Saturday, May 31, 2014

Can you be educated if you don't read books?

What does a literature professor do when he walks into his class for the first time, intending to teach literary criticism, and discovers his college students are illiterate?

One of Mr. Cothran's Educational Maxims is this: "You can't be an educated person if you don't read books." It's a startling and unorthodox truth for some, I know.

And not just any books, but high quality literature. As John Senior once proclaimed, you need to read the thousand good books before you read the hundred great books. But at some point you've got to get to the great ones and if you haven't by high school, then you haven't gotten a good education.

Unfortunately, our public schools, which seem to be in the business of mediocrity, are producing students who apparently don't read books and therefore cannot be considered educated.

In his excellent essay, "Literary Criticism without Literature," Thomas Bertonneau talks about going in to a class of students to which he is supposed to be teaching literary criticism and discovers that they are basically illiterate when it comes to real books:
A survey on the first day of class confirmed my expectations. Among them, the sixteen students could produce the titles of only eight novels that they had read (but that not all of them had read). Of the three most-mentioned (five students had read all three) were Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games (2008), its sequel Catching Fire (2009), and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight (2005).  Four students listed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby (1925); one listed Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). Four out of the ten coeds, but none of the men, had read Jay Asher’s adolescent female suicide-story Thirteen Reasons Why (2007). A few students had read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet but none had read Hamlet or The Tempest. No student could name a poem by William Wordsworth, John Keats, or Robert Frost.
And these are the ones who went to college, not the ones who dropped out.

How do you get a diploma in an American school with this level of literacy? The answer of course is, "Easily."

I recently spoke to a college student who was assistant teaching as part of an assignment in his college education class. He told me he was assigned to a local county middle school English class. He asked the teacher one day what books they were going to read that year in class. He was told that normally they read two books during the year, but that this year they probably wouldn't have time to do that.

What I want to do a survey on is how many books teachers have read. My hypothesis is that we will find the same thing Bertonneau found among his students; namely, cultural--if not functional--illiteracy. These are people who, after all, have gotten the educational equivalent of lobotomies by taking mind-numbingly stupid educational courses in which classic literature is virtually unknown.

It's the blind leading the blind.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A freshly minted UK Education Major who now teaches high school English told me that she would never assign Faulkner or Twain because they were reactionary racists. Our future is bright, ain't it?