More Tales Of A Scorched Youth
By Dwip April 15, 2007, 3:10 pm Comments (9) RSS Feed for this post

With a nod towards my dad’s comment on the previous entry, which can be found here,

I think, for the record, that this marks the first time anyone related to me has posted here, so let’s just all pause and appreciate it for a moment.

Because I started writing this as a comment and said “Actually, there’s a post in here…” let’s just talk about this for a bit.

Starting with Hemingway, the comment relating to whom amuses me greatly, since hey, who else in the family wears flannels? ;) I understood, at the end of the month or so we spent reading Old Man and the Sea, pretty well what Hemingway was trying to say, and how he was trying to say it. My issue with it is that the act of reading it was so insanely boring that it scarcely mattered what he said, I wasn’t in the mood to listen. I think the same thing about The Pearl. Steinbeck’s a great author, but that story was horrendously bad. It’s all very good, as I’ve said, to write stories about Great And Important Subjects In Life, but great literature should be MORE than that – there should be a deep and compelling plot to go along with it, which neither of them had, IMHO.

By contrast, I’m thinking of, say, Catcher In the Rye, which would have been directly relevant to a bunch of HS kids. I think Gatsby has a lot less universal appeal at the age, but it was fun. I’m sure Ender’s Game would get some reaction. I’d love to see something like Starship Troopers or The Forever War taught well. We’ll come back to that in a bit.

If I’m picking on Mr. Elliott, I don’t mean to be…much. It’s just that there a couple of things he had an irrational love for, poetry among them. He has a little speech, along the lines of:

“Stories are like coffee. Take novels, which are like Folgers. You drink them for the caffeine, not the taste. Short stories are like brewing your own coffee to get better, more refined taste. But poetry is like espresso – just the pure essence of coffee.”

He tells it better. He should, it’s his.

Now, I disagree, as it happens, since I like my longer stories more (also I am a Coke drinker, and hate coffee, just to carry it further). My issue with most poetry is that, much like a lot of literature these days, is that it’s trying WAY too hard to be something, when it really isn’t. Of course, then sometimes you get Thomas or Kipling.

In any case, I don’t place a lot of blame on Mr. Elliott’s head, since I thought he was actually one of the better teachers at MHS. With the exception of Mrs. Hall in 7th (that lady sure could teach), and my 207/208 prof at OSU whose name I forget, he was the best of them. The less we say about English/Reading classes in grade school, the better, perhaps.

I hated (and hate), The Old Man and the Sea and The Pearl, but I learned some fairly useful skills from them. I certainly got a lot more from English than I did from Social Studies (which to be sure was what it was – no HS history book is going to teach ME about WWII) or, dare I say, Health (which gave me an abiding hatred of 1980s after school specials).

No, my real issue is that so much of the material is just so bad, badly presented, or both. I haven’t the foggiest idea who to blame for those HS lit books, but they were pretty awful. And a few points on that.

1. The books in question were used 1995-1999, and I’m pretty sure all of them dated to something more like 1988 or a bit further back. I believe the latest thing we read in any class dated to 1959 (Alas, Babylon), which was a good 30 years prior to the book’s date, and getting closer to 40 by the time I got there. Considering what has come since 1959, that’s something of an issue. Salinger would’ve made that cutoff, but Heinlein and Haldeman would not. All of that literature from the civil rights movement, from Vietnam, and so much else, that was lost to us. At least in the first two years, it was like being forever stuck in the 1940s.

Too, how much of it was so dissimilar to anything I might actually read for myself? Sure, we read the Hobbit, and half of us got Alas, Babylon while the other half got Day of the Triffids, but aside from that, you’ve got Mark Twain and Shakespeare and Beowulf. And I’ve got so much more expansive tastes than most, too. Again, this is where we start talking about Heinlein and Haldeman. James Clavell and Alex Haley were probably too large for an HS class (although Roots or the Autobiography of Malcolm X would’ve been pretty useful), but Tim O’Brien, or Ender’s Game. I hesitate to recommend Lord of the Rings because I find them dry, but you know, something.

At least for the first two years. I understand that you can’t do much about American Lit, because it is what it is, and for as much as I despised all of it, there’s a certain value in learning that body of work. Similarly with the British Lit we got as seniors, only it doesn’t really need the help, because when you have Shakespeare, King Arthur in general, and Beowulf, you’ll do ok. In fairness to my English texts, I was actually fascinated by my British book, because all the stuff was actually GOOD.

We could make it that way ALL THE TIME, is what I’m saying. It’s just that hardly ever happened.

2. Too, touching on both the system and on something Suzanne said here, there’s this whole thing set up in academia where literary form is pretty much trapped in the 1940s with a bunch of dead white guys and can’t get out. The writing half of OSU was really atrocious about it, in fact (yes, lectures about “thou shalt not writeth genre fiction,” I mean you). It’s kind of like one of those horror things where you get trapped in a house with zombies, only none of these people would stoop to write like that (well, maybe they WOULD, since Poe did it first).

I suspect, though I don’t entirely know because I never got far enough in my English classes to know, that there’s a secret initiation ceremony in your junior year where you are forced to burn a bestselling fiction book while swearing on a copy of Moby Dick that you shall enjoy and espouse nothing written after 1960, and anything after 1950 only grudgingly respect. My own classroom experience bears evidence to this, but too, I found my English Praxis II, the test designed to judge your fitness to teach unto the youth of tomorrow, quite telling. Either you had read the Six True Books, or you had NOT read the Six True Books, and you failed the test.

Fortunately, The Great Gatsby (along with, IIRC, The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls, To Kill A Mockingbird, a collection of poetry I have never heard of, and a novel I have never heard of) was one of them, and I had just read it for fun and because I didn’t get it in school, so I did reasonably well.

And it wasn’t just “pick one of these books and write an essay on it” (although there was that), it was “In Book That Nobody Has Ever Heard Of, what happened when the protagonist’s sister did that one thing with the stuff?”

It strikes me as impossible that a test this important could be this badly written, meaning that it was expected that you had read the books in question. Which I find both irresponsible and indicative of a much larger problem.

3. It may be, that had I become an English teacher, I would have reversed that trend amongst my students. Perhaps not. It is not, after all, just up to me. Those pesky creatures, parents, have their say, as do school boards. Maybe the school, as I suspect was a problem for MHS, just doesn’t have the money.

I suspect, though, from having talked to a rather younger breed of English teacher in years since, that we may be escaping this. We shall see.

Teacher Man (not to mention Angela’s Ashes and ‘Tis) WERE truly amazing books. Could have used them in school. Alas.

Too, Sarah’s commentary on all of this would likely be instructive, as someone who seems to have experienced nothing like the wasteland us public school types went through.

I invite, as always, comment.

Books, School Comments (9) RSS Feed for this post
Comments on More Tales Of A Scorched Youth
avatar Comment by Whir #1
April 15, 2007 at 5:44 pm

I stand by my opinion that teaching literature in general is not a useful idea. When taken with my view on generalized social education you probably get “he’s an anarchist” out of it, but. If a kid is going to be interested in reading, I believe he’ll be so before high school. In fact, if there’s one thing that will purge the enjoyment of reading from a person, it’s high school English and literature classes.

Generally, my argument here is that, yes, by all means, teach grammar to every single student you can. Literature, however, should be an elective. Those students who like to read will do so, and may enjoy the class and learn some things. Knowing literary works in general has very little practical use in day-to-day life, IMO. Morality should be learned through experience, not clubs.

While it’s probably not the case, I sometimes think that if I hadn’t been force fed garbage like Great Expectations or Old Man and the Sea, I’d still read like I used to.

avatar Comment by Sgt. B. #2
April 16, 2007 at 11:56 am

The interest of teaching literature lies not so much in the particular book but in the use of the narrative to develop ideas. Literature shouldbe a tool to improve critical thinking abilities not a club to make sure every student knows what happened in the third paragraph of page 241. In 10th grade we had Moby Dick, 2001 Space Odyssey, and a third book which I can not remember. (The teacher wasn’t exactly motivated, in fact he smoked Boule d’Or cigarettes in class and was often drunk for his afternoon periods.) In 11th and 12th grade I remember reading several contemporary authors two of which have been translated into english since. (One Way by Didier van Cauweleart is an hilarious ride filled with sarcasm. And Amelie Nothomb now has a whole list of funny book although she is kind of in a groove by now.)

avatar Comment by Regina #3
April 16, 2007 at 7:31 pm

We read Life of Pi in my sophomore English class, which I think was a great move on the part of my English teacher. I’d actually say that’s a good book to be taught in class – certainly not because people won’t read it on their own, because it’s an enjoyable novel – but because it contains a whole lot that’s worth discussing in depth. In such a discussion, also, you can’t help talking about issues of theme, metaphor, etc., which is a much more effective way of learning them than having them drilled into you (we got our fair share of that too).

I wonder why it is teachers are so intent on teaching students to recognize and define Literary Devices, and what is the extent to which knowing what these devices are in a textbook manner actually helps you to understand the books better. Certainly having names for concepts is key to grasping them – I suffer from this problem with music, where I’ll be like “That part was really cool!” but won’t know the terminology to describe why it was cool. Of course, sometimes I like it that way, and what gets overlooked a lot is that people tend to like their reading that way, too, to enjoy it without necessarily knowing what the tricks are – this is one of the reasons people hate learning poetry, because it feels like the part that isn’t tricks you have to ferret out is incomprehensible word jumbles.

The AP English exam, by the way, is THE far end of that spectrum, where you’re asked to read something and explain all the literary devices in it in a timed essay. That, I feel, was making the skill so specialized it was useless for practical purposes.

I feel that thus far I’ve beat on English class slightly more than it deserves, so let me say in its favor that, by and large, my school gave us really good books. In seventh grade, they had us reading Of Mice and Men, To Kill A Mockingbird, and Animal Farm. We all recognized that that was the first year we could have possibly understood those books, and we enjoyed the challenge. I have very fond memories of that class. In eighth grade, we were reading Inherit the Wind, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Odyssey, and Lord of the Flies (it’s too bad we were too immature to have a serious discussion about that one at the time – I’d say they should put that off til 10th grade, when everyone won’t think it’s quite so hilarious to go around saying “Sucks to your ass-mar!”) 9th grade English was a mixed bag – some good, some great, some eh.

Junior year American lit, which seems to be the main point of contention here, pretty much rocked, at least for me. We did get the Scarlet Letter, but then we also got The Great Gatsby, Their Eyes Were Watching God (this got mixed review, but I really liked it), a really good Willa Cather novel, Frederick Douglass, Death of a Salesman, and The Things They Carried. Pretty much all of those are a) worth the paper they are printed on, and b) worth the time and attention it took to untangle them. Sure, most of them we could have read on our own, but having serious discussions about what was going on and why REALLY helped.

We also had a poetry unit, which, due to the textbook, rocked. It contained selections from Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, and Walt Whitman, which meant that there was something for everyone. I personally found a lot in that book that was very moving and beautiful, to the point that I read poems we weren’t assigned.

Also, and I swear I’ll stop soon, one more point needs to be made, and that is that “We got good stuff to read” is slightly different from “I enjoyed English class at the time.” The quality of the assignments, the ability of the teacher, and the general stress level of school at the time all can take away from or add to the experience of reading books in school. Unless you get a really good teacher, it’s likely to be “take away from,” to at least some degree, especially in the later years as the stress level rises. College prep such as college essay writing, SAT vocab, and AP skill learning (see above) definitely detract from the experience of learning the literature.

And I will finish up this ridiculous post by noting that in the time I have been writing this, I should have been revising an essay for… English class. :P

avatar Comment by Suz #4
April 16, 2007 at 6:15 pm

I think I must disagree on two related points of yours- one you made in your last post is that literary fiction is in a slump, and I don’t think that’s true – genre, especially sci-fi and fantasy, are on the rise, but all you have to do is look at the “New Releases” section of Borders to see quite a bit of so-called literary fiction. The other is that no books written before 1950 is taught in school. There IS new(er) fiction being taught – Life of Pi and The Secret Lives of Bees are two I can think of off hand. But, like we both said, lit-fic is still the only thing being taught in high school. It’s annoying, at the very least, to have that split between what I read for fun and what I read for class – it should at least be similar!

avatar Comment by Suz #5
April 16, 2007 at 6:21 pm

The other funny thing is, I really like Life of Pi because it’s got a moving plot, and, *gasp* humor. It’s practically a fantasy/adventure novel, but we can’t put it in that catagory because that would somehow lower its status. It’s REALLY a lit book with ELEMENTS of fantasy and adventure. :P

avatar Comment by Clyos #6
April 17, 2007 at 6:46 pm

Well, in the wake of Regina’s Uber-Post ™, it should be noted you forgot part of Mr. Elliot’s quote. And that is “Newspapers are for people who drink coffee from a percolator”. Other than that, there isn’t much more to say.

avatar Comment by Whir #7
April 18, 2007 at 10:12 am

The problem with this post and these replies is that people are thinking. You folks don’t realize that the more you display cognitive and independent thought, the more the shadow government will seek to quell your uprising.

It’s a conspiracy.

avatar Comment by Dwip #8
April 19, 2007 at 12:19 am


I come down on the Laurent side of the him/Whir debate, which is to say that for having read and analyzed all of that literature, I am better at than had I not, which I think is a good thing.

That having been said, the people behind the English Praxis II obviously think something other than this. Just saying.

If people are actually reading the mainstream lit fic, I’m unsure who they are. Going by the reading tastes of people I know, most are fairly voracious genre readers, not so much on the other.

Too, the things I say about schools are heavily influenced by my own experiences, which are admittedly in a very small school beginning about 20 years ago and ending 8 years ago, during which there has been much time for change, though I don’t know if it has. Much of why I asked for Regina’s post was because I knew she had a wildly different experience than I did, in a wildly different school, more recently.

I agree wholeheartedly with Regina’s first paragraph. I do. And to the second, though it’s a little chicken/egg – you need to know what the devices are to understand the book, but you need to read the book to understand the devices. One reason why I dislike books that are ALL device.

I find it interesting to note that, of the gaps I noted in my own literature education (all that post-1950 stuff), I got a lot of it in college history courses – Frederick Douglass and The Things They Carried (not to mention If I Die In A Combat Zone and Going After Cacciato). The survey of classical literature was fairly broad, and we covered Dante pretty in depth in English 207/208. Heart of Darkness in another history class. Too, I got a fair chunk of classical Chinese and Japanese (emphasis on the Japanese) literature in my East Asian Civ class, which was decent, though I suspect not something that needs to be migrated to HS.

Plutarch, I say that I have probably read more of than anyone here, which is both a good and a bad thing.

I never expected literature in history classes, but it sure worked well. I indeed forgot the newspaper part. Alas.

The fun part of this blog is that any one thing I reference, generally at least half the people were there for. The coffee quote is now known to a generation of MHS students. I think 3-4 of us have had 207 or 208.

A couple of you had the same history classes.

Whir’s been watching too much NHK. His fridge will talk to him soon.

avatar Comment by Russ Wolfe #9
April 22, 2007 at 12:32 pm

I just found a bit in Writer’s Digest – a magazine that speaks to author wannabes – that seems appropos:

“Literary fiction tends to be humorless, unexciting (for example, pages and pages of inner monologue that go nowhere and restate the obvious) and/or horribly depressing. The writing [may be] superlative, but what’s the use without a rousing good story to back it up…?”

Letter by M. Kaptanoglu, WD June 2007

So there are others Out There who value story over sermon.