Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Teaching great literature vs. teaching pop teen literature in schools: Another indication of what's wrong with education

Well my post late last year about a Kentucky school that required a teacher to cut the teen pop literature in a college preparatory course in favor of books that, like, actually belong in a college prep course has apparently made it on some teachers' loop and I'm getting comments on the post once again, so I thought I'd bring the discussion back out on the current main page.

Here is the comment from one teacher (Paige):
Sir, have you ever actually spoken to any of your students? Have you ever asked them what they're thinking about, what worries them at night, what makes them smile in the morning?

Maybe some of these books won't land on a 100 Best Ever list, but if kids can relate to them and learn a little more about their own world, then by all means they should read them.

I'm an English teacher and I LOVE reading "The Classics". I loved Shakespeare in high school, but I also read a lot of YA, I still do. I saw myself in them and - as cliche as it may be - felt a little more normal and less alienated.

Classics are important but not at the expense of turning kids away from books forever.
Never mind my original point--that schools should be children to the great works of Western culture, not leaving them in the debased culture they already inhabit-- but, as I noted this in the original discussion, notice the assumptions behind these remarks:

1. That teen fiction is more easy to relate to than great literature. Any English teacher worth anything knows that this is simply not true. One of the reasons great literature is great is because you can relate to it--because it speaks to the human in all of us. The only thing that prevents children from relating to it is the idea among some teachers that children can't relate to it. If students are not called upon to stretch themselves in their reading and rise above the immediately gratifying world of contemporary teen books, they will never even be able to approach the deeper, richer world of great literature. "You cannot be uplifed," said Mortimer Adler, "by something that is not above you."

2. That focusing on the classics detracts from a child's love of literature. I'm sorry, but any English teacher who thinks this needs to find another job. If you can't teach literature in a way that captures the minds and hearts of your students, then you don't belong in the profession. Go get a position as cashier at Wal-Mart or something, but stay away from the classroom. I have taught English literature for a number of years. We read great literature. My students fall in love with these books. For many of them it literally changes their lives. Ask my students about the experience of reading Flannery O'Connor, G. K. Chesterton, or Wendell Berry and they will talk your ear off. Ask them about the short stories of O'Henry, Jack London, or Saki, or the short novels of John Steinbeck, George Orwell, or F. Scott Fitzgerald. None of them would say that these works detracted from their love of literature. Not a one.

Here is another teacher (Ally):
I'd just like to point out:

On here, many times, it's been said that students should be expected to relate to the classics. Going through high school, you're absolutely right. I should much rather relate to

a) the suicide of two teenagers and the heavy violence that led to this. (Romeo & Juliet)

b) A father who holds his daughter hostage until she falls in love with the right man. (The Tempest)

c) backstabbing mothers and fathers who know nothing of their children and cause their ensuing insanity. (Hamlet)

What? Is this not what these stories are about? Am I not seeing the bigger picture? Because neither are you. Every book is imperfect. Why not go ahead and ban all of Jane Austen too because, apparently, she's also non-Christian and corrupting the youth. (Quote from a quarterly in the 1800s)
The short answer to Ally is, "No, you are not seeing the bigger picture."

Ally seems to think that my problem with teaching pop teen literature in college preparatory classes has something to do with objectionable content. If she reads the literature in her classes as well as she read my original post, then we may have identified her problem. Great literature isn't great because of the content it deals with; it is great because of how it deals with it. And to say that pop teen literature deals with these issues better than classic literature does is to simply betray a lack of familiarity with great literature.

It is a measure of the plight of our schools that we would even be having a debate like this. When the people running our schools cannot even distinguish between the great and the mediocre, then we have finally arrived at what is wrong.


SafeLibraries said...


Get a load of this:

"School Media Specialist Passes Sexual Content Review to Students; Dee Venuto Says It Is Discrimination to Keep Children From Material Including Lengthy, Vivid Descriptions of a Ménage a Trois," by Dan Kleinman, SafeLibraries, 18 August 2010.

This teacher/librarian actually put in writing, in a New Jersey Education Association publication, that she cannot bring herself to review certain material so she lets her students do it. Talk about an admission against interest!

Ian said...

You're really missing the point... you need a reality check.

Classics are boring to high school students not because the stories are outdated/hard to relate to, but because WE CANT (expletive) UNDERSTAND THEM!

Words on a page simply will not translate to any image or idea if the writing is too complicated for the reader to understand!

Martin Cothran said...


You seem to think that your inability to understand them is somehow the fault of the books themselves. If you go back 50 or 100 years to a time when these kinds of books were studied and which students were prepared for from an early age--or even to a good school today that does this, you don't find an inability to understand them.

In others words, the fault is not with these books, but with a system of public education that not only does not prepare you to read them, but apparently (if I can judge on the basis of the teachers who post here on the blog) not even the inclination to do so.

Don't blame the books--blame the schools.

Otto said...

"If you can't teach literature in a way that captures the minds and hearts of your students, then you don't belong in the profession"

Can you honestly teach Naturalism in a way that captures my mind and heart? Doubt it.

Martin Cothran said...


What do you mean by "Naturalism." Are you talking in the context of literature, or something else?

Anonymous said...

I am appalled at the lack of knowledge and understanding that so many public school teachers have the the Classics. After homeschooling my daughter for two years she decided to attend a charter school in our area. I was hoping this would be better than the regular public school, but much to my dismay, it is not. I have decided to homeschool her again at the end of the semester. In her English course they started a novel by Maya Angelou, but never finished; read one short story, wrote only one essay. The rest of the time they were studying for the FCAT.

I would be interested on reading your opinion on how well or not so well public schools teach writing.