Monday, January 23, 2006

Educating English

A post over at Kim's place had me thinking about my own education. The discussion focusedme in on the quality of education in English classrooms. I must admit I have a lot of problems with how I was taught English when I went through public school 10+ years ago.

The first is that it tends to focus on books which are frankly quite dull. I remember reading a lot of critically acclaimed stuff in Junior and Senior High and thinking they were really boring. This was because I was reading stories by people like Sartre that weren’t so much novels as a philosophical statements. It was awful. And I read for fun, so I can only imagine what my jock classmates would have thought. There were a handful of enjoyable books every year. I remember liking Tolkein, le Guin, Dumas, Voltaire’s Candide, Treasure Island, etc. But still, if I hadn’t been reading on my own the lesson I would have taken was that most books are boring and suck. I think a lot of english education basically teaches our kids that reading is work and not at all fun.

The second problem is that a lot of literature is taught completely wrong. For instance many Dickens “novels” aren’t actually novels at all. They’re actually serials Dickens wrote for magazines that were later repackaged as novels. David Copperfield is one of these. That’s why it is long and meandering and I never got a sense that it was going anywhere. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen is a chamber novel. It is meant to be read aloud to your friends in manageable sections, so reading it straight through is painful. Most Shakespeare is painful to read off the page because you never understand the flow of the words, but if you read it aloud then the language and pacing starts to work its magic.

Third and most importantly, reading was more about a novel’s content than how it expressed those contents. What literary mechanisms is the author using? How is he/she accentuating important themes? Beats me. All Quiet on the Western Front was about WWI and the overall theme was war destroying the innocence of the youth. I don’t remember anything else. We wrote essays on thematic analysis. Who writes literary essays like that in real life? We never got to write fiction even though we had been studying fiction since kindergarten.

I don't think the English departments in most schools are necessarily bad. They definitely need to pick books for their audience and not just for their the level of comprehension but also the level of motivation.

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