Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Random Thought - High School, Expectations, and Literature

This post is inspired by the Book Blogger Hop question I answered on December 31, 2016. The question made me contemplate the classic works of literature I had read, and I realized that I read a large proportion of those when I was a student. Specifically, when I was in high school, the curriculum I read a lot of classic novels and other works of prose and poetry. From my memory, the list is something like this:

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
L'Etranger by Albert Camus
Les Jeux Sent Faits by Jean-Paul Sartre
Light in August by William Faulkner
The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
Rhinoceros by Eugéne Ionesco
Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

I also read a number of plays by Shakespeare (to the best of my recollection I read Hamlet, Henry IV, Part I, Julius Caesar, and Romeo and Juliet, and Twelfth Night) as well as Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. I also read substantial portions of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and Milton's Paradise Lost. I also recall an entire trimester devoted to studying poetry.

The point here is not to brag, after all pretty much every classmate of mine read a list of works either identical to or substantially similar to this. The point is rather to reflect upon the fact that I walked away from my high school graduation pretty well read in prominent works of literature. This wasn't really my doing - it was simply part of the school's curriculum, and that is the salient issue here. I'm not endorsing this particular list as being universal - looking at it, I think that there should definitely be more works by women in the selection, and it would have been nice if the list included at least some works by non-white authors. I didn't love all the books on the list - I'm not a fan of Austen, and a really loathed Salinger's work - but I'm still glad that I read them. Fundamentally, for whatever flaws it has, this is a list that provided me with a good grounding in literature.

I attended a private high school named Woodberry Forest School for the last three years of my secondary education, and this list is basically what I read during my sojourn there. I was able to attend this school basically due to a collection of circumstances that had almost nothing to do with me. My family is not wealthy, certainly not wealthy enough to afford to send a teen-ager off to one of the more highly ranked boarding schools in the United States.

This reading list didn't strike me as being out of the ordinary when I was a student. After all, it was the only high school curriculum that I had directly experienced at that time. That sort of classwork was, to me, normal. I have no idea what other high schools were teaching at the time. At the time, I was not exposed to the expectations of public high schools for comparison. More recently, however, my children have attended a public high school, and from what I can tell, the reading requirements were nowhere near as rigorous. Their school isn't a bad high school - it is in fact part of a fairly well-regarded school system, and is itself seen as being a pretty good school. Even so, based upon my observation of my son's high school career, I'm pretty certain that he didn't read even a quarter as much literature as I did in mine.

I think this lowered expectation does a great disservice to students. Fundamentally, one of the goals of reading literature in school is to give the student critical thinking skills: The ability to read a text closely, the ability to evaluate and understand a work, and so on. But that is not the only reason we read literature. Great literature informs us of the culture that we are inheriting, and passes on a reflection of the author's mind. Reading Huckleberry Finn tells the reader a story that reflects what Mark Twain thought about American culture, while reading Faulkner's Light in August tells a very different story about American culture. Students should read literature not just for the mechanical exercise of assimilating and analyzing the work, but also to be exposed to their own cultural heritage. I suspect that my son and daughter have been comparatively shortchanged in this regard.

Some people see this sort of difference and wonder why one should send their children to public schools. They seek to place their children in private schools like the one I attended, or to bring their children home and educate them themselves. Some even try to take funding away from public schools and direct that money towards "school choice". I am of the opinion that this is antithetical to the fabric of the nation in which we live. Fundamentally, it is the right of every child to have the sort of education that I was lucky enough to receive. We should not be dumbing down the public school curriculum and ceding the role of asking only those students fortunate enough to be educated elsewhere to students to stretch their intellectual muscles to a comparative handful of private institutions. We should be working to raise up our public schools and pushing students to read more widely than we do now. Great literature is a source of knowledge, culture, and joy, and we should be making sure that we give a full measure it to every student.

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