The Race for Smarter Kids, Classic Literature at Age 12

Nothing impressed me in this week’s Sunday Washington Post.  Last week, and forgive me for no link, I’m tired and cranky, there was a good essay by a high school literature teacher who noticed the curricular demand for earlier reading of classics, say middle school.  These changes often mitigate against the value of reading literature in the first place.

Summer reading books, for example, are an increasing demand for most schools.  Student reading for joy or to be transported into that world for a while is taking a backseat to memorization of names, actions, motiefs and symbolism. The stuff of tests.  Is the practice of finding beauty killed through the race to study for a 100 question test on the first day of school?

I’m all for learning how to read a story.  In fact, I think I began to do so in my 20s.  When I was a prospective student at SLC, my eventual school, I sat in on a literature class with Ilya Wachs, an aging WW II Jewish emigre – tall, thin, ignored flop of white hair falling down instead of combed-over.  I can’t recall the 19 century text, but a student commented about the feast scene, and Ilya smiled and pronounced, “Wasn’t that a beautiful… lush, feast!”  This elicited several energized responses from the students gathered around the circular seminar table.   I was moved.

Later I studied with Suzanne Hoover with whom I found a love of Madame Bovary.  The text crushed me as the suicide scene was established.  The scence brought in one instance the conflicts the heroine herself had been animated by — modernization, desire, disappointment, limits within and external, gender expectations, fear, shame. In some ways I’m still devastated and more acutely feeling that moment as I age.

Back to classics at age 12.  Disappointment, isolation — while the struggle has begun around this age, we don’t often have perspective, or appreciate the perspective others provide.  One student told the essayist that at 12 when he read Holden Caufield, they guy seemed too angry and he should just try harder in school.  Age 15 Holden was more understandable, familiar.  At age 17, having struggled in several classes and college application process, broken up with his first love, lost a few good friends, the student felt Holden, was the only other person who felt as angry and alone. Holden was now a companion.

There’s an important story about literature’s replacement in the 19th century of biblical truth and teaching as the glue of European nations.  These questions about reading take place in the shadow of that transition.  Literature (and others) must recognize the role it was given. We should ask if the current distribution of academic moral education still makes sense, how it is works, what else might work.  Oh, these curricular reforms are not on many school reform agendas.  How can we compete in the 21st century economy?  Make sure your child reads classics early and memorizes plots, symbols, etc.  Score well on the test, then forget the whole thing so your child can do well on the next test.

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3 Responses to “The Race for Smarter Kids, Classic Literature at Age 12”

  1. Athos Says:

    To sit and savor a good book – the texture of the pages, the lines that do not quiver and vibrate with millions of electrons on a monitor, the paragraph I may reread, slowly rolling the phrases over in my mind, or not – this is what is missing in the frenetic gulping of information bytes in today’s students tossed and overwhelmed on and by the bibliographic ocean.

    And then they get to fill in one of four or five little elliptical orbs, yet another little byte of information that will, or will not, prove their intelligence and “mastery”. I’m glad I’m within striking distance of retirement, heaven willing, from the teaching profession.

    Where is the Life we have lost in living?
    Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
    Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

    T. S. Eliot – The Rock (1934)

  2. Scott Says:

    Thanks as always Athos. I hope to keep my best customer returning.

    You write so evocatively! Great TS Eliot quotation. Too much information in 1934?!! I heard that the rapid rise of the crossword puzzle in the 1920s derived from the combination of wire-cable telegraphs with expanding radio and newspaper viewership. The knowledge of national and world affairs was “at the fingertips” of the modern man for the first time. Crosswords encourage the amalgamation and add a dash of apparent value to all this useless information. (and I like them)

    Although I grew up with Atari and Commodore, I do feel distance from and sympathy for our “wired” children. One might conclude they are more connected to each other but have less to say. You find them difficult to teach/reach?

    If a student asks “what should I take away from this book” I’ll respond “the ability to be patient, disciplined and moved deeply.”

    How about be Discovered? Be Broken and Remade? Die and Resurrect? Create and Pray to the Creator? Those are my goals of education.

  3. jane dinsmore Says:

    I wish more teachers could read this. The push to read and take the test is taking over many schools. One 6th grader had 4 books to read, write “book reviews” and character identifications. He was allowed one book of his choice; his pleasure in this book was palpable. Wasn’t that enough?

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