March 26, 2012

Burn Down High School English and Start Over

Why don't kids love this stuff?
Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

I couldn't sleep last night because I was thinking about my old high school English classes and feeling angry. I'm at Northwestern now, and it's become increasingly clear that writing is what I want to do. I loved writing back in high school as well, so one would think I'd have loved English class, but it was the most worrisome school subject for me. I read the assigned novels (except Huckleberry Finn, which was apparently one assignment too many for me at the time, so sorry Mrs. Hicks or whatever your name was!) and I wrote all the essays, but I may as well have handed them in to an especially vindictive and snarky Sumatran tiger, because they came back to me with ink clawed all over every page. 

This may sound entitled, but it is a bad sign when the top student in the senior class is enthusiastic about your topic, tries his hardest on every assignment, and gets a 5 on the AP test, but he can't manage an A in your class. At some level, something in the system's not functioning correctly.

What's worse, high school English killed my taste for fiction. In eighth and ninth grade, I read a ton of Thomas Pynchon, partially because I wanted to feel better than everybody, but also because his style is so incredibly fluid and pervasive, that I didn't need to understand every reference or even follow the plot particularly well. Even when he's talking about a man stuck head-first into a toilet while Malcolm X lubes up his asshole and rapes him, the style is just beautiful beyond words, so to speak. By twelfth grade, I was done with fiction (besides writing it occasionally, which is difficult when you don't read much) and onto reading nothing but history books, when I was reading anything at all.

The Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic to the right articulates the problem pretty well. To test how "well" you read a novel in English class, teachers either ask about the text or the subtext. Either option is horrible.

If you ask questions about the text, you're on a tightrope between two vast chasms of awfulness, because easy questions make the test and class seem meaningless (What's the main character's name? Congrats on your A!) and hard questions make the test and class seem meaningless and vicious (What does Wernher von Braun say about ennui in Chapter 8 and what does it mean for the story as a whole? Shame on you for your F!).
Some of that part of Gravity's Rainbow I'm talkin' 'bout

If you ask questions about the subtext, then your class still faces the same accusations of meaninglessness. First of all, hunting for symbols in a piece of entertainment is a horribly pretentious and labor-intensive process for high school students. Then consider that even two literature professors are incredibly unlikely to come up with the same subtextual meaning over the course of an entire novel. Any art that can only be interpreted and understood in one way is vapid. So students have to be told what to think about a novel's meaning, and that's just not how art works. If a high school teacher told you exactly what the Mona Lisa means, you'd feel either insulted or confused, and that's basically the two options you have as a reasonably intelligent high school English student.

Asking questions about subtext also assumes that there's a correct answer. Yet every author faces subtext in a different way, and many of them claim to never think about subtext at all. This terrific Paris Review article details one high school student's survey of popular living authors' attitudes on subtext and symbolism. This sort of justified skepticism when it comes to authorial intent destroys the basis for "symbol hunting" in English lit classes, the premise of objectivity shattered in front of a whole class of frustrated students.

For what it's worth, it seems like the AP test graders for English literature face the problem fairly well. You're given two very brief passages and told to analyze some aspect of it. Flash fiction and poetry is much simpler to analyze, limiting the realm of possible answers down to a manageable size. Then the third question on the AP exam lets you pick from a giant list of novels, talking about one particular common thing to analyze like a certain character's sense of justice. Here, the field is so open and non-specific that students are allowed to come to their own conclusions and build them without worrying so much about being "right." Presumably, the AP graders give a passing grade to writing that's competent and well-reasoned, rather than, again, trying to make novels into a puzzle with one solution handed down from God.

Meaning and analysis of literature is a tricky area, and clearly not every English teacher can handle it competently. Students should be taught some techniques of analysis, and that art can have subtextual meaning, but making it the entire topic of a whole cornerstone of education is preposterous. English literature classes need to teach an appreciation for beautiful language, because that's really what literature is about. Write something beautiful. Not a "towering riddle of symbology."