A recent ALSCW ( Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers) study finds that
a fragmented English curriculum and a neglect of close reading—may explain why the reading skills of American high school students have shown little or no improvement in several decades despite substantial increases in funds for elementary and secondary education by federal and state governments.
The ALSCW literary study is based on interview with 400 representative teachers from public and private schools. It found that no standard canon of works is being taught, and that the difficulty level of works taught does not generally increase between grades 9 and 11. In addition, the way that the works are taught do not include close readings of the texts. Teachers tend to prefer to use the texts peripherally, paying more attention to historical context than to the content of the novel itself.
In an article about this study, George Leef faults the student-centered culture of official schools of education. He points out that
One of the dominant ideas pushed in education schools is that schools and classes should be “learner-centered” (rather than teacher- or subject-centered). That, supposedly, will help to make students feel good about education and turn them into “lifelong learners.”
Leef finds it a matter of concern that, while
English teachers used to stress close, analytical reading of texts accompanied by assigned papers that required students to show their comprehension of the works,
today’s teachers are
more likely to teach “around” a work by discussing the author’s life and times rather than focusing on the text and its meaning. And they often give assignments that call for the students to present their feelings about it. Such assignments are consistent with the “learner-centered” theory; they’re also easier to grade since there are no wrong answers.
My own experience spans the divide between high school as school and high school as teen hangout.
As a student in a small Arkansas secondary school, I was exposed to four Shakespeare plays before graduation. In addition to reading classics like A Tale of Two Cities in class, we were all required to prepare an outside book report every six weeks. The book had to come from an approved list. It was assumed that students would read less demanding books in their own time.
When I began teaching in New York State in the 70s, Silas Marner was in the tenth grade curriculum. By the time I left high school teaching in the 90s, Silas Marner (a story dealing with drug addiction and parental responsibility) was considered “irrelevant to modern youth,” and it was possible for students to graduate without having studied even one play by Shakespeare. The most difficult novel some seniors had ever been asked to read was Animal Farm. I remember teaching a high school lesson in which I referred several times to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, assuming that the students had read it the previous year. They told me that although the poem had been in their anthology, the teacher had permitted them to vote as to whether or not they should read it. The class voted against it.
Some of the college freshmen I went on to teach had difficulty understanding Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant.” A student in one of my world literature classes became very cross with me because I started each class session with a 10-item reading quiz. The questions were very general, intended only to ascertain that the students had read the assignment and had gotten the gist of it. She told me that her decision to become a teacher was because of “teachers like me.” I understood her to mean that she would not be so unnecessarily demanding in what she expected from her students.
What is true about the body is true of the mind: to operate at their best, both require nourishing food and frequent exercise.
If the purpose of secondary education is to produce thinking adults, then the English curriculum must provide adequate nourishment and exercise for the mind. If books chosen for classroom study do not present more of an intellectual challenge than those students are able to read easily on their own, class time is being wasted. This is true at every level, not just high school.
George Leef, “Nurturing the Dumbest Generation”
ALSCW Report, “Literary Study in Grades 9, 10, and 11″ (pdf)