The Sin of High School English Class (or Why I Hate Classic Literature)
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? 
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.
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.
 – 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”.
 – 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.