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.

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Comments:

# posted by Blogger Joe
My oldest son's greatest work was to write a book report on a fictional book.

My exasperation is that in my childrens' high school, they have to write four book reports a year. On anything and when I read their work, the corrections are lazy and don't actually TEACH a damn thing. Fortunately, my kids can all write pretty damn well for probably biological reasons.

Son #1 hates reading, but would read the manuals for computer games. I proposed he write a report on those, but that didn't fly. Why not? In every sense, it's a hell of a lot more important than reading Shakespeare or Faulkner or whatever the book teacher wrote their masters thesis on.

(My eleventh grade English teacher was great. She got even the anti-readers excited by a) having us take turns reading Twelfth Night out loud in class, b) teaching us all the dirty parts [though she did leave out a few details] and c) having us actually see the play!

Contrast that to my ninth grade teacher who insisted we read Tale of Two Cities, Romeo and Juliet (as a straight romance) and even more tedious nonsense. [Before anyone argues, Dickens is boring as hell, so is Melville and plays are meant to be seen, not read.]
7/25/2011 11:27 AM
 

# posted by Anonymous Wm
Benton's crack about the HVAC grad is exactly part of what's wrong with the discourse around education.

We decry the liberal arts while at the same time minimizing the applied. The reality is that students need to know both -- but they also need to learn all that in the context of a trade, a craft. Being creative and knowing how to communicate are important, even for auto techs (especially if they want to move up and interact with clients -- or start their own shop). But by having these bright lines I think we do ourselves and our young people a major disservice. There is this either/or mentality, which then causes students to turn off parts of themselves.

All of the two-year degree grads at the tech college that I work at know more math (and how to use it) than any of the humanities students I went to grad school with. And what's so sad is not that that state exists but rather that the grad students were proud of that fact. "We're not math people."

As you state, though, what would be better is a real generalist approach with specialization as needed. But the problem is that higher ed doesn't produce generalists, except for the education departments, but since they aren't really about anything they have to make up the elements of their discipline. The how of pedagogy should be an add on to knowledge (especially practical knowledge and real work experience) of a particular field or industry.

When I was doing my certificate in teaching college composition, I expressed enthusiasm about writing for the disciplines and analyzing various discourses. But that was not what was done in that program so I was discouraged from writing papers or putting together (theoretical) lesson plans with that focus.
7/25/2011 11:31 AM
 

# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
And what's so sad is not that that state exists but rather that the grad students were proud of that fact. "We're not math people."

That could explain the love-hate relationship math people seem to have with English people! Math professors will occasionally react towards me as if I'm about to sit down and quiz them on Moby-Dick.

However, at the local business college, a math instructor and I would often commiserate about how the students couldn't write basic sentences OR recite their times table up to 10. Still, he was rather surprised I would agree that knowing the times table was important.

I admit having a special place in my heart for the idea of a well-rounded education (although what that entails is debatable). I think the biggest problem is what Joe mentioned: the work isn't actually examined, so the well-rounded education doesn't pay off. An ESL student in my literature class wrote in his personal introduction that he is going into International business and doesn't see how a literature class can help him. Well, maybe not a literature class that just had him churn out a paper a week, saying, "I read this"!

However, the essays he writes for this course (i.e., me) have to have claims backed by evidence. And the claims have to make sense based on what the (English) short story/book actually says (which are no more complicated or wordy than the average contract). Plus the essay has to be written using good grammar. And if the student can't do that, then going into International business is going to be *slightly* harder than he imagined.
7/25/2011 6:15 PM