson in how to bullshit. We were told that we’d be required to write 10,000 words on a randomly assigned topic concerning work of classic literature or its author. This was met with predictable whining by the class, who began calling out alternatives assignments to the paper that would be more interesting and bearable. Most of the suggestions were merely an attempt at work avoidance, but it did produce this exchange, which has stood out in my memory since:

(Paraphrasing a bit)

Student #1: Can I do it on Lord of the Rings? [1]

Teacher: That’s not any of the topics, sorry. Your term paper has to be on a book we’ve read in class.

Student #2: Hey, can we cover Lord of the Rings in class?

(Many others in the class signal their approval of this idea, offering comments like “Yeah can we?” and “That’d be cool”)

Teacher: No, I don’t think so.

Student #2: Why not?

Teacher: It’s not part of the canon. (He may have said “AP Curriculum” rather than canon, unfortunately this was 8 years ago and my memory is fuzzy.)

To recap: students showed a genuine interest in reading and learning a particular work of literature, but the idea was shot down because what they wanted to learn wasn’t on the pre-approved list of things that they’re supposed to learn. This one incident represents most of what’s wrong with our education system, but for this post I plan to dwell on how English class kills literature.

A brief aside:

From the time I was young, I was a voracious reader. I began with Berenstein Bears and progressed through Hardy Boys and Superfudge, which I read too many times to count. My first “real” book was Ender’s Game. I read Jurassic Park, my first “adult” novel, at the age of 11 during the summer before the 6th grade. Though I also liked and had no shortage of video games, TV and movies, I loved reading.

This love of reading was unquestionable right up until 9th grade English Honors (the precursor to 11 & 12th grade AP English courses), when we were assigned to read Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Attempting to be a good student, I put aside the book I was reading at the time and took up Great Expectations instead. It’s the first book I ever read that I didn’t enjoy reading. In fact, it’s not much of a stretch to say I hated it – I thought the book was boring and repetitive, the characters were irrational and stupid, and that the plot made little sense. (I’ve since come to appreciate Dickens a little more as an author, but I still don’t feel Great Expectations is one of his better works).

The only thing I learned from reading the novel was that there’s little that can sour a love of reading except for assigned reading. I was immediately annoyed by the fixed “pace” of the assigned reading. Though I was a voracious reader, I was also a sporadic one. Reading X chapters a night just didn’t fit with the way I liked to do it. I also found that there’s just something particularly distasteful about being forced to read a book you don’t like, in a way that doing other schoolwork I didn’t like wasn’t.

On completing Great Expectations, the assigned reading immediately switched to the next “classic” (which one I don’t now recall, though I know I didn’t like it any better), at which point I realized that it just wasn’t going to stop. So I opted for the Cliff’s notes and began doing the bare minimum to get through English class – I realized it was the only way that I’d actually get to read anything I actually wanted to read in the next four years.

The amount of despise that I came to have for “classic literature” shouldn’t be surprising given the basic form the class followed. My four years of high school English and the AP Curriculum were a never ending parade of assigned reading, with absolutely no suggestion of enjoying, exploring, or discovering literature on our own. We’d be given a book and we’d be told to read a couple of chapters a night. In class the next day, we’d be told what the major symbols and themes were, and the names of particular techniques the author might have used. Then we were quizzed on it. We were never really asked to analyze the novel for ourselves or taught how to do it. It was just an exercise in forcing down our throats novels written by authors that a teenager couldn’t relate to, set in times that a teenager couldn’t relate to, and featuring characters that a teenager couldn’t relate to.[2]

The most illustrative example I can recall of how painfully wrong this curriculum was comes in the form of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, which I was made to read in the 10th grade. (I gave it an honest effort too – mostly because it was a solid week or two after beginning it in class before I was able to pick up a copy of the Cliff’s notes).

It’s worth giving a little context here. My favorite genre had always been science fiction, and at the time I’d just begun reading for the first time the “classic” science fiction of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Robert A. Heinlein, among others. While these works vary considerably in terms of style, setting, plot, thematic elements, and quality, they do share some common elements with each other and with each other and the rest of the science fiction genre. They hold rationality as an ideal. Scientists, or at least scientific thinkers, are the heroes. They create worlds that are drastically different from anything that we’re familiar with, but share a common set of rules with our own – and are internally consistent with whatever deviations there are from those rules. And the characters approach these worlds by using reason to try to make sense of them, thus making them accessible to the characters and reader alike.

Which brings me back to The Scarlet Letter. My primary thought while reading it was as follows: “These people are all fucking idiots”.

I’d already known the puritans were all religious lunatics; I didn’t see why I needed to read a book that did little more than illustrate how stupid and irrational they were. By contrast to those science fiction novels I had been reading, there’s not one character in The Scarlet Letter who acts the slightest bit of logic or reason, or even demonstrate themselves capable of such. How and why the characters behaved the way they did made no intuitive or logical sense to me, and it’s hard to find much enjoyment in a novel where you just want to reach through the page and smack the characters for being stupid.

For contrast, take Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Thought militaristic fascism is just as alien to me as puritanism, and it’s a point of view that I disagree with every bit as vehemently, I was at least made to understand it. The author laid out the reasons the characters behaved and thought the way they did, and through world building, justified the society he was portraying. And because the explanations were fundamentally rational, I could make sense of that world and had a basis for considering (and challenging) the ideas in the book. In fact, Starship Troopers taught me more about fascism than pretty much anything else I’ve ever read, because it’s the only book that forced me to think about it on a higher level than “Hitler is evil!”

I just didn’t get that from The Scarlet Letter though – even if the characters were being rational in the context of their world, it appeared fundamentally irrational to me. I just couldn’t relate to it, and at no point did the author try to help me relate to it by explaining why the characters were acting the way they did in any kind of rational way. He just kind of assumed that puritanism would make sense to us and we could relate to that, even though puritanism itself is more alien to me than any alien culture yet conceived of by a science fiction author. (Just try to imagine Starship Troopers committing the same fallacy – a bunch of characters going about their lives in a fascist society, but without any of the world building Heinlein did that made that society defensible and believable)

This is the great failure of the English curriculum. I can imagine my experience with the novel being quite different had my English teacher done the kind of world-building that Hawthorne didn’t think necessary. (Note that this is different from providing historical context – who and what the puritans were is quite different from why the puritans were that way and how they got there). But my teacher didn’t do this, and I’ve never heard of a High School curriculum that would. Instead, we got a lecture on how the letter “A” was used as a symbol and were given a laundry list of themes. Eventually we were asked to regurgitate that information on a test, and then moved on. If the aim was that we’d understand or appreciate The Scarlet Letter, it failed.

In any case, my real gripe isn’t with this novel or any particular work of literature per se, it’s the way English class essentially tried to herd me away from the stuff I enjoyed reading in favor of stuff that easily could have turned me off to reading altogether (Thankfully, it didn’t). What’s funny is that I now appreciate literature a lot more than I did then – but that’s despite, not because of, English class. The way literature is taught is upside down and backwards, and fosters a dislike of reading rather than a love of it. The idea that students are discouraged from exploring and discovering on their own terms for the love of doing it should horrify educators, yet in in this domain it seems to be the status quo.

The seventh and final novel in the Harry Potter series will be released on Friday night. In an age of Cartoon Network, MySpace, the Nintendo Wii, and a thousand other media options – millions of children will be hanging around book stores on Friday to eagerly get their copy as soon as it goes on sale at midnight. The job of English teachers should be to foster that love of reading, not prematurely (and incompetently) force literature on students to the detriment of reading they’d be doing otherwise.

[1] – For the record, it’s my opinion that The Lord of the Rings is one of the great works of literature of the 20th century. It’s every bit as complex, multi-layered, and worthy of study as anything else covered in English class. The books signature flaw seems to be that it’s popular, which lessens its value among stuffy English types who define the “canon”.

[2] – In fairness, it wasn’t all bad. I grew to like Shakespeare – say what you will about the man, but he wasn’t boring. Morte D’Arthur did nothing for me, but it did inspire me to pick up TH White’s Once and Future King. I liked Mark Twain quite a bit. Lord of the Flies and The Call of the Wild weren’t bad either.

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Written by Eric

July 20, 2007 at 8:00 am

22 Responses

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  1. I could not agree with you more. I do not believe any high school student will enjoy The Scarlet Letter. While I am sure it and other classics forced down our throats in high school are great, I just think students at that level are prepared for it. They just end up thinking that reading is something to be avoided. I think I was a little luckier than you, my 11th grade honors English teacher let me write a term paper on Piers Anthony. Of course, since I was interested in the topic I had no problem writing it an got an A.

    Greg

    July 21, 2007 at 7:21 am

  2. I generally agree with what you’ve written (although I think some of your historical comments are off base, such as Puritans being lunatics). Out of all the books I was assigned from junior high through college (1979-1989) I enjoyed exactly two: “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “1984”. I have since re-read both and they are indeed great books. Re-read “Ivanhoe”? Forget about it.

    scotty

    July 21, 2007 at 7:39 am

  3. This is exactly what my high school experience was. I love reading, and I’ve loved it for as long as I can remember. But I hated my high school English. To accentuate the lack of logic I read Great Expectations as a freshmen, then The Giver and The Hobbit as a sophomore. I did the assignments for both of those by memory.

    The only class I did enjoy was my AP English class because the teacher was reading most of the books for the first or second time as it was her first year teaching the class, so she was learning with us, instead of teaching at us. I really enjoyed several of the books we read, which was a new experience for me. But once I hit college, I started using sparknotes because I got the same amount of learning out of it as I did when I read the books. Which is sad, because a lot of books we read this last year I had wanted to read for a long time, and now they’re pretty ruined for me. I hate over-analysis – in 11th grade we read The Great Gatsby, which when I think back to it, I did like. But the teacher completely killed any interest I had in it while reading it. Sad really…

    Megan

    July 21, 2007 at 12:27 pm

  4. Hawthorne hated science, so it’s no wonder you didn’t like him. I don’t remember reading the whole Scarlet Letter in HS (30 years ago by now) but we did read some of his short stories like “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”. It’s hard to avoid him since he came from our town. Still, he wasn’t as bad as the senior English lit teacher who tried to get Joyce in us!

    David Moisan

    July 23, 2007 at 6:54 am

  5. Thanks for the comments all.

    #2 – To call the Puritans “lunatics” may have been a tad hyperbolic, but I stand by the general assessment. Religious belief is nonsensical enough – the kind of fundamentalist totalitarian theocracy they tried to build is just insane. I don’t know how else to describe it.

    #4 – Interesting. I haven’t actually read anything else by Hawthorne; I’d always assumed that the vibe I got from that book was due to the historical setting of the novel rather than the personality of the author. Perhaps it was both.

    Eric

    July 23, 2007 at 11:18 am

  6. I hear you! I hate Dickens, Hemingway, pretty much almost all “classic” writers. We just plain weren’t allowed to read something in school unless it was as depressing as possible. Reading “Brave New World” was considered an upper in my high school, and you know how that one ends. (And that was just a singly assigned book, not overall reading for everyone.) Hell, my school thought it was important that we learn more about a wannabe pedophile (Death in Venice) than anything else.

    It’s a good thing I already liked reading before school, because I sure as hell hated reading in school Even in middle school, they at least had to kill off the pets, as opposed to half or all of the book’s cast like usual.

    Jennifer

    July 23, 2007 at 4:07 pm

  7. Oh Eric! My Mistress is making me cosplay to work. HAHA! That’s truly geek and S/M.

    Jade

    July 24, 2007 at 4:22 pm

  8. Eric,

    I like the way your veiw English classes in todays society. It is true that some teachers don’t go into the full details and meanings of what you are instructed to read, but not all teacchers are like that. I have to read The Scarlet Letter for my 10th grade honors class. True, it is an extrmely boring peice of literature for me, but I have found that their is a lot of feeling that Hawthorne put into that book after all the research that I was also instructed to do which has given me a deeper understanding of why he wrote this book. I wouldn’t have learned any of this information with out the prodding of my teacher who always pushes us to look deeper into what the author has to say and symbolizes in their writing. Personally, I like the classics ( I’ve read Great Expectations and love reading Dickens, Bronte, Jane Austin, Alexander Dumas, ect), but I also LOVE science fiction and other generes of literature. Just a suggestion, but now that you are older, why dont you give the classics another chance.

    Alex Van Buren

    August 7, 2007 at 2:35 pm

  9. […] by a bureaucratic group rather than student’s own interests, learning styles, and pace. See The Sin of High School English Class for one example, where among other things I discuss how the curriculum manages to kill a love of […]

  10. I sympathise with your views on classic literature. I was put off it at school in the UK, they are just as bad and why they picked US literature as the books for examination rather than British I will never know. American has not been English for a long time – the same is true for Strine and Kiwi by the way. Nowadays in fiction I read fantasy almost exclusively with occasional dips into SF but most of the time I read nonfiction – Colin Wilson’s books for example are fascinating, though he seems to have had no new ideas recently.

    The puritans were not really lunatics. They were sane in the context of their world. Their world was insane by our standards. I recall reading a book that described how, in medieval times, it was logical to believe in witchcraft, or try animals for crimes.

    How Puritanism arose is a fascinating question, though less important than how to cure and prevent it. I suspect puritanical religions arise when a powerful personality who is not getting enough sex decides, consciously or otherwise, that everyone else should suffer too. I have great fun applying this to religious nutters of all faiths. So far the theory stands up well.

    I also consider organised religions – i.e those with a full time priesthood, are little different from fascism and valueless as paths to spiritual progress.

    I agree Lord of the RIngs is a great book. I read it as a teenager but never again. Streven Ericsson’s tales from the Malazan book of the fallen is, I think, much more complex, but again I have no desire to reread them. On the other hand I reread Tery Pratchett’s books quite often and I recall reading Arthur Waley’s translations of Monkey several times.

    aayawa

    September 11, 2007 at 2:42 pm

  11. I came across your article as I was searching doing research for the development of the English novel. I wanted to say that as a college student and an aspiring English high school teacher I know that some teachers can be very boring and believe me, there are plenty of novels out there that are not worth reading, even ones that are considered to be classics. But, there are also many other subjects that all students are “forced” to learn in school that are boring. Most of your arguments about why you hate English class are really subjective. You would have a much better argument by coming up with some real evidence of why Great Expectations shouldn’t be a classic. Honestly, I don’t even think you know why it IS a classic.
    The great thing about literature is that as long as you have some evidence to back up your argument you can say whatever you want about the books you’re reading. Hopefully the system of teaching English will make some changes to really teach the students why the classics are classics. I wish all students had a teacher like I did who let us write our opinions based on facts from the novel instead of just trying to “regurgitate that information on a test.” Not everyone has to think their English class is the most exciting thing of their life, but hopefully teachers and students can make all that time spent in the classroom a little more valuable and maybe the students can start to appreciate literature earlier on in their lives.

    Phil

    November 2, 2007 at 3:43 pm

  12. Exactly my sentiments on Hawthorne’s work. I think I would have really enjoyed and benefited from his stories- if I had been left to digest them on my own. My English teacher simply force-fed us a prefabricated line of thought on the book- I felt like a machine piece rolling down an assembly line, getting bolted and clamped with a way of thinking that wasn’t my own. The teacher listed themes and facts from the book (after telling us to skip Hawthorne’s entire introduction to the book, using the rationale that Hawthorne wrote it for filler material anyway) and informed us exactly what we should think and conclude from this information. There was a sort of crushing silence that stifled any sort of comment from the students, and everyone gradually slipped into a collective doze, as if our teacher were a thousand miles away at the other end of a fiber-optic cable. How could we relate to such a perspective on a work of literature set so far from our home time and place? It was like a one-man band preaching to a assembly of zombies.
    Anyway, I agree wholeheartedly that dissecting, feeding, regurgitating, and reswallowing the content of a book doesn’t do much for anybody, least of all the students. I am a lover of classics, and it is painful to participate in a class where dozens of students are sitting there hating a masterpiece simply because they don’t understand it and the teacher refuses to understand why they don’t understand it. These teaching methods are producing dozens per grade who claim they “don’t like reading” since they hate their English class. How can young people gain the perspectives and insights into their world provided by literature if they are denied the chance to clip their own interpretations to the heavy texts?

    Marrie

    April 3, 2008 at 6:16 am

  13. Hahaha i totally agree! I love to read, but the things that they have us read in high School really makes me not want to read! but thankfully our English class this year gave us a little slip and let us pick a book since all we did was complain when he gave us “As I Lay Dying” right after the GREAT “Scarlet Letter”.

    We complained so much, he was like “you know what, will just do our own book assignments with the books that you guys choose”

    It really was a great thing though. Everyone read their book, and everyone would sit in class and actually WANT to talk about their book. Everyone wanted to share it was a great experience.

    thank you so much for this.
    it was comforting to know that people before suffered jsut as much as we are now!
    Sincerely,
    Jennifer!

    Jennifer

    June 3, 2008 at 11:52 am

  14. I most definitely agree with what you’re saying, my English class this year actually agrees with you so much that we all were assigned to write a paper complaining about it, much like you have here.

    I blame the curriculum more than the teacher, my English teacher agrees fully with the fact that most of the “classics” we are forced to learn are boring and depressing.

    In a world where teenage suicide is an every day thing, and where functional illiteracy is on the rise, we should be able to read the books we decide to read, not the books some board of old people tell us we have to read because they’re “classics.”

    My English teacher also gave us a free-read assignment, where he gave us a list of books he’s read or heard of that he thought were good, and you also had the option to get a book approved by him as well, and we got to read and digest the book on our own accord. No one read the same book, but everyone did the assignment, enthusiastically. It was a rare sight, an entire class of students reading and enjoying the books.

    thanks for this, it’s definitely a good point.

    Shauna

    June 3, 2008 at 11:52 am

  15. I really do agree with everything you’re saying.
    My class read “The Scarlet Letter” and several other “classics” that were written over a century ago in a different era, a different world, by people that were living then, and are 6 feet under today.
    Don’t get me wrong, I do like some classics, like “Pride and Prejudice”….however, sometimes I think that these so called “classics” are only called “classics” for their freaking age.
    My teacher let us do a free read project, and it was a breathe of fresh air.
    I think if more schools put that into their high school curriculum, students wouldn’t hate english as much, or rather, hate reading.

    Sincerely,
    Elizabeth

    Elizabeth

    June 3, 2008 at 8:12 pm

  16. English is a very subjective class. If you do not write according to the way your teacher’s wants it, you get a bad grade. The same goes for college/university english courses. It’s really a joke. A lot of teachers I have come across have different requirement standards in your writing. Some say you do something wrong. Another teacher will say its right. From my experience, it seems like no teacher ever really agrees with each other. Sad but true.

    GG

    November 1, 2008 at 11:55 am

  17. I agree that reading things for school takes a lot of the fun out of it. Most of the sophomores at my school had to read Lord of the Flies, and most of them came out hating it. I read it on my own, and loved it.

    Lord of the Rings is definitely literature.

    Nimi

    February 13, 2011 at 3:20 pm

  18. I agree with almost everything you said. I can’t stand the “classics.” I actually went to an advanced high school and our teacher DID ask us what the symbolism was. He wouldn’t tell us what the themes were until after our quiz where we had to write up to a page describing the themes. About every 2-3 books/stories we had to write a paper and got almost no guidance. We had to come up with the topics and themes on our own. I hated every second of it. I’m a successful engineer in my 40’s now and I can tell you that reading and analyzing literature written by a bunch of dead people has not helped me in my life in any way whatsoever.

    Bob J

    June 3, 2011 at 7:08 pm

  19. I could not agree with you more. The only books, bar one, that we’ve had to read in class have been classics (Wuthering Heights) or not-classics-but-really-old books that don’t have much meaning to a class of teenage girls.
    I am finding Wuthering Heights really hard to relate to, because I generally read sci-fi or fantasy, and because it’s so old and, well, boring.
    We’re expected to read books that have a higher level of thinking associated with them, because we’re in an advanced class, but I don’t see why we can’t read books that are more modern, and easier to relate to.
    My English teacher last year said ‘people don’t hate reading, but they hate reading what they’re given’. I believe that if we were allowed to choose what we wanted to read for our assignments, the overall grades for my English class (and other English classes) would go up. For instance if I was allowed to do my film study on George Orwell’s ‘1984’ rather than ‘Wuthering Heights’, I’d probably get a higher grade than I’m going to get on Wuthering Heights.

    Emma

    June 5, 2011 at 9:28 pm

  20. I totally agree, in fact I was just saying this to my friend yesterday. I’m in 9th grade honors English right now and to say I hate it would be an understatement. Every day I go to class, knowing what to expect; A “class discussion” in which my teacher tells us everything we would ever need to know about some of the most overanalyzed works ever. This year we have read “To Kill a Mockingbird” “Romeo and Juliet” and now “The Odyssey”. While I enjoyed “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the others have been a bear. I just feel like we have no freedom to draw our own conclusions about unexplored literature. Maybe, I would have more fun writing my research paper if it was on something I actually enjoyed reading, rather than something I was forces to read, and told what to think.

    Katherine

    May 27, 2013 at 1:00 pm

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  22. […] The Sin of High School English Class. Respond objectively to the piece OR choose and answer 3 prompts from the list […]


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