Under the Covers: Time to rewrite the high school syllabi

March 19, 2015

After getting back from a week-long hiking trip in the Smoky Mountains last Friday, I sat around with some friends and discussed our respective spring breaks. The topic of reading for pleasure (something that looks to have been relegated to vacation time for most Georgetown students) came up after a couple of beers, and I mentioned that I’d ripped through most of Toni Morrison’s Beloved on my ride back to Georgetown that day.

My friends broke out into choruses of “Oh, I had to read that in high school.” Despite knowing that would likely be the case—Beloved won a Pulitzer Prize and the New York Times crowned it the best work of American fiction written between 1981 and 2006—I was still a little shocked to hear it was being handed out to entire classrooms of teenage English students. The book is about the consequences of a former slave’s decision to murder her daughter rather than see her captured into bondage, but it wasn’t this heavy subject matter that got me thinking about whether a book like Beloved deserved a place on the standard high school syllabus.

For all of its merits, Morrison’s novel can be a difficult read. There are multiple stretches of five or more pages—and I promise, I’m not just channeling my inner bored teenager here—in which not very much happens to drive the plot along. I found myself rereading pages of beautiful prose two or three times to understand their significance to the narrative. To catch the intricacies of the story, the reader has to absorb each and every sentence with the sharpness of a critic.

That’s a lot to expect of anyone, let alone 16 year olds that are probably ill-inclined to read anything a teacher forces in front of them. I brought up Beloved to another friend this weekend and she admitted to “Sparknoting” (a verb unique to high school English classes) more than half of it.

Schools can’t expect students to learn to love reading when they’re given books that are either too difficult for them or that won’t hold their attention. During my sophomore year of high school, my English class was assigned to read all 560 pages of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. When our teacher was out of the room, Ivan, the class’s biggest clown, asked the rest of us if we’d done any of the reading. The collective response amounted to “of course not—the internet exists.” I was one of three students that admitted to having followed Raskolnikov’s misdeeds.

There’s a problem there.

Perhaps the Western canon of “good” literature isn’t the best place to start teaching adolescents to appreciate written word. A straightforward jump from the constructed genre of young adult fiction fed to American middle schoolers, such as The Giver or The Outsiders, to Pulitzer Prize-winning works of staggering complexity is more than enough to make a teenager “hate reading,” as I frequently heard my classmates declare. In a country where the Department of Education estimates that only one third of students entering high school can read at grade level, the status quo seems to be alienation from literature.

There’s an element of a vicious cycle at play here. High school teachers were English majors, and they likely have plenty of intelligent thoughts about Beloved, The Grapes of Wrath, and other books often assigned that are probably out of reach for the majority of high schoolers. Teachers merely want to teach students to love the books they love.

But that’s not going to work for the average student. I saw this first-hand at the public high school I attended. Even in the advanced English classes, with supposedly capable students, I saw my peers abandon assigned books after just a few pages.

I don’t have an easy solution to this problem. But one thing I know for sure is that not all of those students who gave up on the books they had to read for homework disregarded reading completely. I knew many who were into science fiction novels, thrillers, and manga. Maybe the answer lies in an acknowledgement that literature comes in many forms, and the standard catalogue of assigned texts represents just one of them.

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    Yeah, but the average Georgetown student was probably not sitting around in the average American high school. If high quality literature is not put on the high school syllabus, it will be even further out of reach for the average high school student, as most students will not go on and become English majors or read classical literature for fun in their spare time later in life. The solution is not lowering the standard by simplifying the curriculum and replacing it with “science fiction novels, thrillers, and manga” but adjusting testing material to withstand easy escapes like Sparknotes (by demanding more individual, deeper explorations of the text than something a five-minute scan of Sparknotes can provide).
    When push comes to shove, high school students are mature enough readers to not only understand but also appreciate the nuances of high quality literature if they see a need to do it; as much as I am not fond of them, examinations like the AP literature tests and SAT literate subject tests prove that point.

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