Monday, January 20, 2014

Classic Literature and Education issues

Hemingway-LiveLikePosterI’ve had or seen a few discussions lately about what should and shouldn’t be taught in high schools. Now, I’m not a teacher, but I have done quite a fair bit of research into educational issues and I’ve had a fair bit of education beyond high school, strongly in the literature, art, and psychology fields. Education is of major importance. We all know this as a fact. What we can’t seem to agree on is what it should consist of and how it should come about.

One conversation was with a young friend who felt that art and music should be taught in schools but should not be graded. One of her points was that it brought her grade point down because she’s not good at it. I understand that reasoning. It’s not something she plans to do in her life, anyway, so why grade such things? Heck, I felt that way about science. Math, I understood why it was necessary. We all use at least the basics and theories. Biology? Chemistry? Botany? No, I still see no use in my life for having to have been graded on any of that. Yes, it’s everywhere. Yes, it affects us all. But learning what little I learned of it has not helped my work.

Or did it? The thing is: the seemingly simple event of learning something new makes more difference than most of us understand. Our brains are like any other muscle; the more we use them, the stronger they get, and the more varied things we learn, the more supple they become.

So, this brings me back to the article I read on a book site that really got me fuming, not only because of the vulgarity and condescending tone in it, but because her whole thesis was that since she hated and didn’t understand Hemingway, or other classics, all classic lit should be thrown out of high school lit classes. Most high school sophomores, she said, have “no frame of reference to tap into the heady though subtle emotions that course through Hemingway’s novels.”

Wait. No frame of reference? But isn’t that what fiction is supposed to give us? A wider frame of reference? As far as I know, teens don’t have a frame of reference to tap into the emotions of vampires who live forever if they suck blood or magicians with powers that make them the most important person in the wizard world, either. Does that mean since, as a young teen I lived in the middle of cornfields in an average working class family far away from war, had never had an illicit affair, and had never experienced impotency or traveled to Spain, I couldn’t begin to understand Hemingway’s characters’ emotions? I did, though. I understood them fine through my limited frame of reference.

Since the article’s author loves In Cold Blood and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas better than Hemingway, yes, we should throw out all of the classics and have sophomores read about druggies destroying their lives but being oh, so cute about it or the intricate details of a savage murder. Nightmares, anyone? I would have.

Yes, high school students should be made to read certain books for the same reason they should have to learn science basics. It’s a learning experience. It opens horizons.

That said, I don’t think any student should be forced to read novels about rape, incest, murder, or war if they feel strongly against it. Do parents realize what their kids are being made to read? You should if you don’t. Read reviews about the books you see coming home from school, or try reading it yourself. I was appalled at one of the books my son brought home and said he tried to read but just couldn’t. It was “in” at the moment. I guess the teacher thought she was being trendy. No, I wouldn’t read that graphic intensely violent thing, either, and I told him not to bother (probably the first and only time I ever told him NOT to do his homework).

Wouldn’t it be easier to have a selection of different genres so they can choose which classics to read and which modern fiction to read? Give them choices to an extent, but don’t throw out classic fiction that gives them frames of reference they will not achieve in any other way. If it’s a struggle for them to read, that’s a good thing. It is. Making things too easy on kids is doing them no favors.

And yes, if they have to be graded on science and math, they should also be graded on art and music. For some of us, those art and music grades pulled up our GPAs after struggling through those other classes. Would it really be fair to take that from us? (By the way, learning art and music basics help you learn everything else better. Scientific fact.) Good teachers will recognize a true attempt to learn and be somewhat lenient on the grading scale for artsy people struggling with math and for math people struggling with arts. I had a science teacher who did it for me and I’m forever grateful, because really, I did try, and that was the important thing for this non-scientist.

I loved “having” to read classics in school and it was as important for this writer-in-training to do so as it is for budding scientists to learn chemistry. We all have different things we struggle with and through. The struggle is as important as the things that come easy.

So, how about I trade you my Tolstoy for your… well, I’ll read most any genre that won’t give me nightmares, at least on occasion. And I won’t try to get Twilight pulled out of kids’ hands if you don’t try to get Hemingway away from them. Capote and Thompson I might take issue with. They can wait on that till they’re choosing completely on their own. Or at least give them different options within the same genre.

Half the point of teaching literature is learning the literature itself, to include the techniques, the metaphors and similes, flow, plot, conflict and conflict resolution, and how the author slants words and phrases to express her personal opinion, all of which will overflow into their lives if it’s taught well. The other half, and maybe the much bigger “half,” is to teach them to love to read, to realize how much they can learn from books, and how much bigger their horizons can be. We can’t do that by making them read only books they don’t enjoy.

Include the classics, but give them other genres, and choices, as well. They should be learning how to teach themselves what they want to know, not how to get by the easy way, and not that we should throw out and dismiss what doesn’t interest us. Make them quest for more knowledge and you’ve done the biggest part of giving them the tools for success.


Christina Yother said...

You had me laughing when you made the vampire reference! And I think the key to what you were saying is choice! I believe so many people are turned off from reading at a young age because they didn't feel they had a choice in what to read. By the time they are adults they figure 'why bother.' I'm so glad you wrote this piece!!

LK Hunsaker said...

Thanks for inspiring it!