Photo: Cardiff and Vale College
The Aversion to English Explained
Don't Read in the Dark
July 31st, 2016
Before you roll your eyes and dismiss this as another high school kid complaining about classes by making the “this subject is irrelevant to my life” argument, I will establish that I do recognize English as an important subject that is necessary for success. The ability to spell, speak with proper grammar, and write eloquently and effectively are important skills that are necessary for many professions. That being said, exercises such as identifying theme statements and interpreting symbols have very little, if any, relevance to student’s life outside the classroom, unless they really enjoy analyzing novels. In the end, much of what is taught in English is subjective and is often interpreted differently depending on the individual. Curriculums should focus more on developing writing and grammar skills and building vocabulary. The frustration that many high school students feel towards English arises from many places including, but not limited to, the subjectivity of the class, closed-minded curriculums and emphasis on the wrong aspects of the class.
Depending on a student’s mindset, subjects such as theme, tone and symbols, which are present in most literary works, can be interpreted in different ways. English class should give students the opportunity to explore literature and how the same literary work can lead to different interpretations of the work’s elements. Hopefully, this is the case for most students. However, there are many teachers who believe their interpretation of a work to be the only one.
Blogger T wrote a blog entry entitled "15 Reasons Why I Hate English Class". T’s second biggest reason for hating English was “English class by nature is very counterproductive.” T goes on to describe that students must essentially relearn the same things every year as virtually every teacher has a different preference in writing style. “[Every instructor has his/her own set of regulations that dictate what is acceptable and what is not. And for some reason unbeknownst to me, every English teacher feels that he/she is the lone revolutionist, cleansing students from poor writing.”
Nothing discourages reading more than assigned reading. Another blogger named Eric relates this in "The Sin of High School English Class (or Why I Hate Classic Literature)". According to Eric, “high school English and the AP Curriculum were a never ending parade of assigned reading, with absolutely no suggestion of enjoying, exploring, or discovering literature on our own.” Requiring students to read the same book at the same pace and interpret them the same way discourages creativity and can ultimately lead students to dislike a book that they might otherwise enjoy.
This past year I was a sophomore in high school. Throughout the entire nine months of the school year, I wrote two papers in English class, both of which were under two pages long and received perfect scores. I did more writing for biology. The first of these two essays was about a personal belief and the only support it required was an anecdote. The class did no research to prepare for this essay. The second was opinionated and written in the format of a news article. College applicants are asked to write essays, not news articles. Kim Brooks is a college composition professor. In her article, "Death to high school English", she expresses concern for the problem I just described. She describes feeling “overwhelmed… by all the things [her students] don’t know how to do when it comes to written communication.” When she started asking her students what they did in high school English, she described their responses as “less than reassuring.” Answers varied from performing skits to keeping reading journals to giving oral presentations. Students placed in general classes throughout high school “hardly mention writing or reading at all.”
The ability to speak and write properly are key skills for success in school and in life. English courses in school are the primary source for learning these skills. However, the nature of English teaching that takes place in many school environments often ends up driving students away from the subject. The best possible way to resolve this issue is for teachers to pay more regard to the opinions of the students and what they will need in order to prepare for college, careers and life in general.
Knowledge about the art of communication has many pros and little to no cons. Writing and speaking with skill can help to ensure that correct information is transmitted, not only in terms of content, but also in terms of the implications of said content. It’s one thing to know that a country has declared war on another; it’s quite another to know how worried to be about such pieces of news. Whether writing fact or fiction, authors have a purpose, and citizens have a responsibility to be informed via the intake and analysis of images and words. Citizens are also less likely to be swayed by deceptive tricks if they can recognize and understand the tools that writers and speakers use. Some writers choose to convey their messages indirectly, through fiction. Writers and tellers of fiction can take liberties by using literary devices such as metaphor, symbolism, and satire--tools which are meant to improve the impact of a message. Full reading comprehension relies on familiarity with these tools.
While some persons write stories to entertain alone--a valuable endeavor, for one in light of stress--many write stories to educate, persuade, or inform on a deep level. Take the novel "Lord of the Flies" by William Golding for example. Golding stated that Lord of the Flies is “about the problem of evil and the problem of how people are to live together in society….” It is an allegory for larger societies, and while the novel doesn’t provide answers, it does stir one to think about the problems. That is its intent. To know this requires context; it requires knowledge that involves research or education as opposed to simply picking up the book and reading it because one chooses to. Such a casual reader might decide, based on their own feelings and experiences, that the absence of girls on the island is the problem. Entitlement to this opinion would mean that the author’s purpose is lost since he purposely left girls out of the story so as not to dilute or weaken the theme. Similarly, the interpretation of "Animal Farm" by George Orwell is informed by separate knowledge about the Russian Revolution.
There surely exist authors who are content to let readers extract personal meaning from their writings. This allows readers to connect with stories but can also detract from them. Toni Morrison, author of books including "Beloved" and "Tar Baby", has said that she writes for black people. The implication is that a white reader cannot connect with her stories but only watch them unfold, as an outside observer; to claim otherwise could be considered arrogant. Knowing how to approach such literature ahead of time, through being or becoming informed, requires education that is quite specific about the author. Ignorance is not an excuse for themes as significant as the black experience.
Symbols move stories beyond plot, as intended, for those in the know. In The Giver by Lois Lowry, color represents complicated emotions and feelings, not just things looking prettier. Would a twelve-year-old instinctively know this? Perhaps.
The Harry Potter or the Hunger Games series of books might not warrant serious academic study or guidance in the opinion of at least some, but acclaimed authors such as Kafka, Vonnegut, Bradbury, Camus, Hosseini, and others might not agree that all fiction should be enjoyed only through the lens of the reader’s gaze. To judge must rarely, if ever, be the sole purpose of reading about an alien experience, fictional or otherwise. Figurative language is meant to convey things that can’t easily be put into words, so that an idea or an experience can be incorporated into or at least layered onto one’s own worldview in order to improve it. An idea or experience expressed through prose or poetry should not be transformed or twisted to fit a reader’s existing view and prevent it from developing, maturing, and expanding beyond constrictive borders.
It can be difficult to notice, let alone comprehend, the intended and profound meanings within some of the stories we share. Educated and skilled teachers can help. However, such teachers are not necessarily ubiquitous, and while academic standards exist, the implementation of these standards depends on frontline teachers, and “most teachers are recruited from the bottom third of college-bound high-school students.” Until the teaching profession is valued more in the U.S., some students might never have access to a high quality language arts education so that they might fully and most effectively participate in the world of literature, whether as readers or writers. Full disclosure: I am a teacher.