01 April 2010

reading is fundamental, not fun

Or at least, it doesn't have to be fun

My impression of English teachers, at least as we are advanced through them, was that their expectation was that their students were to be reading something, anything, and then that this something/anything was at or even above their grade level. Since I was quoting Plato, Orwell, Dante, or randomly Sherlock Holmes in my essays, and generally tried to abstain from instead quoting Tupac like I occasionally do with Kweli or Mos Def now (This was harder than it sounds, but I also got away with an occasional expletive to make a point as a result of preceding it with a sentence using "coherence" or at least a coherent logic to it.), I guess they assumed I was okay and they didn't need to give me trivial assignments to assure I performed well on these tests.

My guess would be that they (educators) could benefit from some more non-fiction being introduced into the curriculum by providing more frames of reference to their students. This seems to be the big unspoken requirement for good teaching: making sure everybody in the classroom finds the material accessible in some way. If we're cutting out about half of the school library, then it's a fair bet that some people will be left out too. A kid who reads mostly books about science or history or philosophy is still capable of learning something about sentence structure and interpreting logical points or even literary themes. Probably the least important reason to study English is to learn how to enjoy literature and poetry, particularly for linguistic reasons. You either like it or you don't. I don't have to sit around justifying my like for Dostoevsky based on his mastery of the written word, in Russian no less, much less Shakespeare, which is written in what seems like a different language sometimes itself. The snobbish opinions of English literature professors notwithstanding, most people have far less critical applications for their reading pleasures. This can be regarded as unfortunate when it results in widespread sales figures for poorly written work like Harry Potter or Twilight or a dozen other modern fiction setups capitalizing on a particular fantasy of the public, but it's not something that really changed from a hundred years ago. Some books have always been awful and yet awfully popular.

As for the learning process itself, it seems that I mostly learned grammatical rules by osmosis. By copying whatever structures I was accustomed to seeing that week. It should even be obvious when I've had my nose buried in something older or classical for a few days as a result. I start thinking in sentences like those of Kant or Mill or Thoreau and it comes out in 18th or 19th century English prose. I'm sure this might be frustrating if you want people to comply strictly with modern grammatical tools, but if you want them to learn about writing and writing styles and interpreting the written words of others, for whatever purposes they were committed to writing them down, it's not that big of a problem. In fact, it's probably necessary and more practical to teach people how to read non-fiction, to gather and study sources of information and speculation (and how to tell the difference between those two) than it is to force them to read The Great Gatsby or the Scarlet Letter (both novels I found boring and useless).
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