Welcome to the Moated Grange

She only said, “This reading is dreary,

It pleaseth not,” she said.

She said, “This reading makes me weary,

I wish that I were dead!”

—refrain from “Mariana Meets the Common Core” (with apologies to Tennyson)

One of my earliest postings condemned the topsy-turvy notion that in English classes a book of literature is “intended to fill out lesson plans” and “supplement textbooks.” Using examples of poetry I tried to show that literature can have an artistic integrity and appeal to interests and tastes worth cultivating for their own sake. Students caught up in a good poem could then come to an understanding of it using their powers of thought and feeling. Eventually those powers, strengthened by encounters with those appealing works, could be applied to the study of non-literary works if needed.

This does not mean that I disapprove of reading work not traditionally thought of as literature. Excellent writers of prose non-fiction abound and may be used with profit by English teachers. In my IB English classes I have taught essays by George Orwell and James Baldwin. For years before that I used The Norton Reader and the Introduction to Great Books series, which I also use in my Theory of Knowledge classes. In ToK we sometimes use articles from The New Yorker and The New York Review as well as work by Stephen Jay Gould, a paleontologist whose writing is on the IB Prescribed Literature list[1]. Last year the IB English A Literature exam had as one of its ‘unseen passages’ for commentary in Paper 1 an extract from Sir John Keegan’s history of The First World War.

What all these writings have in common is that they are well written. Most of them also share what Barzun calls a “thickness” that allows us to draw on them for more than we might find in thinner stuff. But the final thing is that many of them have an artistic integrity and appeal to which the good reader will respond. Take for example Keegan’s history. The extract on the exam was so good that I immediately ordered and read the whole book. While some of it was not up to the standard of the exam extract, I thought it on the whole a very good book worth reading in its entirety, not just that little snippet, however good it was.

The point worth remembering about such works in light of this posting’s subject is that they are both “informational” (i.e., informative) and “literary.” It turns out that many teachers and “curriculum specialists” rolling out the Common Core think writing must be one or the other. That error may be due to generalizing about “informational” (i.e. informative) writing from what they read in education school, but what is worse is that some of them are “pairing” gobbets of literature with non-fiction reading in order to make them more “relevant”. Hence the pairing of extracts from The Odyssey and sections of the GI Bill in order to ‘connect the story of Odysseus to the challenges of modern-day veterans’.

This is either profoundly goofy or profoundly stupid. The first thing I thought of was how to ‘connect’ Athena to the Veterans’ Administration. A compare-contrast essay? Columns of bulleted points? FAQs? Role play between Athena and a VA bureaucrat? The second thing I thought of was ‘connecting’ the writing of Homer to that of Congressional lawmakers. After the section in which Odysseus puts out the Cyclops’ eye, try giving your own 10th-graders a taste of the law. Where do you begin if you don’t want your students to run away screaming from careers as lawyers—or from the classroom?

But the worst part of this ‘movement’ is the reductionist smoke and mirrors by which “teaching literature” is equated with “teaching particular concepts and skills.” Once you have made that category error, the next step follows inevitably: “we maybe aren’t teaching an entire novel, but we’re ensuring that we’re teaching the concepts that that novel would have gotten across.” Thus is art erased from life, just as it is being erased from school.

I just finished reading Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. Are the proponents of this approach going to claim that instead of reading the entire book, I should read just one of the passages in which Rasheed beats his wives, with a gloss explaining that Hosseini explores “lives imprisoned by patriarchy”? How explanatory! But what happened to Laila and Mariam? For that matter, what happened to Afghanistan?  When you teach art as something with its own integrity, these things do not vanish. When you “teach” it as an exercise in second-rate concept-work, they do.

If I had “learned” “literature” this way, I think I would have felt like “Mariana on the moated grange.”

[1] I gave my students this year the choice of studying Orwell’s essays or Gould’s for “Part 2.” They chose Orwell. One of Orwell’s essays is a hostile review of Yeats’s poetry. By the time the students read it, they will be able to comment intelligently because they are now studying Yeats.

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