Thursday, April 5, 2007


Re-reading Max Frisch led me to post some questions, one of which was about the compromises we are prepared to make. So today's post is a sort of indirect investigation of the notion of educational compromise, as suggested in two readings I happened to read today.

This morning I found in my mailbox at school an article sent along by our Director of Instruction from the March 07 Phi Delta Kappan entitled "Farewell to A Farewell to Arms: Deemphasizing the Whole-Class Novel." The authors, Douglas Fisher and Gay Ivey, make the argument that the time-honored practice of asking everyone in a class to read and discuss a classic novel together is educationally inefficient and tends to generate "frustration and resistance" on the part of student readers.

We also hear quite frequently that class novels are selected because they are "good for students." But we know that classics—even award-winning, contemporary classics—do not make the list of what adolescents prefer to read. In addition, we know that students still struggling to read do not get better at reading from tackling difficult books.

They wind up by stating explicitly that "when teachers require all students to read the same book at the same time, English classes are neither standard-centered nor student-centered. Pointing out that "Class novels may actually limit or restrict the variety, depth, and quantity of student reading," they offer, as an alternative, five guidelines for practice:

1) Identify universal themes rather than individual books as a way of guiding instruction.
2) Select texts that span a wide variety of difficulty levels.
3) Select texts that address contemporary issues and that are engaging.
4) Orchestrate instruction that builds students' competence.
5) Teach literary devices and reading comprehension strategies using texts that are readable and meaningful.

Then this morning I come across Robert Epstein, writing in Education Week, who takes the argument several giant steps forward, arguing not just for the abolition of required common readings, but for the abolition of the whole sorry business of high school itself:

The research I conducted with my colleague Diane Dumas suggests that teenagers are as competent as adults across a wide range of adult abilities, and other research has long shown that they are actually superior to adults on tests of memory, intelligence, and perception. The assertion that teenagers have an “immature” brain that necessarily causes turmoil is completely invalidated when we look at anthropological research from around the world. Anthropologists have identified more than 100 contemporary societies in which teenage turmoil is completely absent; most of these societies don’t even have terms for adolescence. Even more compelling, long-term anthropological studies initiated at Harvard in the 1980s show that teenage turmoil begins to appear in societies within a few years after those societies adopt Western schooling practices and are exposed to Western media. Finally, a wealth of data shows that when young people are given meaningful responsibility and meaningful contact with adults, they quickly rise to the challenge, and their “inner adult” emerges.

A careful look at these issues yields startling conclusions: The social-emotional turmoil experienced by many young people in the United States is entirely a creation of modern culture. We produce such turmoil by infantilizing our young and isolating them from adults. Modern schooling and restrictions on youth labor are remnants of the Industrial Revolution that are no longer appropriate for today’s world; the exploitative factories are long gone, and we have the ability now to provide mass education on an individual basis.

Teenagers are inherently highly capable young adults; to undo the damage we have done, we need to establish competency-based systems that give these young people opportunities and incentives to join the adult world as rapidly as possible.
My reaction to these arguments, as they make their way to my desktop, is fraught. On the one hand, I say, "Hmm, yes, well, right. Of course we want to develop a love of reading among students, and of course the way to do that is to encourage them to read things they like, at least in addition to, if not in replace of, the classic texts we might have chosen for them. And of course, the very concept of mass education based on the assumption that teenagers are somehow not ready for "real life" is absurd. On the other hand, both of these arguments seem to run across counter to another strand of what seems to me like common sense, which is that the fact of the matter is that high school students, and in particular American high school students, don't know much to begin with, and asking them to read what they already like, or to leave school entirely and join the adult world (given its current American cultural configuration), seems like an abandonment. It certainly seems unlikely that very many of our students, if they have not been lit up by reading by the time they get to high school, are going to turn into avid readers on their own once they hit the workplace.

One of the most eloquent demonstrations of how little we do know, and what we might aspire to if we were to be the sorts of people who wanted to know something, comes from Adam Zagajewski in his essay "Young Poets, Please Read Everything," from A Defense of Ardor. Zagajewski, a formidably erudite reader and writer, is no great fan of modern culture or of the American educational experience, even when it is working at its best. Like Epstein, he suggests that those who take learning seriously are going to have to resign themselves to doing it on their own time.

Our schools are proud of producing streamlined members of the Great Animal, the new society of proud consumers. It's true that we weren't tortured like adolescents in nineteenth-century England (or France or Germany, or even Poland for that matter): we didn't have to memorize the whole of Virgil and Ovid. We must be self-taught; the difference between someone like Joseph Brodsky, who left school at the age of fifteen and proceeded to read everything he could get his hands on, and someone who's successfully run the full gamut of a modern American education, including a Ph.D., while rarely setting foot outside the Ivy League's safe precincts, doesn't require much comment. We do our reading mainly off-campus and in our post-campus lives.
Toward the end of his essay he compiles a listing of writers with whom a well-read individual, a young poet aspiring to learn his craft, for example, might hope to be familiar:

So, young poets, please read everything, read Plato and Ortega y Gasset, Horace and Hölderlin, Ronsard and Pascal, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Oscar Milosz and Czeslaw Milosz, Keats and Wittgenstein, Emerson and Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot and Umberto Saba, Thucydides and Colette, Apollinaire and Virginia Woolf, Anna Akhmatova and Dante, Pasternak and Machado, Montaigne and St. Augustine, Proust and Hofmannsthal, Sappho and Szymborska, Thomas Mann and Aeschylus, read biographies and treatises, essays and political analyses. Read for yourselves, for the sweet turmoil in your lovely head. But also read against yourselves, read for questioning and impotence, for despair and erudition, read the dry, sardonic remarks of philosophers like Cioran or even Carl Schmitt, read newspapers, read those who despise, dismiss, or simply ignore poetry and try to understand why they do it. Read your enemies and your friends, read those who reinforce your sense of what's evolving in poetry, and also read those whose darkness or malice or madness or greatness you can't yet understand because only in this way will you grow, outlive yourself, and become what you are.

One of the things I find most interesting and delightful about this inventory is the pairings, the juxtapositions. Plato, sure. But y Gasset? I did read one of his books once, in college, but all that I recall is that he talked about artistic standards. (I'm reminded of the Woody Allen joke about a guy who takes a speed-reading course, completes War and Peace in 20 minutes, and reports, "It involves Russia." One can sympathize.) Eliot, absolutely. But who the hell is Umberto Saba? Cioran? Carl Scmitt? It's noteworthy that Emerson and Dickinson are the only Americans, except for Eliot, who would probably object to the characterization. I'd like to think that I am a well-read individual, and by American standards I supppose I am, and yet easily half the names on this list are either completely unknown to me or are vague ghostly presences in the attic of my mind. I'm a product of and a practicioner in an educational system that has not ultimately encouraged me to read as broadly or as deeply as Zagajewski urges. A good U. S. education has not prepared me particularly well to be a citizen of the Republic of Letters. And then, of course, there are my students. I've had students read this essay and asked how many of the names they recognize. The most I've ever gotten was five. Most students recognize only the three American names.

So. Questions abound. Is the dilemma that Zagajewski's listing highlights best addressed by asking students to read more books that "address contemporary issues and are engaging," on the theory that perhaps if they become devoted readers they will eventually follow their noses to Szymborska and Aeschylus? That may be part of the answer, but I don't think it's the whole answer. Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus, Aristotle, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth, Donne, Pope, George Eliot, Hawthorne, Dostoevsky, Clemens, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Katherine Anne Porter, Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty: every single one of these, and many more, I first encountered in high school. That's where I began to develop a taste for literature, and a sense of the deeper satisfactions that reading can offer. Zagajewski says "Our reading takes places chiefly beneath two signs: the sign of memory and the sign of ecstasy." If our goal is to read for (cultural) memory, to place ourselves in the context of "what our many precursors produced before our minds were opened," then contemporary high-interest reading is not going to get the job done. If our goal is to read for ecstasy, for "the kind of energy that comes close to dance and shamanistic drunkenness," then we have to educate our palates: there are many sources of such energy, but they are not readly accessible to the uninitiated. Which is an argument for asking students to at least attempt to make the reach, to submit themselves to the discipline of reading what is not yet fully within their range of familiarity. Are some students going to resist? Sure. Does that mean we should give up? I don't think so.

Is this kind of education becoming irrelevant? Is it even sensible, in this day and age, to ask students to aspire to an erudition which in all likelihood is only going to alienate them, make them anachronistic book freaks in a world in which communication is streamlined and technology-enhanced and centered not in the past but in the what's going to be happening in the next five minutes? I don't know. Would my life be substantially different if the names in the list in the previous paragraph were as obscure to me as they are to most of our students, or as the names in Zagajewski's list are to me? Well, yes. I suppose I wouldn't be teaching, or at least not teaching English. But not everyone becomes a reader, and I don't suppose that there is any correlation at all between, say, happiness and erudition. (If there were a correlation, it might very well be an inverse ratio.)

Where do we draw the line? What's the absolute minimum we can or should expect students to have read? Is it a matter of minutes of time on task? Is it a set of core texts? Do we come up with a "fondness index" that measures how much students like to read? Do we ask them to do difficult reading now on the assumption that over time they will get better at it? Or do we give them high-interest easy reading now on the assumption that if they become readers they will eventually read more challenging work because they want it?

At our school, we're compromising at both ends. We've cut down in the freshman and sophomore required readings in order to make time for students to choose and share their own books. But we're still asking students to work together to read The Odyssey and Woman Warrior and Merchant of Venice and The Poisonwood Bible. And we try to find ways to help the students make the kinds of connections between those texts and what is going on in their own lives so that the reading experience will be, to some degree at least, engaging and relevant and meaningful. That's where the interesting challenges are.


Mark Hanington said...

A Russian scholar once visited my class, back when I was teaching European Studies. My students asked him how Russians and Americans were different, and his answer surprised us all.

He said Russians were more spiritual. When asked what that meant he said two Russians raised anywhere in that vast land could meet up and immediately start comparing Pushkin to Tolstoy. They have a common heritage in the great literature of their country and that gives them a common soul. They read those books in high school.

"Ah!" said one of my students, "But did they like doing that?"

A quizzical look from the scholar. Then, "Of course not. But we all did it, we all know it, we are one in the soul."

Sarah McIntosh Puglisi said...

I'm sorry. It is my mood but I figure a deeply thinking, reading, classic connected populace probably threatens corporate those without buy in to the dream of corporate nirvana.....and as a cynical as that is, I suspect the next research will argue against technology. Oh yeah that out today too....

Shutting down info. and curtailing access to great books (ones kids moan about, oh no)and teachers working with them to comprehend ...seems the present course. It is in my world. It might be far less simple than this but it is my simple Woman's take...when I read this kind of chills.


Good is bad.
War is Peace
Freedom is slavery
Ignorance is strength
Reading is passe.

I myself want my children reading novels in high school. Syl doing so just now getting into MIT, CALTech, Tufts, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, Amherst, Columbia, Reed, UCSB, Berkeley, Harvey Mudd, Boston U, Portland, University of Oklahoma....others in a tough year.... coming out of a rich reading background with novels in classes from 1st on...that was bragging but as much as I respect the notion of self guidance she articulated this clearly...."who would know what to read or how to interpret well without the guiding hand of the adults and thoughts of other students who acted as my teachers and mentors."