Last week, I argued that English education, far from being an ivory-tower pastime unnecessary for life, is actually necessary for our well-being and a healthy society.
Yet everyone has been suspicious of an English teacher, wondering if the individual at the white board just made up that symbolism, theme, or foreshadowing to keep themselves employed. Just this semester, I had one student ask, “So let’s say I’m writing a novel when I’m sixty, and when I was five I fell and skinned my knee. Are English teachers someday going to say that affected my novel?”
Come at me, bro. I’ve been hearing that joke for YEARS.
Student cynicism aside, English teachers really CAN do things that make it hard for people to take our discipline seriously. If we want to look around for someone to blame for the decline of English education in the country, we can’t look only at the increasingly STEM-driven economy: we must also take a look at ourselves.
(I am not writing against other English teachers. We are all of us struggling against the current of a fast-paced, media-obsessed, too-easily-bored world. My colleagues have nothing but my respect and support—and my professors, God bless them, were Simply Incredible. My students and I owe them a debt of gratitude beyond measure.)
1. Bowing to the Culture’s Level
When I first walked in to teach my high school English class at our home school co-op, I was a skinny newlywed fresh out of grad school, almost in the same generation as that group of high schoolers. We liked all the same pop culture; I could quote Emperor’s New Groove and they’d all laugh and quote the next line.
Now…. All my current students were born after the last Lord of the Rings film–my defining high school pop culture experience–came out. All my pop culture is dead to them. I quote Emperor’s New Groove and hear crickets chirping.
All that to say, I understand the desire to want to connect, to be hip. But the way to do it is not to appeal to this generation’s mindset: namely, its chronological snobbery.
In a genuine effort to connect with my students, I have been tempted to be just as disparaging toward past generations as the rest of our culture. “Beowulf’s time—so crazy, right? Like, why did they all have to die if their lord fell in battle? Glad I’m not Anglo-Saxon!” Or “Those Romantics—crying over flowers. Hilarious.” Faced with a room of unimpressed high schoolers, I desperately tried to get some response, and this seemed the way to do it.
But if the purpose of literature is to humble ourselves to seek truths about the human experience from past generations, this is exactly the wrong way to do it. Making comments like these, we are implicitly telling our students, “You have nothing to learn from these people.” No wonder they’re not more interested!
This view is also simply blind, caricaturing an entire generation of real red-blooded people with hopes, desires, dreams, and ideals. Their ideals may be foreign to us, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re weird or stupid. Heck, we’re not only not learning literature at that point—we’re also promoting ethnocentrism! “Mocking people who live differently from you is okay!”
I would add, for the record, that when I approach a text humbly, when I correct the sneers about Beowulf right out the gate, the students follow. When I ask, for instance, what Beowulf would think if he saw Twitter activists “facing evil” from their sofas, or how disconnected from each other our generation is even though we’re all hurting and crying and dying for want of community—then we lose our snide derision about these men rushing in to die for their lords real quick.
It’s a pattern: these are the kids who get a lot more excited about literature than the ones I try to reach by trying to match our culture’s scoff-iness. These kids realize they’ve got something to learn from someone who is flawed and completely foreign. They are now ready to benefit from literature.
Our culture is missing something, if the rampant depression and loneliness and anger are any indication. So, let the kids see what’s in some other cultures—not viewed through our culture’s derisive lens, but taking them seriously.
2. Making Our Own Truth Means There’s No Truth to Learn
On a message board for a grad school pedagogy class, we were to post what we thought the purpose of English education was.
I shared how, when I read Hamlet in high school, Claudius’s soliloquy at the end of Act III seemed to me to correspond exactly to how I felt about something in my own life. (Yes, I know he’s the villain; no, I have never murdered anyone.) I got ready for bed that night in a daze: someone from the 1600s understands what it’s like to be me. He reached across the centuries and told me something about myself by articulating this feeling. There is universal truth that is ageless. That, I argued, is what English education uncovers; I argue it to this day.
One of my peers responded, respectfully but adamantly disagreeing. He said that the purpose of studying literature was to see how authors created their own truth so that we can construct our own truths. To create new truth: that was the goal.
We were diametric opposites, and we debated back and forth for a while with no one budging. I still haven’t budged. As you can imagine from everything I’ve written so far, I think this postmodern mindset is the most dangerous of all errors English teachers can commit.
Any clear-thinking kid would snort at this idea of creating your own truth, and rightly so. STEM disciplines attempt to uncover the underlying principles that govern our world and work with those principles. That is what all disciplines should seek to do: otherwise, what are we even in school for? And if Math assumes it has the truth but English assumes we get to make up our own, it becomes a joke for anyone who believes that truth exists at all.
The Whole Truth
The study of literature, to me, hinges on the fact that there is objective truth, the Platonic Form of Truth, out there, and that humankind is casting about in this dark world to find it—and some eras will find some parts of it, and some eras will find others, so we must be willing to learn from each other. As a Christian, I believe that Truth has been graciously revealed, and it’s exciting to see it busting out in unexpected places–unable to be contained–in Plato, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in Heart of Darkness–all totally different works by totally different authors.
But if Real Truth does not exist, what have we to learn from literature—or anything? Nothing.
Milton writes that this world
took the virgin Truth, hew’d her lovely form into a thousand peeces, and scatter’d them to the four winds. From that time ever since, the sad friends of Truth, such as durst appear, imitating the carefull search that Isis made for the mangl’d body of Osiris, went up and down gathering up limb by limb still as they could find them. We have not yet found them all. (1018)
The point of studying literature is to be those people, seeking and finding truth in whatever modest or even culturally off-putting way it appears. The enemy of this search, and the culprit behind all these ways that English teachers undermine ourselves, is Pride. The cure is humility—in ourselves, and thus transmitted to our students. Only a humble stance can teach us anything, for only the humble stance has anything to learn.
Milton, John. Areopagitica (1644). The Riverside Milton, edited by Roy Flannagan, Houghton Mifflin, 1998, pp. 987-1024.