Problems with English Class: 1

Newmark’s Door talks about gripes he has with English classes. And I, of course, jump to respond.

1. Instructors spend too much time discussing issues more appropriate for specialists such as symbolism, archetypes, and historical context. They should, instead, focus on the issue, “Why is this book/short story/essay good?” And they should also highlight “What can the student learn from this piece to improve his or her own writing?”

The historical context makes a good work better. Gulliver’s Travels is a good book. It is better when you can understand the satire in it, which can only be done through the historical context. Frankenstein becomes more interesting as you know the historical scientific context…. It’s true of many works.

I agree that symbolism is overrated. I tell my students that anything can be a symbol and stand for something and that as long as they can explain why they think some thing is a symbol of some other thing, they’re good to go, im my opinion.

But the last point he makes in this section… what can a student learn from this? I don’t think that I’ve ever asked that about literature. I’ve told my students what NOT to learn from Hemingway. Yes, I tell them, Hemingway uses fragments all the time. But Hemingway isn’t turning in college essays. You must know the rules for writing correctly before you can get away with breaking them. And, I tell them, your job in class is to show me that you know the rules.

I know that Benjamin Franklin learned to write from copying other people’s writing. And, I think, I saved a link somewhere to someone who recommends “copywork” for modern homeschoolers. I read it within the last month, I believe.

But I’ve never thought of what a student could get out of literature except an enjoyment of it, a broadening of their perspective, a larger vocabulary, and an introduction to a thought or idea told in a way they’ve never heard before. I don’t expect any of my students to become professional writers, though some may someday. I don’t expect they’ll be writing literature.

So what should they get out of literature? I try to give them a love for it. Even, despite one commenter’s view, a love of poetry. I figure most of the enjoyment is smooshed out of children with things like having to learn the difference between Italian and Shakespearean sonnets. I’m teaching college students, not high school students (except my own) these days, but that’s what I want them to have… An introduction, a taste of the great literature of our language.

I explain to them that literature is mostly depressing and they must learn to deal with that. But I also explain to them why most literature is depressing. The lecture goes something like this:

What was funny two thousand years ago isn’t funny now. Same with a thousand, five hundred, sometimes even fifty years ago. Think of literature as a person. Do you laugh at the same jokes you thought were hilarious when you were five? How many of you adored knock knock jokes and thought they were uproariously funny? Do you still laugh at them as much? No. Your idea of what is funny has changed. And the idea of what is funny changes quickly.

On the other hand things that were a tragedy two thousand years ago are still sad today. Are you sad if your father is killed? Is it terrible if someone pokes their eyes out? Is suicide depressing? Yes. All those things are still a tragedy today. And they were when Oedipus Rex was written in Greek centuries ago. Would it be upsetting if someone kept getting into the White House and killing people? Would everyone want the suspect caught? If the murderer were killed, might his family not want revenge? Wouldn’t that be bad? What if the good guy were killed battling a monster and all but one of his friends ran away? Would you be upset? Yes. And that’s Beowulf fourteen hundred to a thousand years later.

Sad stays the same. Funny changes.

And that’s what answers his question “What makes this work good?” It’s a story that tells well a thousand years later. It’s details that spark the imagination across millenia. It’s a happening that you can imagine, even if you can’t believe. And you can relate, in some way, to it. None of my students have been in their death throes and deserted by all, but every one of them, I am sure, has found a friend to be less true than they expected or wanted. We can relate to the story. And so the tale continues to live.