A typical high school assignment now involves painstakingly marking up text with colored pencils in search of “literary devices” — red for imagery and diction, yellow for tone or mood, etc. Students are instructed to read even popular fiction at an excruciatingly slow pace in the service of close reading in unison. They’re warned not to skip ahead. You wouldn’t want anyone to get excited!
When I was in public high school in the olden ’80s, we read “The Red Badge of Courage” and “The Scarlet Letter,” with multiple forays into Shakespeare. We were assigned Faulkner, Joyce, Conrad and Henry James, authors whose work opened my mind and tested my abilities of comprehension and interpretation.
But if anyone had suggested that I be offended by a nearly all-male curriculum, I would have been insulted. Couldn’t girls read books by men just as well as boys could? And if it was true, as we also learned, that much of the world of letters had long been largely closed to women (and minorities), naturally there would be fewer books by them. At the same time, my teacher’s expectation that I could make sense of “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” despite having no knowledge of Irish culture or the Modernist movement, felt like a vote of confidence. Students were encouraged not to avoid or attack these books but to learn from them.
By asking so little of students, schools today show how little they expect of them. In underestimating kids, the curriculum undermines them.
What teenager wouldn’t do well to witness the pain of Hester Prynne’s punishment and see her push through from her guilt and suffering to newfound strength and independence? Or to grapple with the themes of fate, adversity and the human condition explored in Faulkner’s novels? Or to know how 19th-century writers like Twain used satire to galvanize a nation against the injustice of racism and toward freedom for all? To experience how the pleasures, beauty and brilliance of great literature can shine a powerful light.
Reading these kinds of novels in school was what drove me to register for a yearlong survey in English literature my freshman year of college. I arrived on campus sorely aware, even though I didn’t major in English, that “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” was just the first bit of scenery in a huge and varied landscape — and this drove me to explore the work of other cultures, traditions and populations as well. These days, many students may not even know what they’re missing.
Nobody wants to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a useless college degree. But let’s return to the question of whether English majors are essentially unemployable. I would argue that English majors could be exactly the kind of employees who are prepared for a challenging and rapidly changing work force: intellectually curious, truth-seeking, undaunted by unfamiliar ideas, able to read complex works and distill their meaning in clear prose.