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a tree of night
01-23-2007, 03:45 AM
The library thread up in Writing Novels rekindled my ire toward the literary canon of the American education system. I can't speak to the nature of other systems, and my personal experience is from being in public schools in the 70s and 80s. I also have some second-hand knowledge of what is taught currently, as my wife taught in both public and private elementary schools and preschools through 2005, my mother-in-law taught at a public high school level until her retirement last year, and my sister-in-law currently works in the office of a public junior high. Finally, I've got a whole bunch of nieces and nephews in various stages of public elementary-junior high. It's not in any way a comprehensive view of the American school system, but I think it's likely a fairly representative one. Your mileage may vary.

This is what I have noted :

Once you get past the very basic levels of reading, at about the junior high/middle school level, and into high school, the literary selections, for the most part, fall into some fairly rigid categories.

1) They are all originally written in English, almost exclusively by American or British authors. This always confounded me as a child. Here we are learning about the world at large in every class, yet we are spoonfed an incredibly limited subset of literature. Sure, you can learn all about the Czech republic in history, Dvorak in music, and Mach in science, but when it's time for lit, don't go looking for the Capeks.

Still, I can see reasons for that particular failing. If you need translations, everyone needs to have the same translation. And somebody has to decide which translation to use. It's more work that somebody has to do. It's not a good excuse, but I could see where there might be hesitation.

2) Outside of Shakespeare (and even within Shakespeare, to an extent), works tend to be fairly simplistic in both vocabulary and style (Hemingway is a prime example). Neither of those particularly bother me, mind you, and, in fact, I am very fond of quite a few authors that fit that description. However, there are other styles out in the world, and, yes, your honors level kids in high school are able to read those big words, make sense of complex sentences, and follow intricate plots. Speaking of plots...

3) Plots and characters tend to be simple and direct. Some (me) would call them forced. (I'm looking at you, Melville. Billy Budd? Billy Budd?!) Symbolism, which is everywhere, is blatant and impossible to miss. This is the one that makes me believe that the "literary canon" has nothing to do with actual literature, but rather the teaching of the analysis of literature. If a brilliant book came along that had, God forbid, subtle symbolism, and half the class didn't pick up on it and stared blankly ahead when it was explained, it wouldn't serve the purpose. So we get Joe Christmas. Try to miss that one. Go ahead, I dare you.

Furthermore, themes tend toward things academians believe children can relate to and comprehend. That's why we get Romeo and Juliet (ugh) and not King Lear or some other far superior work.

4) Novels and short stories rule the day. Poetry gets an occasional blip. Drama is limited to Shakespeare, because, as we all know, he was the only one that ever wrote a play. The only essays you'll ever read in school are the ones that you write for tests. Some other forms of writing are available, but not presented as literature. You have biographies, histories, and scientific texts, but they are offered strictly as informational.

5) The canon never changes. It's the same now as it was when I was in school. It's the same now as when my father was in school. I'm pretty sure some perfectly valid literature has come along since my father was in high school. I bet some of it even fits the other criteria of American or Brits writing simple, direct stories in English. But those stories never seem to slip in. The odd thing here is that they do work their way in at the lowest levels. There seems to be a pretty good influx of new material in the elementary schools, at least.

Relating back to the library thread, this is part of the danger of not weeding out those books that nobody reads. How many great books are out there in the world that could replace them, but never see the light of day, because we need seven copies of The Pickwick Papers collecting dust on the shelf?

I believe there are several ugly consequences of this narrow selection of literature. Most people would see the biggest problem is that it turns a lot of kids away from what they think is literature when they might have otherwise enjoyed it if they had a little broader selection. I do believe that is a problem, but I also know firsthand that a motivated reader can hate damn near everything they read in school (to the point where they still foam at the mouth ranting about it years later) and still find good literature elsewhere. To me, the biggest tragedy is that some people who do enjoy the types of works that are taught in school often accept that they are indeed the gold standard of literature. This can lead them to either eschew other kinds of literature or to be completely indiscriminatory.

Anyway, for those that were interested, that's my three cents on the subject. You may fire when ready.

The Lady
01-23-2007, 03:56 AM
I completely agree with you. That's a very long post. I haven't the strength to write so much but I'll just ask (and bear in mind, that after school, I then went on and did English Lit in college) why the great genre works are completley ignored while we have to wade through depressed, self obsessed tomes by semi suicidal people.

PeeDee
01-23-2007, 05:21 AM
Yeah, that Herman Melville sure was simplistic. I don't know WHY he's in the schools. I wish they'd take him out of the libraries! I don't want my kids reading silly Hermen Melville!

Hopefully they get that Victor Hugo bloke out too, 'cause he was no good eiver.

...

....Fast forward to college English classes when your teacher is having a half an hour discussion (mostly with herself) about the symbolism of the turtle crossing the road in The Grapes of Wrath (by another one of those annoying American guys, that Steinback boy) and you're sitting there with your eyes trying to crawl out of your skull, wonder how much trouble you'd get in if you stood up and shouted "It's a turtle! IT'S JUST A TURTLE!"

PeeDee
01-23-2007, 05:27 AM
I think that what you do is, you teach the kids using books that will not totally lose the kids. If someone had presented me with Les Miserables in high school or junior high (and someone did) then I would probably get ten minutes into it and throw it down, confused and boggled.

You teach the kids with books they can read. IF reading is something they love and wish to pursue, thent hey find books in the rest of the world. If they want better books in school, then they take classes where they get to read and analyze all sorts of wonderful books, which they probably would enjoy a lot more if they didn't have to write papers on it.

The variety of books is different from school to school, too. The high school in Elko, Nevada generally has kids watching television instead of reading. For political classes or social studies, they watched Law and Order (which disgusted me no end.)

On the other hand, in school, I read Ray Bradbury's Martain Chronicles and Something wicked this way comes, and the Illiad and Odyssey and A Canticle for Leibowitz and a LOT of books that I can't remember or even begin to keep in my head.

ETA: If I sound like I'm defending the Public School system, know that it's only a very tiny and partial defense. Mostly, I think they're damn silly idiots quite a lot of the time.

a tree of night
01-23-2007, 08:44 PM
On the other hand, in school, I read Ray Bradbury's Martain Chronicles and Something wicked this way comes, and the Illiad and Odyssey and A Canticle for Leibowitz and a LOT of books that I can't remember or even begin to keep in my head.

Dang, so I'm just ranting because I went to the wrong schools? Shoot. I actually read all those, but on my own time either out of my parents' collection or from the library or used store.

a tree of night
01-23-2007, 08:46 PM
I completely agree with you. That's a very long post. I haven't the strength to write so much but I'll just ask (and bear in mind, that after school, I then went on and did English Lit in college) why the great genre works are completley ignored while we have to wade through depressed, self obsessed tomes by semi suicidal people.

Yeah, I tend to ramble when ranting. That's why I try not to do it in other people's threads. Personally, I enjoy some of those depressed, self obssessed tomes by semi (and fully) suicidal people, but hey, you know, once in a while, there is more to life then suicide.

a tree of night
01-23-2007, 08:50 PM
Yeah, that Herman Melville sure was simplistic. I don't know WHY he's in the schools. I wish they'd take him out of the libraries! I don't want my kids reading silly Hermen Melville!

Don't get me wrong. That's just a personal rant. I don't expect the literary canon to be changed to suit my tastes, but I do believe that it should be periodically reviewed on the possibility that maybe, just maybe, something new has emerged that is worthwhile.

a tree of night
01-23-2007, 08:52 PM
You teach the kids with books they can read. IF reading is something they love and wish to pursue, thent hey find books in the rest of the world. If they want better books in school, then they take classes where they get to read and analyze all sorts of wonderful books, which they probably would enjoy a lot more if they didn't have to write papers on it.


I guess I envision them being able to read a lot more than they are given credit for and if they aren't exposed to different writing styles, they aren't going to know to seek them out.

PeeDee
01-23-2007, 08:54 PM
Sure, and I agree. THe problem is deciding what's suitable to be put into literary canon (whatever that means, I'm afraid). Shall we teach Charles Dickens' Bleak House? What about, as I mentioned, Victor Hugo's Les Miserables? Or is it time to teach Patrick O'Brian as interesting historical fiction?

I would say yes to all three. I bet others would say no. Whereas I think it's a comfortable agreement that kids should read at least SOME version of The Illiad and the Odyssey...

PeeDee
01-23-2007, 08:56 PM
I guess I envision them being able to read a lot more than they are given credit for and if they aren't exposed to different writing styles, they aren't going to know to seek them out.

They DO read more than their given credit for, and I think part of that is the lack of credit they're given. If every teacher started deciding just how strongly a kid could read and then pushed them into reading a book that was far and away beyond them, you risk losing that kid to reading.

I'm not suggesting we dumb tone reading, or try to bland it out so no one is put off by anything they read. Screw that.

janetbellinger
01-23-2007, 08:58 PM
I've been a substitute teacher in small town Ontario schools for almost two decades and I consider the language arts programme to damaging to creativity.

a tree of night
01-24-2007, 03:35 AM
How so, Janet? I can't say I know much about the Canadian school system.

PeeDee
01-24-2007, 03:53 AM
There were all sorts of books that I HATED reading in school because...I was reading them for school. This was from when I was young, up through when I was in college. Hated 'em.

OUT of school, they turned out to be magnificant books, and I adore them.

I think that trying to force too much literature and depth down the kids' throats isn't going to do anything but turn them off. It's why I'm in favor of books that the kids can at least get through passably, sot aht when they get out of school, they won't think "Oh gods, READING, I hate these book things..."

...

On another, and perhaps slightly peculiar note...Tree, thank you for coming on here, making your opinion...and then staying around and having a logical and interesting argument about it. I wish that happened more. :)

Silver King
01-24-2007, 04:59 AM
As parents, we shouldn't worry too much about required reading, but rather how we can instill in our children a true love of literature that goes beyond any school's curriculum. For every book a child has to read, they should enjoy at least a dozen others that will help them form a lifelong appreciation for the written word. And when children learn to read early and broadly, they often excel in school, and no amount of required reading will ever sully their taste for literature.

PeeDee
01-24-2007, 05:02 AM
As parents, we shouldn't worry too much about required reading, but rather how we can instill in our children a true love of literature that goes beyond any school's curriculum. For every book a child has to read, they should enjoy at least a dozen others that will help them form a lifelong appreciation for the written word. And when children learn to read early and broadly, they often excel in school, and no amount of required reading will ever sully their taste for literature.

I agree completely. If my kids are reading primers at school, then I'm probably reading them The Wind in the Willows at home, with voices done right.

Fingers
01-24-2007, 06:12 AM
As parents, we shouldn't worry too much about required reading, but rather how we can instill in our children a true love of literature that goes beyond any school's curriculum. For every book a child has to read, they should enjoy at least a dozen others that will help them form a lifelong appreciation for the written word. And when children learn to read early and broadly, they often excel in school, and no amount of required reading will ever sully their taste for literature.

I agree completely. When my kids were 4 and 6 I turned the tv off except for educational programming and saturday morning cartoons. I got them both library cards and every two weeks we went to the library. My son took to reading avidly. My daughter not so much. But at least I put it in front of them. I think it is a parents role to teach their children values and being literate is a big value. I never worried much about what the school made them read because i never let them get anything from the library that was available at school. I too appreciate this thread and the way it is being discussed intelligently.

Judg
01-24-2007, 06:32 AM
Shakespeare? I got Julius Caesar, Hamlet and Macbeth (LOVED it). Novels, nowhere near enough, but I do remember Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner, and To Kill a Mockingbird (that seems to be a staple - my kids got it too, and a very worthy one too at that). Tons of short stories, of course, of which only Flannery O'Connor sticks in my memory. Absolutely riveting.

And a severely abridged version of Les Miserables in grade 8.

I got off pretty good, I suppose, although the teaching was mostly uninspired. But I loved reading so much, it would have taken more than a couple of rotten teachers to kill it.

That was in Saskatchewan in the 70s, for what it's worth.

Jerry CL
01-24-2007, 08:23 AM
It's called catering to the lowest common denominator. Teach anything more complicated than what you've listed and watch the chaos develop.

Why bother when most of the students don't care?

PeeDee
01-24-2007, 08:41 AM
It's called catering to the lowest common denominator. Teach anything more complicated than what you've listed and watch the chaos develop.

Why bother when most of the students don't care?

It's not catering to the lowest denominator. It's catering to the widest number of students possible. You want to attract them, not intimidate them and drive them away. It's different than dumbing everything down. it's reading Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, which kids are much more likely to adore than Bleak House, you see.

It's teaching the students that there's something beyond all this which they'll eventually care about.

Jerry CL
01-24-2007, 09:01 AM
You can't just "teach" someone to like something. School's there to teach the legally-mandated basics, not to condition the students into specific hobbies.

And pardon me for being blunt, but just because you (and probably most of us here) love to read, it doesn't mean that it's universal or needs to be.

Jamesaritchie
01-24-2007, 11:07 PM
The library thread up in Writing Novels rekindled my ire toward the literary canon of the American education system. I can't speak to the nature of other systems, and my personal experience is from being in public schools in the 70s and 80s. I also have some second-hand knowledge of what is taught currently, as my wife taught in both public and private elementary schools and preschools through 2005, my mother-in-law taught at a public high school level until her retirement last year, and my sister-in-law currently works in the office of a public junior high. Finally, I've got a whole bunch of nieces and nephews in various stages of public elementary-junior high. It's not in any way a comprehensive view of the American school system, but I think it's likely a fairly representative one. Your mileage may vary.

This is what I have noted :

Once you get past the very basic levels of reading, at about the junior high/middle school level, and into high school, the literary selections, for the most part, fall into some fairly rigid categories.

1) They are all originally written in English, almost exclusively by American or British authors. This always confounded me as a child. Here we are learning about the world at large in every class, yet we are spoonfed an incredibly limited subset of literature. Sure, you can learn all about the Czech republic in history, Dvorak in music, and Mach in science, but when it's time for lit, don't go looking for the Capeks.

Still, I can see reasons for that particular failing. If you need translations, everyone needs to have the same translation. And somebody has to decide which translation to use. It's more work that somebody has to do. It's not a good excuse, but I could see where there might be hesitation.

2) Outside of Shakespeare (and even within Shakespeare, to an extent), works tend to be fairly simplistic in both vocabulary and style (Hemingway is a prime example). Neither of those particularly bother me, mind you, and, in fact, I am very fond of quite a few authors that fit that description. However, there are other styles out in the world, and, yes, your honors level kids in high school are able to read those big words, make sense of complex sentences, and follow intricate plots. Speaking of plots...

3) Plots and characters tend to be simple and direct. Some (me) would call them forced. (I'm looking at you, Melville. Billy Budd? Billy Budd?!) Symbolism, which is everywhere, is blatant and impossible to miss. This is the one that makes me believe that the "literary canon" has nothing to do with actual literature, but rather the teaching of the analysis of literature. If a brilliant book came along that had, God forbid, subtle symbolism, and half the class didn't pick up on it and stared blankly ahead when it was explained, it wouldn't serve the purpose. So we get Joe Christmas. Try to miss that one. Go ahead, I dare you.

Furthermore, themes tend toward things academians believe children can relate to and comprehend. That's why we get Romeo and Juliet (ugh) and not King Lear or some other far superior work.

4) Novels and short stories rule the day. Poetry gets an occasional blip. Drama is limited to Shakespeare, because, as we all know, he was the only one that ever wrote a play. The only essays you'll ever read in school are the ones that you write for tests. Some other forms of writing are available, but not presented as literature. You have biographies, histories, and scientific texts, but they are offered strictly as informational.

5) The canon never changes. It's the same now as it was when I was in school. It's the same now as when my father was in school. I'm pretty sure some perfectly valid literature has come along since my father was in high school. I bet some of it even fits the other criteria of American or Brits writing simple, direct stories in English. But those stories never seem to slip in. The odd thing here is that they do work their way in at the lowest levels. There seems to be a pretty good influx of new material in the elementary schools, at least.

Relating back to the library thread, this is part of the danger of not weeding out those books that nobody reads. How many great books are out there in the world that could replace them, but never see the light of day, because we need seven copies of The Pickwick Papers collecting dust on the shelf?

I believe there are several ugly consequences of this narrow selection of literature. Most people would see the biggest problem is that it turns a lot of kids away from what they think is literature when they might have otherwise enjoyed it if they had a little broader selection. I do believe that is a problem, but I also know firsthand that a motivated reader can hate damn near everything they read in school (to the point where they still foam at the mouth ranting about it years later) and still find good literature elsewhere. To me, the biggest tragedy is that some people who do enjoy the types of works that are taught in school often accept that they are indeed the gold standard of literature. This can lead them to either eschew other kinds of literature or to be completely indiscriminatory.

Anyway, for those that were interested, that's my three cents on the subject. You may fire when ready.

I disagree on nearly every point. Fairly simplistic vocabulary is almost always a sign of great writing. Only bad writers and fools use complicated vocabulary when simple vocabulary nearly always works far better.

And many, many, many novels are short stories are taught that have been translated into English, most notably from Russian and French writers, but also from Spanish speaking writers. They always have been. But who cares? Kids aren't going to have time to read five percent of the great literature written in English. If you want to learn all about the world, take a world history class. If you want to learn all about the greatest literature teh world has ever seen, you read the classics.

Calling the selction narrow is pure nonsense. It isn't narrow by any sense or the word. It's as wide as it's possible to make it. It spans many centuries and many countries, cultures, and languages

I mean, you must have lived a very sheltered youth, and have only been to horrible schools, to believe any of this.

And there's a reason the same works are taught over and over. They're great, wonderful, lasting works, and are still read world over, and still sell incredibly well in countries all over the world, including a great many countries that do not speak English. They ARE teh gold standard.

And it seems to me you haven't read very widely in these works, and certainly not at all deeply. Your notions of symbolism in them is way, way, way off base.

The problem is not the literature that's being taught, it's the incredible ignorance of those who do not read it, or do not want to teach it. You can lead a fool to great books, but you cannot make him read or appreciate them.

GPatten
01-24-2007, 11:25 PM
James, I agree on all of what you’ve said, but mostly this:


Fairly simplistic vocabulary is almost always a sign of great writing. Only bad writers and fools use complicated vocabulary when simple vocabulary nearly always works far better.

Some, but not most, writers seem to like their vocabulary of words I need a dictionary that weighs in at fifty pounds and need to carry in the trunk of my car when mobile.

An author has a better chance to reach a greater amount of readers who love to read the language he can pick up in real life, his real life.

Soccer Mom
01-25-2007, 12:34 AM
While I didn't love a lot of things I read in school, I discovered others that I do love quite by accident there. Hated Red Badge of Courage. HATED it. Then I discovered Shakespeare. LOVE Shakespeare.

But I did read quite a bit of the things I enjoy on my own. School doesn't really squash the creativity out of you. If you are a creative person, then you simply are. No one can make you be creative and they can't make you stop. It's like hair color. I can disguise it, but I can't really change. I just cover it up. If I forget to cover it up, the gray shows through. But nothing changes the fact that the gray is there. Underneath.

BlueTexas
01-25-2007, 12:42 AM
Shakespeare? I got Julius Caesar, Hamlet and Macbeth (LOVED it). Novels, nowhere near enough, but I do remember Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner, and To Kill a Mockingbird (that seems to be a staple - my kids got it too, and a very worthy one too at that). Tons of short stories, of course, of which only Flannery O'Connor sticks in my memory. Absolutely riveting.

I got off pretty good, I suppose, although the teaching was mostly uninspired. But I loved reading so much, it would have taken more than a couple of rotten teachers to kill it.

That was in Saskatchewan in the 70s, for what it's worth.

I think I got off pretty well, too. I remember Night by Elie Wiesel, of course Romeo and Juliet, but also The Raven, some Capote shorts, Of Mice and Men and a Tale of Two Cities. We also read Homer aloud. I hated Of Mice, but because of that I read every other Steinbeck and loved most. Oh, and Michener. We read The Source.

I had a couple of really good English teachers. When we read R & J, we also had to act it out in English class, lights out with candles.

Provrb1810meggy
01-25-2007, 12:59 AM
Furthermore, themes tend toward things academians believe children can relate to and comprehend. That's why we get Romeo and Juliet (ugh) and not King Lear or some other far superior work.


I don't see what's wrong with having books that students can relate to. As a high school student, and I think other high schoolers would be the same, I'd enjoy reading and work hard on a story with a theme I get, i.e. young love, gossip, etc. If the other work is "superior," but a student can't get into it because it seems so far off from their life, they won't read, will slack of, and bomb tests.

I do agree with whoever said most English teachers are uninspired. I've had a few good ones, but quite a few have been drab and haven't encouraged creativity.

a tree of night
01-25-2007, 01:11 AM
Well, I guess we just disagree then. That's OK. I'm quite used to it.

Like I said, these are based my personal experiences in public schools. Maybe they really aren't representative examples. Or maybe I'm just an idiot. It certainly wouldn't be the first time that possibility has been suggested. But I know for a fact that the works I was assigned did not in any way span countries, cultures, and languages. If thay had, I wouldn't be making the argument.

[advance apology : I'm just hitting random points as I come to them rather than firing off a dozen different posts.]

Sorry, I don't see why you wouldn't want children to read translated works. Either they're worth reading or not. It seems insular to ignore them just because we have plenty of other books that are already in English.

I don't equate wanting to a periodic review of what is taught to not appreciating the classics. You're absolutely right that there are accepted classics that I do not appreciate. I've read Billy Budd five times trying to find anything good in it and I've failed five times. Perhaps that's my own fault and I should simply accept that they are classics because everyone else says so, but my personal failings aren't relevant to the point that literature is constantly evolving and the canon should reflect that. I'd be willing to wager that at least one person currently in this forum will at some point produce a brilliant work of literature that will not be taught in schools, because the canon is already etched in stone and there isn't enough time for students to fit in another novel, especially if it wasn't written in English.

Simplicity is a good thing in most any arena. On that, we are in agreement. However, I do not feel that is an absolute. Complexity is not necessarily a bad thing. Many things in life are very complex and cannot be related in simple terms. Words exist (for the most part) for a reason and there is a proper place to use them all. I've never met a dictionary that was so burdensome I couldn't use it.

You can't teach children to like reading, but you can teach them different ways to appreciate literature, and you can expose them to a wide variety of literature to maximize the potential of hitting on something they do like. It seems like many people did get that out of their schools and that's probably why they're here now. If I were relying exclusively on what I read in school, I probably would not be here. That's why I think it's important to offer as much as possible. Not every child has parents that encourage reading, or parents with a library, much less an extensive one. Not every child has a strong, accessible library system. Not every child can afford to buy books, even at the used store. As for the students that don't care, well, if it doesn't really matter what you do with those kids, why not focus on the ones that do care or might be induced to care?

And, finally, PeeDee, don't go spreading rumors about me. Logical? Pfft.

PeeDee
01-25-2007, 01:14 AM
One of my favorite things to do in High School was read the different translation of Beowulf and see if I could spot the differences, and WHY they were different. I had a volume which had the original text, and I would puzzle over it with the English translation.

Which is not to say that every kid in school should do that. That would be creepy. I don't mind translated text, though.

If nothing else, I adored reading Stanislaw Lem when I was younger, and I still do.

Dixie
01-25-2007, 01:21 AM
We had to read Shakespeare. I took it upon myself at the time to read the original version of MacBeth just for the hell of it. While I didnt necessarily like everyone of Shakespeare's plays, I learned to love the way it was written and the way it flowed. He wrote to a certain rhythm everytime. Read it close enough and after a few repititions you'll see it. You dont have to necessarily love what its about but you can appreciate the way it was written - in a language long bygone.

I think most kids dont like to read because there is peer pressure to hate reading, especially in modern times. Kids see reading as work tied to school. Reading is something 'nerds' do, and no self respecting middle school kid wants to be labelled a 'nerd'.

Some rotten teachers will make a kid write a book report on every stinking book they read for class which makes the experience less enjoyable. This drives kids to not like readnig and the work associated with it. I think kids should just read the book and enjoy it for what it is and have a classroom discussion about it.

Lucky me though - I was encouraged to seek out books beyond the curriculum, I got to choose whatever I wanted to read. As a result, I developed a love for reading that I hope will last this lifetime.

PeeDee
01-25-2007, 01:24 AM
Some rotten teachers will make a kid write a book report on every stinking book they read for class which makes the experience less enjoyable. This drives kids to not like readnig and the work associated with it. I think kids should just read the book and enjoy it for what it is and have a classroom discussion about it.

Lucky me though - I was encouraged to seek out books beyond the curriculum, I got to choose whatever I wanted to read. As a result, I developed a love for reading that I hope will last this lifetime.

Book reports are the work of the devil.

I was also encouraged to just read, read whatever I could. I sought out all sorts of books. I read more books in my school years than most of my peers, and it was entirely to my benefit. (Though these days, they probably all make more money than me.)

Good reading is important, and varied reading is important, but you don't want to try to fight the stigma of "reading is for nerds" while at the same time, offering the kids books so thick or unweildy that the kids are left thinking "Even if this isn't for nerds, it's for someone smarter than me."

weatherfield
01-26-2007, 09:04 PM
I'm a little late to the party, but I wanted to add my experience, because I'm a (relatively) recent product of the education system and my exposure to the canon was different from what the OP outlined. I went to a public school in the suburban Southwest, so I'd be surprised if there was anything particularly exotic or groundbreaking about the curriculum, but looking back, I think the effort the teachers made to give us a broad literary foundation was commendable.

With the exception of classes that had specific geographical agendas—Brit Lit, North American Lit—we read a variety of works translated from a variety of languages, including Spanish, Japanese, French, German, Norwegian, and Russian. Even in the ninth grade, the reading lists tended to be challenging and diverse. We read some standard stuff that was required by the district, notably Romeo & Juliet and To Kill a Mockingbird, but we also read the Iliad, the Odyssey, Hiroshima, Johnny Got His Gun, and All Quiet on the Western Front (for some reason, it was a very war-heavy year).

Brit Lit had an especially strong curriculum, although I wasn't crazy about it at the time. It started at Beowulf and Chaucer, and made it to Orwell, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Joyce and Woolf in particular were very complex and nuanced, not at all the straight identify-the-symbolism fare, although we did talk a lot about how their novels reflected conditions of their societies. Along the way, there was a pretty large dollop of Shakespeare, which, I understand, is only to be expected, but we read plenty of other plays too (I learned I don't like Arthur Miller). In AP, we read a lot of poetry (far more than in previous classes) and, for the most part, contemporary novels, including Beloved, some Bradbury, some Richard Wright, and, inexplicably, The Prince of Tides.

And, certainly, we did get our fair share of Hemingway and Hardy and Melville (yes, yes, Billy Bud), but it was kind of eclipsed by Kafka, H.G. Wells, and Ken Kesey. I guess I'm just saying: man, did I have a good time in English!

a tree of night
01-27-2007, 01:32 AM
Thanks for chiming in, WF. It is seeming more and more likely that I was in the wrong school at the wrong time, which is a real shame, because I hate to waste a rant.

Interesting take on translations, PeeDee. I tend to read multiple translations only when I have issues with the first one, but I might try your approach.

Medievalist
01-27-2007, 02:45 AM
You can't really talk about the canon with k-12 because the public school text selection process is very very much controlled at the school district and state level, and there are huge issues with banned books, and different reading levels and a variety of other socio-cultural issues.

Book selection varies widely depending on location, and there's also an issue of teaching to the test, not only in terms of state requirements, but in terms of college prep expectations.

KiraOnWhite
01-27-2007, 04:12 AM
I'm in high school now for two years and find the books assigned to us relatively boring...I can see that they want us to be able to learn from the books, like this year, they made us read The Outsiders which touched mostly on teenage issues. In my opinion, it was rather melodramatic and others agree with me ( I know most of you think its a great book, but...) For that topic, I find The Virgin Suicides to be a better book. Students, especially those who are serious on English, should vote on what book they want to read and let the teachers consider. That way, more people would be more interested and grades will soar.

No offence to Shakespear or anything, I've only read Romeo and Juliet...found it weird. Did anyone else go " What!?" at the love at first sight thing?

RG570
01-27-2007, 06:46 AM
I don't think it's much different here in Canada. I didn't like the books they made us read. They just seemed so vapid, and if I'm going to be having a teacher discuss literature, I'd rather it be something a bit deeper.

The worst was Ender's Game. Why that is in the curriculum is beyond me. Perhaps if the course addressed its blatant crypto-fascist elements and other disturbing ideas, it would have had merit, but they didn't.

Though, the short stories we did were far better. We had lots of great stuff that way. It's just too bad that we're too concerned with giving kids what they want, instead of exposing them to something they think they hate because it takes a bit of work to understand.

MattW
01-27-2007, 07:11 AM
I think another element of the canon is how it is taught. The works selected for teaching often overtly contain one or more elements of writing that students need to be familiar with, or levels of symbolism that even the most cursory reading should pick up. And, as far as convoluted language, reading is not done in school for enjoyment or art, it is done to hone skills and develop vocabulary.

Adagio
01-27-2007, 11:52 AM
I haven't been educated in the States so it is not my intention to comment on the curriculum. My intention is to share with you what I've learned from middle-school up to the last year in high-school.

Those students with strong skills in science had a curriculum oriented toward maths, chemistry, physics and the Lit cur. was lighter. For those who wanted to go into humanities, the curriculum was heavily into World Lit. We started with the antiquity classics (Euripides, major tragedies, Aristophan, etc. of course, Iliad, Odyssey; Latin Ovid, the elegies of Virgil; the first known novelist Petronius). Followed by the medieval lit. (the French Rabelais Gargantua et Pantagruel, Chaucer, Petrarca (love poetry), Boccaccio -- such fun, signor Boccaccio!). The French troubadours. Followed by Marguerite de Navarre's poetry; Cervantes' Don Quixote.

Shakespeare, a whole semester. We had to write an essay (I still have it) on the meaning of To be or not to be. We had to read King Lear (we went to see the play in the theater -- tickets bought by the school -- lots of sobbing) not only Hamlet (playing in the theater).

Next, the 18th century illuministes, the grand philosophers, Descartes for ex., Voltaire (Candid), Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the tragedies of Racine and Corneille. The comedies of La Fontaine (always in theaters, each season Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme was a major hit); Le Marquis de Sade -- ah, I remember we went in clandestinity to the National Library and checked out Julie (through some subterfuge) in the reading room (book non-circulating). I'm not an expert but I think that contemporary porn lit pales compared with Julie. Anybody Julie? Brrr!

Next, the Big 19th century authors: the Brits Jane Austen, Brontes sisters (Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice were my adolescence favorites, and even now). The Romantics. Victor Hugo (oui, Les Miserables, unabridged); Jules Verne (oh, I love you, Monsieur Verne!). The first detective/thriller writer Eugene Sue Les Mysteres de Paris. Of course, Honore de Balzac (a whole semester), Charles de Baudelaire. The Germans: Friedrich Schiller, Goethe (The Tragedy of Young Werther -- ah, this novel made me sob!) And the Big Russians: poets Pushkin (Evgheny Oneghin, another tragedy -- lots of tragedies, huh?), Lermontov, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Cekhov, Gogol (in the short story category).

The beginning of contemporary novel: Gustave Flaubert (Madame Bovary -- another tragedy); Emile Zola (Gervaise), more tragedies; Guy de Maupassant (short stories). Poets Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine (much en vogue among romantic, enamored students!)

All Americans, starting with Poe. I learned about Theodor Dreiser (An American Tragedy), Mark Twain (finally, something funny!) Hemingway (back to tragedy). Somerset Maugham (Forsyte Saga -- one of my favorite novels, all the books); Henry James, Thomas Hardy ... The Polish Szienkiewicz The Pharaon (they made a splendid movie). Stanislaw Lem. We were taught even sci-fiction (Isaac Asimov). Oh, yes, Kafka!

Contemporary lit. Eugene Ionesco's plays. We went en group to see Rhinoceros and had class discussion afterwards. And many others, the list is long.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to gloat. The World Lit. curriculum was divided by genre, by country. Did we like this? Some of us didn't, of course. But, no matter our likes and dislikes, we had to read them for tests and exams. Period. No easy way out. But at least it left something, some traces in our memory bank. The curriculum was standard, for all students. Was it good, was it bad? Lots of homework, lots of reading. Plus the other courses. I survived!

a tree of night
01-27-2007, 08:32 PM
You can't really talk about the canon with k-12 because the public school text selection process is very very much controlled at the school district and state level, and there are huge issues with banned books, and different reading levels and a variety of other socio-cultural issues.
I agree that the system is firmly entrenched. I don't feel it is immutable, however, even at a fundamental level.


Book selection varies widely depending on location, and there's also an issue of teaching to the test, not only in terms of state requirements, but in terms of college prep expectations.
Apparently it varies more than I thought. Some people seem to have similarly limited experiences to my own, right down to those mimeographed worksheets with "_____ is a symbol of _____". And quite a few people have had considerably more diverse experiences. And some people are wondering what a mimeograph is.


Students, especially those who are serious on English, should vote on what book they want to read and let the teachers consider.

I'm not sure about voting on the books beforehand, but I certainly think they could have a say in evaluating them after the fact. As RG570 said, some students are looking for more than they are getting.


I think another element of the canon is how it is taught. The works selected for teaching often overtly contain one or more elements of writing that students need to be familiar with, or levels of symbolism that even the most cursory reading should pick up. And, as far as convoluted language, reading is not done in school for enjoyment or art, it is done to hone skills and develop vocabulary.
I think that's true up to a point. Students do need the basic skills and vocabulary. Some of them have already acquired those skills by the end of junior high/middle school. Why not take the top students and offer them a class in "Reading for Enjoyment and Art"? Yes, I know there are reasons. I just don't like them. No change ever came about without first questioning the status quo.


I haven't been educated in the States... If you don't mind my asking, where were you educated? And where do I apply for citizenship?

lfraser
01-27-2007, 11:14 PM
Actually, Adagio's comments echo my own experience in junior high and high school, both in Canada and elsewhere (in Kenya, which had a British curriculum).

Sassenach
01-28-2007, 11:17 PM
Why not take the top students and offer them a class in "Reading for Enjoyment and Art"? Yes, I know there are reasons. I just don't like them. No change ever came about without first questioning the status quo.


I would assume the top students are reading for enjoyment on their own.

lfraser
01-29-2007, 01:36 AM
Literacy is an essential skill, like basic mathematics. The idea that a student would get to vote upon what they learn in school seems rather like letting the inmates rule the asylum. Children are in school to learn.

There are certain works of literature that have transcended time, and it seems to me that these are the works that we should be exposing children to. If they like to read, and want to read popular, contemporary literature in their own time, that's great, but I know that I benefited enormusly by reading classic literature in school, and I think that holds true for all children.

I honestly don't know how anyone could feel they had the tools to be a writer without having read what are considered to be canonical works of literature. And how better to introduce children to these works than by teaching them in school? Maybe that's just an 'old school/old fart' attitude, but that's how I feel about it.

Adagio
01-29-2007, 01:51 AM
Literacy is an essential skill, like basic mathematics. The idea that a student would get to vote upon what they learn in school seems rather like letting the inmates rule the asylum. Children are in school to learn.

Maybe that's just an 'old school/old fart' attitude, but that's how I feel about it.

:D No, it's not: 'old school/old fart' attitude. I'd suggest you go to Dan Simmons site and read his essays on writing. I just came across with his site and I think you may find ideas of your (and my) liking. My comp is veeery slow and threatens to shut me off, so I can't give you the link now, but it's easy to locate Dan Simmons in Google.

Pagey's_Girl
01-29-2007, 04:28 AM
We had a couple of teachers who encouraged debate about books and let us form our own ideas, but for the most part, we were told that there was only one "right" way to interpret a book and that was it - if you had a different opinion than the teacher, you were wrong. End of story. There's no quicker way to put a kid off of reading than that attitude.

Also, our curriculum was basically Steinbeck and Hemingway with the occasional Shakespeare play thrown in for "balance." I've been dedicating myself to reading all the books that we should have read in school but didn't. Some I've loved (Jane Eyre) some not (Rabbit Run) but at least I get to make up my own mind now.

*Currently reading Atlas Shrugged, Skinny Legs and All and [i]Gravity's Rainbow/[i]. You can't say I don't have eclectic taste :) *

Silver King
01-29-2007, 04:34 AM
Also, our curriculum was basically Steinbeck and Hemingway with the occasional Shakespeare play thrown in for "balance."
If that's the worst you got, Pagey, you made out pretty well. ;)

a tree of night
01-29-2007, 08:42 PM
Literacy is an essential skill, like basic mathematics.

Literacy, for all practical purposes, can be achieved for many students before they even reach high school.


The idea that a student would get to vote upon what they learn in school seems rather like letting the inmates rule the asylum. Children are in school to learn.

My initial reaction to the allowing students to vote was the same as yours. As I thought about it more, however, I began to think that it's not necessarily unfeasible. Here's a simple scenario :

The class has curriculum for 12 works. The end of the year is rapidly approaching and they've gone through 9 of them. So the teacher presents a summary of the 3 remaining works - themes, background, plot summary, whatever and lets the students pick one out. What have you lost? You were only going to get to one of the books anyway. The students feel like they're involved, and the ones that voted for a different book just might go pick it up on their own. At the very least, they've got an idea of what it's about.

And after they've read a work, a simple evaluation isn't going to harm anybody. You don't have to run out and buy all new books because that one kid in the fourth row didn't like any of them, but you can at least get a feel for what is working and what isn't.


There are certain works of literature that have transcended time, and it seems to me that these are the works that we should be exposing children to. If they like to read, and want to read popular, contemporary literature in their own time, that's great, but I know that I benefited enormusly by reading classic literature in school, and I think that holds true for all children.

There are transcendant works of literature from every culture and time period. Some of them are labelled are "classics" and some of them are not. I am in no way against teaching great literature of any nature. I am against making those selections absolute and without periodic evaluation.


I would assume the top students are reading for enjoyment on their own.

Those that have the time and the resources, yes. I can assure you, however, that is not all of them.

Norman D Gutter
01-29-2007, 10:26 PM
I attended public school in New England in the '50s and '60s, graduating high school in 1970, and public university in 1974. Details of what I was assigned to read and what I chose to read in addition are a bit hazy now. I remember reading Last of the Mohicans in either 5th or 6th grade and doing a book report about it. I finished out the Leatherstocking Saga series by 11th grade and wrote a paper on Natty Bumpo as a romantic character. I remember reading Moby Dick and Two Years Before The Mast, and enjoying both of them. Beyond that I don't have a clear memory. Oh, wait, we did some Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and one other. Probably some Dickens. Also The Old Man and the Sea, Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. Cliff-noted the last one, then read it in college and once since--an excellent work.

I have no problem with the selection the curriculum presented. I wish I'd read more Faulkner and Hemmingway, but I may have read some and have forgotten them, or I may have read other things on the optional reading list. I'm not going back and reading a bunch of the classics (including modern classics) to see what I missed.

The literary cannon changes over the years, but it takes some years and the test of time to recognize new classics, and which of the old ones they should replace, in recognition that students only have so much time to work. For example, Catcher in the Rye (1951) and To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) were sufficiently new they were not taught when I was in school. They are on my reading list now, and I've obtained the copies and will get to them next year. So whatever has been published since, say, 1980 is too new to recognize where it stacks up against the true classics. Put them on the optional reading list, but not the mandatory.

FWIW, I think book reports are a great learning tool. Even now, I try to write a one or two page book report for each book I read and put it in a file.

NDG

Sassenach
01-30-2007, 12:02 AM
Sturgeon's Law applies most everywhere, but especially in high school. The only truly useful class I took in hs was typing.

Nyna
02-01-2007, 04:32 AM
I'm not sure I have anything interesting to bring to the table, here, but for the record: between the ages of eleven and sixteen, or from sixth grade to tenth, I went to three different schools and was switched around from grade-level to grade-level for various and assorted reasons.

In the english classes I took during those years, I read To Kill A Mockingbird four times, Of Mice and Men three times, Oedipus twice, Romeo and Juliet twice, and the same selection of about three short stories over and over and over again. ('The Cask of Amontillado', 'The Most Dangerous Game,' and one by Kate Chopin that I can't remember the name of.)

Also worth noting: there is nothing more tedious than listening to a bunch of practically illiterate teenage boys read Oedipus out loud for an hour a day, cracking voices and all.

lfraser
02-01-2007, 06:16 AM
I suppose it also depends on who is doing the teaching. I was very fortunate in that most of the English Literature teachers I had were passionate about the subject matter.

spike
02-01-2007, 05:41 PM
Just some random thoughts:

You guys are lucky you READ the classics. In high school (too many years ago) we learned about the classics and never actually read them.

I hated Shakespear when I read it. I loved him when I watched. There is definitely something to be said for seeing plays performed.

Too many schools today are worried about standards. Teachers are given less freedom than ever to decide what to teach, let alone allow students to decide what to read.

My daughter has a reading disability and hates to read. I have to bribe her. I'm hoping she enjoys the books enough to want to read more. I'll let you know in a couple of years if it worked.