July 25, 2011
Death to high school English
A new genre of academic essay has emerged of late, in which college professors grumble that their students "don't understand commas, far less how to write an essay." Complains Kim Brooks:
For years now, teaching composition at state universities and liberal arts colleges and community colleges as well, I've puzzled over these high-school graduates and their shocking deficits. I've sat at my desk, a stack of their two-to-three-page papers before me, and felt overwhelmed to the point of physical paralysis by all the things they don't know how to do when it comes to written communication in the English language, all the basic skills that surely they will need to master if they are to have a chance at succeeding in any post-secondary course of study.
The genre strikes me as a way of criticizing the teacher's unions without coming right out and saying so, because then people might assume you're in league with Scott Walker or Chris Christie or other fiends from the bowels of hell.
Though in this case, I wouldn't blame the unions. The problem begins in the universities and their "schools of education," where professors, believing that their students are blank slates, convince their students in turn that teenagers are blank slates, empty vessels into which they can pour "culture."
Even if they could, it ends up being all the same culture. All the same liberal arts education monoculture. The most important question Brooks asks is: "[Is] it really so essential that [high school] students read Faulkner?"
As for the students who did make it to more accelerated English courses, their recollections are a little less disheartening, but only a little. They read Shakespeare, they tell me, usually Romeo and Juliet, sometimes Macbeth. They read Catcher in the Rye or Huck Finn, The Sound and the Fury, a little Melville or Hardy. They read these works and then they talked about them in class discussions or small groups, and then they composed an essay on the subject, received a grade, and moved on to the next masterpiece.
The whole problem is encapsulated right there. I got good at composing those essays, and yet can't remember a book "taught" in high school English that I cared about. Most I loathed. The one thing that high school English classes do very well is make students hate reading, especially writing about reading.
Could there be a more useless real-world skill for everybody that isn't a humanities student (practically the entire population)? Or even those who are? In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Thomas Benton offers for our consideration the prototypical hard-striving daughter of middle-class parents who
goes to graduate school, earns a doctorate in comparative literature from an Ivy League university, everyone is proud of her, and then they are shocked when she struggles for years to earn more than the minimum wage. (Meanwhile, her brother--who was never very good at school--makes a decent living fixing HVAC systems with a six-month certificate from a for-profit school near the Interstate.)
As Car Talk's Tom Magliozzi (he graduated from MIT) says about high school math courses: "The purpose of learning math, which most of us will never use, is only to prepare us for further math courses, which we will use even less frequently than never."
The goal of math should be to add, subtract, multiply and divide. And balance a checkbook. Geometry would consist of identifying a radius, diameter, right angle and hypotenuse. Work in somewhere a simple primer on statistics.
"English" would consist of reading books the students would read if they weren't stuck in a high school English class. Want to learn about Shakespeare? Watch a movie. The goal of composition would be a one page, three paragraph essay.
That's it. Make everything else an elective.