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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Novels for novices make no sense

Our well-intentioned teachers in high school required us to read four or five classic novels each year. It was not a successful way to educate us:
  • Those novels were written for adults, not teenagers who didn't have enough life experience to apprehend what all but the most transparent of the novels were trying to say.
  • Despite the occasional footnote in a student edition, the novels refer to customs, events, and places that teenagers in a different century and locale don't understand. The combination of too many unfamiliar references and too much pressure for time prevented students from consulting a dictionary, encyclopedia, or atlas — and such reference books were often not at hand where and when students actually read the novels.
  • Some teachers stressed gotcha! tactics to seek out and destroy students who had merely skimmed the novels or read only the Cliff Notes. All students felt compelled to take a defensive position; we prioritized the memorization of characters and events in anticipation of tests. Comprehension, enjoyment, and enlightenment were secondary considerations. Miss Gladys Nichols, traditionalist teacher of 12th-grade English Lit and a primary purveyor of academic terror, complained that we would "memorize to pass the test to promptly forget". (Overlook the split infinitive.) Her criticism was accurate but it arose circularly from her own methods.
If Charles Dickens or Herman Melville were in such a classroom, they would not be happy about how their material was being used — any more than Alain Ducasse would approve of selling his kitchen output at a McDonalds. And just as we graduated from high school knowing a lot about the Revolutionary War but virtually nothing about the Korean War, we knew a lot about Sir Walter Scott but nothing about Saul Bellow.

Before my friends who teach English jump to their keyboards, let me add that I do respect the novel as an art form and a mechanism for social or individual change, and that's why it makes me sad to say that the pedagogy I've described is counterproductive. I admit that mine is a male perspective, possibly tinted by a bit of attention deficit, and the view of an mathematics fiend as well. The students in high school whom I remember to have been energized or informed by novels, instead of drained by them like myself, were mostly girls. But boys are half the world, and engineers need social knowledge and social skills in the long run.

Spending so much time inside aluminum tubes in recent years has given me the opportunity to read acclaimed novels at a consistent rate. (I keep to 20th-century stuff.) This is a departure for me; I had always favored non-fiction prose over novels. I enjoy the novels now and learn from them — precisely what my high school English teachers, including Miss Nichols, had hoped to instill in me. But the end, 40 years later, doesn't justify the means. There must be a better way to inculcate an appreciation of literature, if not a love of it, than force-feeding it to teenagers.