Why Give Literature an Honored Place in School?

In education discussion and elsewhere, the terms “literature,” “fiction,” and “nonfiction” get jumbled up a bit. I jumble them too—I catch myself talking about “literature vs. nonfiction,” for instance, knowing that there’s overlap between the two. The term “literature” refers to works with lasting artistic merit (except when one is talking about the “literature” on a given topic). Artistic merit is difficult to define, but it involves a certain transcendence as well as mastery. A literary work goes beyond literal meaning; it has hints, metaphors, paradoxes, juxtapositions, ironies. It takes us a bit beyond the information that it presents. Moby-Dick may teach us a thing or two about whales, but that’s only part of what it does.

In that sense, the push for more and more “nonfiction” in classrooms (for instance, through the Common Core Standards) does threaten literature instruction. Those pushing for more “nonfiction” rarely have Emerson, Buber, or Kierkegaard in mind—works that tease us with possibilities. They want students to read argumentative pieces and informational reports: that is, works with a clear thesis supported by evidence. Of course it’s important for students to read such works; the problem lies in privileging them: in hinting, through one mandate after another, that informational text is more useful than literature (for college and career preparation) and therefore more valuable.

“But no one’s saying that!” some will protest. “No one said that informational text was to come at the expense of literature. The ELA standards apply to all of the subjects, not to English class alone.” Well, if this were so, English teachers would not be getting directives to include much more informational text in their curricula. New York State would not be considering a proposal to require high school students to write a research paper (for English class) that draws on at least four informational texts. Make no mistake: the push is for informational text. And it’s destructive as well as misguided.

Should students be reading informational nonfiction? Of course—but they don’t have to do this in English class. From elementary school onward, they should read on scientific, historical, and other topics. They should have a chance to read ancient mathematical proofs, musical scores, biographies, letters, historical documents, and more. Where should this take place? In the most appropriate classes. At times, students might read a work of fiction for history, or study a song for English. In the early elementary years, some of the courses may be combined into “literacy blocks”—so that students may find themselves reading poetry and historical narratives in the same class. But overall, each course should have readings for its domain—and English class should be the place for literary works.

An English course in expository writing might be an exception here. If a school’s English department offered a specific course in writing a research paper, then the other English courses wouldn’t have to be eroded. My high school had such a course—and many students reported years later that it was the most important course they took. Nonetheless, the other English courses were devoted to literature, excellent literature, and no one apologized for that. It was in middle and high school that I first read Sophocles, Euripides, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Hardy, Faulkner, O’Connor, T. S. Eliot, and others. No one doubted that such works were important; no one suggested that we were deficient in information. (We read a range of historical works and wrote research papers for history class.)

Now, there are big gaps in my education, including my literary education, but I found myself prepared not only for college, not only for a range of workplaces (even in the 21st century), but for a life that I want to lead, a life that involves pondering words, listening to music, and sifting through thoughts. I was not prepared in all ways, but who can be? Either one enters predictable situations with skills and knowledge to match them, or one enters the unknown, with the risk that one may not always know what to do. Who on earth would want the former? I’ll take the uncertainty and the risk any day, again and again. That said, one shouldn’t be foolhardy about risks; one shouldn’t enter the adult world defenseless. I have been foolhardy at times, defenseless at times, but not in relation to academic or vocational knowledge. I had what I needed in order to learn more; I had, moreover, a store of things to recall and reread.

Reminiscence aside, what is at stake here? Why stick one’s neck out for literature? It isn’t always beautiful (beauty is a complex topic), meaningful (try to find a stable meaning in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground), or even likable (I find 100 Years of Solitude irritating at times). It is easy to slip into sentimentality about literature, but sentimentality is not the point. Literature deserves an honored place in schools for many reasons, including its ability to open up areas of life that we might not otherwise face. There is room in it for bravery and uncertainty. When reading “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” one does not have to be snappy and polished; one does not have to put on a good face or rattle off talking points. One can roam for a while in the lovely and perplexing mess. (It isn’t mess itself, by any means–but it allows for a bit of the messy, and takes us out of the realm of the pat.)

Today’s students learn skills like “speed networking”—making a quick, flawless impression. What they don’t learn, often, is the practice of mulling, of staying with something they don’t immediately understand, and of allowing themselves their own mysteries too, and allowing themselves time. Not all students have lost this; some know how to sit with uncertainty, difficulty, questions, pain. Sadly, these very students get faulted for being “off-task,” since the tasks have become quick and shallow. Our priorities have gone off kilter; things that can keep us mindful and soulful get shorter and shorter shrift.


Note: I made a few edits to this piece after its initial posting.

Teaching the Underground

undergroundOne aspect of teaching that rarely gets discussed (on blogs and in education news) is the intellectual and ethical challenge of taking students through a complex work like Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. I find myself turning lessons in my mind, asking myself what to bring out, what questions to ask, what background to provide, what comparisons to draw. This would be the case with just about any lesson—but with Notes from Underground it’s particularly important, as the work is easy to misunderstand in one way or another. Once the basic understanding is there, it’s possible to appreciate the work’s paradox and play on the one hand and its serious moral questions on the other.

Its narrator and protagonist, the “Underground Man,” lives alone in a dingy Petersburg apartment, from which he does not emerge. He writes and writes, in some sense baring his starkest truths, in some sense fooling the reader. He rails against the formulas that others embrace, formulas for a perfect society or even a reasonable one. No perfection, no happiness, he insists, matters as much to man as his own free will—and for that reason he will knock down any structure and deny any equation, even if in doing so he only harms himself. The Underground Man seems to rebel against formulas and final answers, yet he clings to his own formula, a formula of negation. In the second part, we learn how he landed there; we learn something about his life and actions before his retreat. (I won’t reveal what he tells—but it isn’t comforting.)

A reader of Notes from Underground can easily fall into one of two traps. One error is to judge him without any kind of compassion or identification—to say, “I’m not like that; that man is messed up” and be done with it. The other is to identify with him completely—to see him as a reflection of the hidden self. While this error is a bit more fruitful than the first, it’s still an error, if the reader does not recognize the Underground Man’s responsibility for his condition. To grasp the Underground Man, one must bring both compassion and judgment, both identification and distance. The proportions are difficult to determine (and will vary from person to person and from reading to reading), but both elements need to be there, if the work is to come through. (Other elements need to be there as well; one needs to be able to hear his tones, jokes, allusions, and much more.)

Isn’t that one of our ethical challenges in general—to determine the right mixture of judgment and compassion? Too much judgment without compassion, and you write the person (or work) off. Too much compassion (if that’s the word—I’m not quite satisfied) without judgment, and you neglect the person’s free will and choices. Yet there is no perfect ratio; it shifts from moment to moment and from situation to situation. Nor can it be calculated; one must find it through experience, teachers, and instinct.

From what I have seen, it is more common for students to write the Underground Man off than to see themselves in him. This is partly because introspection gets short shrift today. These kids have been brought up to think in terms of success and achievement, not in terms of understanding human nature. That’s an oversimplification, though; many do understand something of the Underground Man; many do see aspects of themselves, and a few have even found a combination of judgment and compassion. In any case, both extremes have dangers.

The first time I read Notes from Underground, at age eighteen, I couldn’t separate myself from him (until part 2). I thought I was him—and was horrified. Years later, I approached him from a distance and found him very funny. In between, I have had mixtures of responses. Today I see a great deal of the Underground Man in myself but understand, also, how important the differences are. I am not advocating “text-to-self connections”—but Dostoevsky clearly wants us to ask who this Underground Man is and how he might reflect us.

There’s a lot at stake in reading Notes from Underground properly, yet there is no “proper” reading. There is only alertness and avoidance of pitfalls. Or, rather, there’s much more, but it can’t be taught directly, just as one can’t be taught to understand another person.

These are the thoughts that occupy a good deal of my day, when I’m not scrambling to get things done. It matters to teach this work well; that, in turn, is not just a question of bringing out key themes, devices, etc., but involves careful reading, a good understanding of the students, an understanding (when possible) of the original Russian, and a strong ethical and aesthetic sense. It involves a great responsibility: you have to be a good guide to take students into the underground and out again. In short, it requires a good chunk of all that I have and am—including the ability to put myself aside as we focus on the work.

I wish policymakers (of various kinds) had an inkling of this aspect of teaching. It seems completely forgotten, except in nooks of the education world. It’s as though “content” didn’t demand one’s soul, intellect, and conscience, as though you could teach it “effectively” without vitality. No wonder so much work gets piled on teachers; few realize that to teach well, one must be willing to leave the busyness behind, to take a long walk, attend a concert*, or read a book slowly, in order to be shaken into life, the life inside and outside of books, the jumbled, mistake-ridden life that, even at its most perplexing, has room for courage and grace.

*Concert: On Friday I attended the Wingdale Community Singers’ record release show for their new album, Night Sleep Death. A gorgeous performance. The title(-ish) song brings together two Walt Whitman poems, A Clear Midnight” and “O Living Always–Always Dying.”

District Socializes Unusual Students

decameronFaced with the formidable challenge of persuading independent-minded and dreamy students to “work in teams to solve real-world problems,” Mimetes School District has initiated an aggressive policy of team socialization. Teachers must put students in groups, no matter what the lesson topic or activity. After each lesson, students evaluate each other on their group participation. Any student who receives a low rating from peers will be sent to “socialization support” for three weeks.

At a district-wide meeting of administrators and press, Superintendent Girard Lesautres praised the new policy. “Before, we had kids who didn’t fit in, and people just left them alone,” he said. “Now we make sure they fit in. Socialization support does wonders. These kids come out of it acting and talking—and even walking—like everybody else.”

In socialization support, a nonconforming child must complete a task in a group with judgmental peers. At every step, the group informs the child whether she (or he—but we’ll stick with “she”) is behaving acceptably. If not, then the whole group must start the task anew, and the child must adjust her behavior. If she fails to do so, the others may yell at her and call her names.

“Eventually these kids break down,” said Penelope Slomana, a teacher who herself broke down under pressure from her team. “They come in here thinking they’ve got some kind of compelling idea, and then they find out that compelling ideas aren’t the point. The point is to get the task done–pleasantly.”

Completing the task is not the only accomplishment, Slomana noted. By the time they are done, the renegade students understand how to smile, how much and how little to talk, what to talk about, what kind of jokes other people like, and what menial jobs they can do well. The students who act as trainers get community service points; the ones who were trained have the word “socialized” stamped on their transcript and wrist. “The most amazing part of it all,” said Slomana, “is the way they act when they’re back in the classroom. They’re absolutely perfect team players. You can give them any task, and they’re instantly working together like bees. You wouldn’t know the trainer from the trained.”

Don’t students miss a great deal of class during socialization support? “It’s really the same curriculum,” said Slomana. “It’s not like they’re learning Shakespeare or anything like that. Basically they work on bundles of tasks. Same stuff here as there. It can be any task, really; the point is to be on task.”

Asked about her own training, Slomana winced. “I don’t really want to go there,” she replied, “but since you asked, I’ll say that it’s all about preparing for the global economy and the 21st century. At first I thought my group was mistreating me, but then I realized it was me mistreating the group.” That happened a year ago; since then, Slomana has been voted Cooperative Teacher of the Year.

Not everyone has gone along with the new program. “I figured out a trick,” a student told us. “In socialization support, I just swapped the bundle so that our task was to discuss the Decameron. No one had read it, so they relied on me to take them through it, and we all had a good time. I switched the bundles again once we were done.” As for the “socialized” stamp, the student swapped it furtively with a “summa cum laude” stamp. “One thing you’ve got to realize about bureaucrats,” he muttered, looking around the room, “is that they don’t even read their own supplies.”

Neither Crystal Palace Nor Underground

Last week I had the joy of publishing an article featuring three students’ pieces. Each piece has distinct ideas, approach, and personality; none of the three would fit a rubric exactly. All deal with philosophical ideas and texts; whether witty, serious, or both, all grapple with something substantial.

Call it spark, verve, or individuality, I hope my students never lose this quality. Our schools and workplaces live by the rubric. Even when a school sees beyond the rubric, as mine does, it must prepare students for the rubrics of tests. Students know exactly what is expected of them and learn to fulfill it exactly. They know they will get five points for doing this, ten points for doing that.

What rubrics offer is predictability and fairness. A student who receives a B knows why, and knows what to do to get an A. (There should always be some degree of that; grading should not be haphazard.) Yet rubrics take a great deal away. They come across as supreme judges, when they are mediocre ones; they miss what really matters in a piece—the genuine grappling, among other things. I do not mean they should be abolished; of course they have a place, but they should not be ultimate arbiters.

I have scored tests and have seen how students who follow the directions exactly (but say very little) can score higher than students  who have a great deal to say but fail to follow all of the directions. Indeed, when one follows such rubrics, one is forced to disregard what a student says.

In many ways the world of rubrics is analogous to the very crystal palace that Dostoevsky’s Underground Man criticizes. Here is the telling passage (Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, translated by Michael Katz):

You believe in the crystal palace, eternally indestructible, that is, one at which you can never stick out your tongue furtively nor make a rude gesture, even with your fist hidden away. Well, perhaps I’m so afraid of this building precisely because it’s made of crystal and it’s eternally indestructible, and because it won’t be possible to stick one’s tongue out even furtively.

Don’t you see: if it were a chicken coop instead of a palace, and if it should rain, then perhaps I could crawl into it so as not to get drenched; but I would still not mistake a chicken coop for a palace out of gratitude, just because it sheltered me from the rain. You’re laughing, you’re even saying that in this case there’s no difference between a chicken coop and a mansion. Yes, I reply, if the only reason for living is to keep from getting drenched.

Today’s students live in a chicken coop of rubric after rubric. They learn to be well-rounded superstars—leaders, go-getters, initiators, networkers, and, sure, students with GPAs of 4.0. They build up digital portfolios and resumes. They know what the colleges want and plan years in advance to achieve it. A wise person remarked to me this week, “They not only have no room for eccentricity; they have no room to pause.”

You need to pause in order to write an interesting piece, to have a good friend, to understand a piece of music. You need it to find a way of living that is neither crystal palace nor underground, a chant or song with lilts and cracks and silences. Yes, you need to learn to survive and compete, but you need not bow to the terms of such demands.

My birthday is a week from Thursday. I dedicate it to such a way of living, and to the hope that my students will find it on their own terms or, having already found it, not lose sight of it.

Task Force to Universalize Multiple-Choice Questions

metrocardResponding to complaints that multiple-choice tests have little to do with intellect or life, the Department of Education has announced the formation of a Multiple Choice Universalization Task Force, whose goal is to make each aspect of life a multiple-choice test. “We’ve come a long way,” said a spokesperson. “If you want to purchase a Metro-Card in New York City, for instance, you have to answer about ten multiple-choice questions. That’s where everything is headed. Or suppose you want to make a doctor’s appointment. You not only have to get through about fifteen multiple-choice questions but usually find yourself starting all over again, several times, because the voice recognition software doesn’t work.”

While these examples offer hope, there is still much work to be done, said Jerry Samogon, executive director of the task force. “We’re developing an innovative form of email where you answer ten questions before even typing your message, which is mercifully short by that point. It’s amazing how the software cuts down on thinking. It asks you right off the bat whether your purpose is business or love. Faced with that choice, most people will click ‘business,’ which is exactly what we want.”

Marital disputes would be instantly resolved with an app, according to task force member Asunción Lebedi. “Are you angry? Frustrated? Tired? Unfaithful? You don’t have to go through a long explanation,” she assured us. “Just click. If your clicks are smart, you might even get a free divorce.”

“It’s much easier to do things to people with a click than it would be in person,” said her colleague Melinda Klop. “We offer lunch-date software, ‘I don’t like you any more’ software, ‘You’re weird’ software, you name it. People can say things they never would have dared to say before, all because they get to make choices.” Soon, Klop predicted, our lives would be “infused and aligned” with multiple-choice questions from day one.

According to researchers, research suggests that those who see their lives as one long multiple-choice test are more likely to embrace multiple-choice tests than those who do not. “I’m not sure what it means to ‘embrace’ one of these tests,” said Hester Fluke, a fifth grader. “I mean, am I supposed to hug it? I don’t think so. But if you give me a ‘like’ icon, I’ll click it. Or, better yet, give me four emoticons and make me choose one.”

Prominent employers have started using multiple-choice questions for their icebreaker activities. Employees approach each other with laptops that display questions like “Am I caustic, cautious, captivating, or captive?” The adjective that receives the most votes is dubbed The Truth. During the regular workday, employees answer multiple-choice questions about their colleagues’ team attitudes and personal habits. “I used to think I was ratting,” said Jerome Tanden, a quality assurance engineer. “Now I’m just doing what everyone else does. So, the guy at the next cubicle is goofing off. Do I hurt him? No way. I just click an answer to a question. Totally legit and fun.”

Ultimately, according to task force representatives, life would become entirely multiple-choie and clickable. “You can click your way to heaven or hell,” said Samogon, “only in this case they’re more or less identical. Once we reach that point, one click will be just like any other.”

By then, experts predict, a multiple-choice test will no longer cause an outcry, since people will have forgotten how to cry.


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