Sunday, February 13, 2011

In Defense of Literature

A week ago, Julia Steiny, the education writer for the Providence Journal, wrote a terrific, yet upsetting, article for the Providence Journal, about the books being assigned to HS students by their English teachers. She began the article by discussing the great literature she was assigned in HS and the fact that this challenging literature was assigned not only to broaden the students' literary skills, but also to build wisdom and "understanding of how and why different people, in different circumstances, make decisions, mistakes, sacrifices". Steiny goes on to say that "one of the great virtues of fiction is that it gives us the benefit of someone else's experience, at the remove of fiction". This is brilliant. I've never really been able to articulate what it is that draws me to fiction, but this is it. It lets me experience "at the remove of fiction" how someone might behave in various circumstances. I think this also plays into how I choose the stories I do. I choose novels based on how interesting the story is to me. At some unconscious level I choose stories about situations that somehow "speak" to me. For me, reading fiction is, on some level, educational.

What made Steiny's article upsetting was that she goes on to explain that most states (RI included) are currently adopting the new Common Core standards, which will require students to read more "informational texts" and "considerably less fiction". Additionally, she goes on to state that even now, the fiction that is being assigned to our students is of a much less challenging nature than that which I was exposed to. How sad. (And don't even get me started on what has been done to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn).

I will be the first to admit that I didn't appreciate many of the books I read in HS. For the most part, their greatness was lost on my teenage self. But I am thankful for having been afforded the opportunity of guided reading under the tutelage of some wonderful English teachers. And while I most likely did not come away with a full understanding of those great works of fiction, I most certainly did come away with a foundation of learning on which to build a deeper understanding. And I've found that now when I go back and revisit those great classics of English literature I readily recognize their greatness. And for that I credit my HS English teachers and the challenging curriculum to which I was exposed.

I have had a first hand look at the HS English curriculum in my town for the past 6 years and I have been impressed by the wide variety of both classic English and World Literature that my daughters have been assigned in their various classes. They have probably read even more than I did as a HS student. I certainly hope that this continues after RI adopts the Common Core standards. Anything less would be a real loss.

How about you? Were you required to read challenging literature in HS? If so, are you glad? If not, do you wish you had been? Have you revisited any of the required texts as an adult? I'd love to hear your thoughts.


injaynesworld said...

Pam, that is so disturbing. I'm so glad I grew up when it was possible to get a really excellent public education even if I, like you, didn't appreciate it at the time.

I'm currently reading "The Immortal Henrietta Lacks." It's non-fiction, but reads like a novel. I highly recommend it.

Very well-written, informative post. Thanks so much.


LindyLouMac said...

Less fiction, that is a dreadful idea! I guess HS stands for High School, sorry we speak a different language sometimes don't we. A good English Literature teacher instills a love of the books you study with them. I doubt I would ever have considered reading Thomas Hardy had I not studied him for GCSE, now I plan to re-read some of his novels for the Victorian Literature Challenge. Re-reading books is a rare occurrence for me, too many books and to little time.

Katherine said...

I look back at the books I read during high school, and am grateful for it. We even read challenging books, like Heart of Darkness and Crime and Punishment. I actually loved these books so much that I would read more books by those authors. It was actually reading Dostoevsky in high school that encouraged me to start reading Tolstoy. I've noticed that my younger siblings that are finishing up high school are reading less challenging books. And even more upsetting is the lack of conversation about the book. How can you read The Scarlet Letter or The Chosen and not talk about symbolism? It's terrible.

Sandy said...

I saw this article and thought it was more of the 'dumbing down of America.' Great post.

I was required to read many books in HS that I didn't enjoy or appreciate. But like many things that you are exposed to in HS, as I've gotten older I see their value.

I have to say that I wasn't all that challenged in HS. But I had an English teacher in the 9th grade who introduced us to more in one year that my whole three years in high school combined. Few of my high school teachers stand out in my memory but Mrs. Goodyear sure does. Thank goodness for her.

Jen said...

this makes me really sad too, Pam. I read so many wonderful, challenging, meaningful books in high school that I want all teens to have the exposure. I read novels like "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "The Great Gatsby" and "The Catcher in the Rye." Loved them all, and I was blessed with great, insightful teachers who brought me through them. I read Shakespeare and TS Eliot.

And now, I'm going back and reading those books that my honors English classes didn't cover: "The Lord of the Flies," "David Copperfield," "The Grapes of Wrath" (we read "Of Mice and Men" instead). I can't help but feeling that I'm missing the guidance of a great teacher when I'm reading them now though.

I actually had this discussion with a friend the other night, and I decided that if my future child's school doesn't teach these books, I will. My kids will read this great books, and hopefully I can guide them through like my teachers did for me.

Ronnica said...

I've always enjoyed fiction, though I've been in a bit of a rut with it personally. I think there is a lot to learn from fiction, though it's not enough.

I'm familiar with the 9th and 10th grade curriculum here locally as my roommate is an English teacher. I think it's adequate, though I'd always want to push for more. The problem is that most of the students coming into high school are not even remotely prepared for a high school education.

Karen Peterson said...

I was never very good at reading books that I "had to" read. But I love fiction and I love the classics. It's something that I was too young to appreciate in school.

I'm developing an appreciation for non-fiction, but I think I'll always prefer fiction.

Debbie said...

That is very upsetting to me. We are raising a generation that will have no creativity at all.

Marie said...

I was exposed to a lot of great books through great teachers and I still love serious fiction. Dumbing down the curriculum isn't going to help anybody in the long run. STudents need to be pushed and taught to use their critical thinking and analytical skills and that's not going to happen if all they read is junk.


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