Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Literature and Education

In my opinion, one thing that stands out about the study of literature is that it is never over--I don't think one can ever reach the pinnacle of any branch of knowledge, just because there is so much to learn and know, but what makes literature slightly different is that everyone has read at least one book and wants to talk about it. Upon finding out that I am an English major, the conversation will inevitably progress something like this:

Them: You're an English major?
Me: Yep.
Them: Oh, have you ever read [insert random book title here].
Me: ...uh, no.
Them: It's really good. [Uncomfortable silence.] You should try it
Me: Okay. [Secretly thinking that there are hundreds of books that I've
read that are really good and he or she should read some time.]

This has happened numerous times and includes (but is not limited to) the following: Wuthering Heights, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Man in the Iron Mask, The Da Vinci Code, Don Quixote, The Lord of the Rings, etc. Yes, I was an English major and continue to be an avid reader. No, I have not read every book ever written, and nor will I ever do so.

This is what makes literature stand on its own, I believe; if I were to go around telling people I was an engineer, they wouldn't immediately think back to the one thing they remember from high school (uh... e=mc^2?) and want to discuss it. (Plus, even if they did, math and science are fields where you start at the beginning and progress from there, so anything you and I learned in high school math, an engineering major has not only done it, but has gone so far beyond that point that we would bore him or her by even trying to discuss it. Literature, on the other hand, does not start at the beginning and work its way up--there is no beginning, and there's very little in the way of a logical path from that non-existent beginning as far as lesson plans go).

So I started thinking more closely about the education system in general--how do you decide who reads what, and what books are on the "You Absolutely Must Read This To Be A Complete Human Being" list? I know I have a list of books that I think everyone should read, but how does that list compare to anyone else's list? And what about students who are developmentally unable to read some of the books on this list? Do they have a separate list that they "must" read? How do we determine what is on this list?

Curious, I did a little research and found that the California Department of Education has a suggested reading list for students in grades 9-12. Having been an AP English student at a California public school that (I believe) has since become a "California Distinguished School," then gone on to study literature at the University of California, I was a little surprised to see what titles and authors were "suggested" by the state to be worthwhile reading. (The list, for anyone who wants to see it, is below).

Recommended Reading from the California Department of Education:
Aeneid, The Virgil,
American Dream, and the Zoo Story, The Albee, Edward
Americans' Favorite Poems: The Favorite Poem Project Anthology Pinsky, Robert (editor), Dietz, Maggie (editor)
Ariel Plath, Sylvia
Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter Vargas Llosa, Mario
Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, The Franklin, Benjamin
Billy Budd Melville, Herman
Blood Wedding Lorca, Federico Garcia
Book of Luminous Things, A Milosz, Czeslaw (editor)
Bosnian Chronicle Andric, Ivo
Collected Poems Auden, W. H.
Coney Island of the Mind, A Ferlinghetti, Lawrence
Crucible, The Miller, Arthur
Cyrano de Bergerac Rostand, Edmund
Death in Venice Mann, Thomas
Democracy in America de Tocqueville, Alexis
Doll's House, A Ibsen, Henrik
Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds Zindel, Paul
Fences Wilson, August
Fire Next Time Baldwin, James A.
For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf Shange, Nzoke
Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang Oates, Joyce Carol
Frenchtown Summer Cormier, Robert
Glass Menagerie, The Williams, Tennessee
Good Earth, The Buck, Pearl Synderstricker
Hamlet Shakespeare, William
Hatred, Bigotry, and Prejudice: Definitions, Causes and Solutions Baird, Robert (editor), Rosenbaum, Stuart E. (editor)
Hedda Gabler Ibsen, Henrik
House That Crack Built, The Taylor, Clark
Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Hugo, Victor
In the Trail of the Wind: American Indian Poems and Ritual Orations Bierhorst, John
Into Thin Air Krakauer, Jon
Ivanhoe Scott, Sir Walter
Julius Caesar Shakespeare, William
Jump Ball: A Basketball Season in Poems Glenn, Mel
King Lear Shakespeare, William
Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft Heyerdahl, Thor
Life Doesn't Frighten Me Angelou, Maya
Little Women Alcott, Louisa May
Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, The Thomas, Lewis
Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time Sobel, Dava
Macbeth Shakespeare, William
Major Barbara Shaw, George Bernard
Master Harold and the Boys Fugard, Athol
Maus: A Survivor's Tale Spiegelman, Art
Maus: A Survivor's Tale, II: And Here My Troubles Began Spiegelman, Art
Merchant of Venice, The Shakespeare, William
Metamorphosis, The Kafka, Franz
Midsummer Night's Dream Shakespeare, William
Mind's Eye Fleischman, Paul
Moll Flanders Defoe, Daniel
Murder in the Cathedral Eliot, T. S.
Navajo: Visions and Voices Across the Mesa Begay, Shonto
Never Cry Wolf Mowat, Farley
Nobel Lectures in Literature, 1991-1995 Allen, Sture (editor)
Nothing but the Truth: A Documentary Novel Avi,
Novemberland: Selected Poems, 1956-1993 Grass, Gunter
Oedipus the King Sophocles,
One Hundred Years of Solitude Garcia Marquez, Gabriel
Othello Shakespeare, William
Out of the Dust Hesse, Karen
Paradise Lost Milton, John
Playboy of the Western World; and, Riders to the Sea, The Synge, J. M.
Poems of the Aztec Peoples Kissam, Edward
Profiles in Courage Kennedy, John F.
Rhinoceros Ionesco, Eugene
Rime of the Ancient Mariner, The Coleridge, Samuel
Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare, William
Roots Haley, Alex
Rule of the Bone Banks, Russell
Scarlet Letter, The Hawthorne, Nathaniel
Secret Sharer (Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism) Conrad, Joseph
Shaking the Pumpkin: Traditional Poetry of the Indian North Americas Rothberg, Jerome
Shorter Novels of Herman Melville Melville, Herman
Silas Marner Eliot, George
Silent Spring Carson, Rachel Louise
Six Characters in Search of an Author Pirandello, Luigi
Sonnets, The Shakespeare, William
Spoon River Anthology Masters, Edgar Lee
Stop Pretending Sones, Sonya
Story of King Arthur and His Knights, The Pyle, Howard
Streetcar Named Desire, A Williams, Tennessee
T. Rex and the Crater of Doom Alvarez, Walter
Tales from Shakespeare Lamb, Charles, Lamb, Mary
Tempest, The Shakespeare, William
This Same Sky: A Collection of Poems from Around the World Nye, Naomi Shihab (editor)
Threepenny Opera, The Brecht, Bertolt
Twelfth Night Shakespeare, William
Twenty Years at Hull-House Addams, Jane
Two Trains Running Wilson, August
Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts Beckett, Samuel
What Have You Lost? Nye, Naomi Shihab (editor)
Wild Ocean: America's Parks Under the Sea Earle, Sylvia A.

Of the 93 books listed, I read only 21 of the books in high school and an additional 11 in college. In addition, of the books that I hadn't read in either high school or college, I had read 11 books written by listed authors but not the specific book mentioned in the list, and I had studied (but not nexessarily read) 9 of them. That means that, of the 93 books and authors listed, I have absolutely no experience with 41 of them, and I was a literature major!
That raises the question, then, of what this means. Does it mean that my education was sub-par? Is the list poorly written, despite the fact that it was designed by the state of California? Or is the topic of "good books" more subjective than can be pinned down in a simple list?

One thing we must consider is that around 8 of the books contained on the list are anthologies, and one anthology can very easily substitute for another. Though there are anthologies that stand out as being particularly well-edited, most anthologies contain the same basic "classic" works and then have differing addititional poems and stories. There is also an emphasis on 20th Century American literature, as well as what seems to be a smattering of Native American and Afro-American writers (while most of my secondary and post-secondary education has had an emphasis on British Literature), it becomes clear why I might not have read all of the books recommended by the California Department of Education.

In addition, however, there are many books that are nowhere to be found in the list that I think probably should be, and some books that I think shouldn't be required of the average high school student. For example, I think that a fifteen-year-old boy will get much more out of reading A Separate Peace by John Knowles than from reading Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville. While de Tocqueville's book is absolutely necessary for anyone studying the history of political science or sociology in America, there is far more in A Separate Peace that a fifteen-year-old is going to be able to sink his teeth into and therefore get a real benefit. There is also no Orwell on the list (every high schooler should read either Animal Farm or 1985, if not both), while Tales from Shakespeare by Charles Lamb and Mary Lamb should be superfolous if students are reading all of the Shakespeare plays also contained in the list. Therefore, I would think, it's easy to see that any list of "recommended reading" is going to have some kind of weaknesses to counterbalance its strengths.

I guess the point I'm trying to reach is that I think the educational system should not be standardized to the point where every student is reading the exact same book at the same time, for a number of reasons. First, if every student read the same 10 or 15 books a year, there would be no need for any other books to even be in high school libraries, because no one would be reading them anyway. If variety is the spice of life, than a varied curriculum is necessary for our youth to form the ability to have discussions from different points of view with different levels of knowledge. And, last but not least, I believe that individual teachers should be able to pick and choose what they teach and read in their classes, because a teacher's interest in the subject material and resulting enthusiasm is the strongest motivator in our educational system. So, while "recommended reading" lists are a good place to start to form lesson plans, they leave much to be desired and should not be followed as the gospel truth.

Therefore, even though I am expected in the course of a normal conversation to have read The Count of Monte Cristo and Wuthering Heights, it's unrealistic to expect myself--or anyone--to have read every good book ever written, and we must do the best we can to get the most we can out of what we teach and have been taught.

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