Things move along pretty quickly as the year begins for teachers. Generally speaking, if teachers are bestowed the hallowed planning days, free from meetings and trainings, students enter class and our lessons are ready to go. There is a momentum at the beginning of the year which can best be characterized by Fitzgerald’s line about the inexhaustible variety of life. Something like that; being both enthralled and a little disturbed by the new faces we see entering our rooms. Nevertheless, things get going quickly. We learn approximately 11,000 new names, shuffle and reshuffle an Amazon forest worth of paper and learn new teaching apps and grading programs because the old ones murdered someone. Or something like that.
Time goes on. The awkwardness between teachers and students shakes off like melting snow from trees. And then the question comes that, I think, most teachers fear, or at least flinch at: “Why? Why are we learning this? We’re never going to use this after school.” We know the question well. We’ve probably asked the question ourselves millenia ago when we were in school. The answer we hear most has something to do with a liberal arts education, developing our minds or some variation of a unique anecdote where a welder found herself in the unique position of calculating the quadratic formula. In short, we have no idea.
As a teacher, it is hard to step back and think, really think critically, about why we teach what we are teaching. As an English teacher, it is so easy to hide behind a shield of my passion and respect for literature. Because it changed my life, I believe, it has innate utility in everyone’s lives, even if that utility cannot be immediately articulated. Sadly, this isn’t reason enough for students. Nor should it be.
Elon Musk, the Ben Kenobi of our time (help us Elon Musk, you’re our only hope… for surviving the future) talks about the complete overhaul of the education system based on the missing facet of why. He, like myself, believes that most of what we teach in school truly will be useless to students after graduation. I know this from experience. At times I find myself attempting to help students with their math (I’ve come to the painful realization that I’d need tutoring to pass 7th grade), and realizing that all those math lessons in high school have truly departed from my mind. Regardless, we teach what we teach. The Common Core Standards descended from on high and for the most part, they make a lot of sense in English class. They do not, however, prevent my students from making it halfway through The Great Gatsby and asking, “why are we reading this?” My answer begins with the Russians.
Sometime in the 60’s? (history facts, you’ve left me too?), the Russians beat out all other countries and made it to space. Sputnik launched and America’s ego suffered a blow. America is first in everything, including overconfidence, and losing the space race did more than tickle. In a renewed attempt to dominate space, America huddled, planned and reemerged with a plan to focus our education system on science, technology, engineering and math. The holy covenant of STEM was devised. And it worked. America, backed with all that STEM knowledge, made it to the moon first and we now have Ryan Gosling to prove it to us. (Isn’t he Canadian, though?)
English, and all those other non-STEM subjects, found themselves abandoned. The funding and grants flowed to the sciences, and arts departments began to atrophy. Without some sort of change, English would be sidelined because, as most students were catching onto, in a tech-dominated world, reading classics was not useful in later life. What was useful? The scientific method.
At some point and over the course of some years, English went through a process of proving its worth in the education world. We adapted ourselves to a science-forward society by making the English discipline a science. In most English classes in the CCSS-indoctrinated world, we no longer produce a survey of world literature, perform close readings and discuss different modes of criticism. In general-education English classes, we teach claims and evidence. We mirror the scientific method of creating a hypothesis and proving that hypothesis with evidence. The claims we make concern characters in novels, theses of authors and approaches to literature. Nonetheless, the mode of thought in the English classroom narrowed from a sweeping exposure to the canon to a scientific inquiry into the applications of fiction and nonfiction texts. In many ways, English became a social science, which explains so many districts’ push towards informational texts and away from novels.
So why novels, then? There is a good reason we should not relegate full novels to the AP classroom or continuing education. If English proves its worth as a social science, literature has a place in that framework. As humans, our experience of the world is too small. Unless you are the late, great Anthony Bourdain, few of us have enough experience of the world to truly understand what it means to exist now, in this moment, in this world. Further, it doesn’t matter how many followers you have on Instagram, all of us know too few people to grasp what it means to be a human. Our circles of experience are too small and in science terms, that means our sample size is too small. Literature, then, is access into a greater wealth of experience; we learn about people and we learn about the world; the real world, not the filtered version we see on social media. This knowledge is important. We are social creatures and in order to understand our world and ourselves, in order to make claims about our lives and the lives of others, we need books.
As my years as a teacher accumulate, I realize that all the threats we make to students about getting their work done, doing their best in school and building their character are, for the most part, empty. A student can, despite our best efforts, experience school passively and make it out alive. My view of things, at least, determines teachers to be the counter to this passivity. But where? How? As our grading system changes and cushions zeroes into 50 percent and late work without deductions, we need to find a way to show students that a passive experience of the world might last 80 or 90 years, but it is in greyscale.
English, as a discipline, is the best way to activate a critical perspective of the world that precipitates engagement in our lives and our societies. The Great Gatsby gives us characters that say some nice things. For the sake of all of you, I’ll couch my praise of the novel in my opinion that it’s nearly the best book ever written. Shocking as it may seem, most students don’t share my sentiment. What they do grasp, however, is how Gatsby is an access point into criticism of success and crime in America, unequal access to the American Dream, the gender divide and historical precipitates to our modern economy. Without the novel, and those like it, without informational articles, memoirs and the news, we would be limited to our own, seriously lacking, experiences.
I’m always a little curious in looking over the course offering of schools and universities. Do they denote their classes as English or Language Arts? Literature or Writing? These names, I think, hearken an extinct era of thinking in the English discipline. What we do now in English, how we survive as a subject and what we say in response to students when they ask “why?” is foster and model Critical Thought. That’s our subject. If we shake the nomenclature of language arts or the too-broad English and join the ranks of the sciences in education, maybe that’s not so bad. After all, the reason I became an English teacher is because my English classes showed me how to be critical of myself, of others around me and of my perception of the world. Those aren’t small feats, and as time goes by, their necessity only deepens.
Written by Kam Walters, an English teacher at Timberline High School in the Boise School District.