Since my brother-in-law got me a subscription for Christmas a few years ago, I have been a proud subscriber to the Oxford American. Each quarterly issue is so densely packed that I’ve unfortunately fallen quite far behind in my reading, such that to catch up seems an almost insurmountable task. As a result, my habit of late (I’m somewhat ashamed to admit) has been to give each issue only a cursory scan before placing it in the magazine file on the bookshelf.
However, the most recent arrival, boldly labeled “The Education Issue,” caught my interest immediately. I typically read the magazine cover-to-cover, so I started with the editor’s column. In it, Marc Smirnoff shares a couple of anecdotes from his own education–fairly run-of-the-mill examples of curmudgeonly teachers stamping out his natural interest in learning. He writes:
That I was mostly so mediocre and unhappy in school is odd, I suppose, because the career I eventually fell in love with has many times to academia. But it more or less took me getting out of high school [to discover my love of literature, which] makes me wonder whether it’s common for schools to fail to tap into, and turn on, a student’s deepest passion and career interest.
To be sure, this is a serious concern, certainly something worth wondering about. Presumably, Smirnoff would support efforts to individualize education and help students discover their particular talents and passions. And who wouldn’t?
What makes this difficult, though, I think, is the compartmentalized nature of most schools. At some point, high schools (and many middle and elementary schools) went the way of universities in pursuing knowledge almost solely in discrete disciplines. Although there have been calls to change that at the K-12 level–as well as a proliferation of interdisciplinary “fields” at the university level–the “subjects” approach to education still predominates. And if teachers are charged with narrowly teaching kids “world history” or “algebra” or “American literature” in 45 to 90 minute blocks, it becomes fairly difficult to “tap into . . . a student’s deepest passion”–unless, of course, that passion happens to be world history, algebra, or American literature.
At it’s core, I suppose, Smirnoff’s is a query about the nature and purpose of schooling. If were able–and willing–to free teachers from the content-coverage model of education (something that is becoming outdated in our smartphone-driven world) we might be able to teach across disciplines, emphasizing entrepreneurial skills and tapping into students’ passions and possible career interests. While it’s not impossible, trying to do this in a traditional school is an uphill battle.
Although his target seems to be “tradition” more so than “teachers,” Smirnoff also takes issue with how we do school, specifically when it comes to teaching reading and literature. “Wait for kids to reach college before teaching them Shakespeare,” he writes. (I will wait while the English teachers out there catch their collective breath.) “I remember how to my high-school ears even Dickens seemed to be speaking in code. Dickens! But such are the suspicions of the uninformed brain–or at least the brain raised on Gilligan’s Island.”
Leaving aside Smirnoff’s built-in assumption that all children will, in fact, have the opportunity to someday experience Hamlet in a collegiate setting, I think his concern is generally well-founded. “For kids not ready,” he continues, “Shakespeare can single-handedly cause them to equate literature with everything that is dense and dull.” His solution? “Turn the children on to the delights of plot before we charge them with subduing archaisms. Let them feel how the very act of turning a page goes hand in hand with enjoyment and engagement. Teach Agatha Christie, John Grisham, and Stephen King!”
This is, of course, a bit of a red herring, because it’s not as if teachers haven’t tried to do this. After all, the whole purpose of programs like “sustained silent reading” (which I think is a wonderful idea, particularly–but not exclusively–for students in lower grades) is to encourage children to read for the sake of reading.
Particularly in the context of compartmentalized schools, too, I think there are inconsistencies in Smirnoff’s thinking, as his goals can sometimes act at odds with one another. For example, because I want for them to experience true history and at least consider it as a major/career possibility, I try very hard to expose my students to a type of historical study that is different from the lecture-and-textbook approach to which many of them are accustomed. I do this by regularly assigning challenging primary sources and fairly sophisticated excerpts from historical monographs. I show them that history can be much more meaningful than a third-hand textbook rehashing, but to do that, I have to expose them to the rich and often confusing complexity of the historical source record. So which goal is more important: the tapping into of undiscovered passions or the simplification of source material in the name of enjoyment? And are they really mutually exclusive?
Even if his proposed solution is a bit extreme, I do think Smirnoff diagnoses a legitimate problem: in this age of never-ending digital distractions, if we hope to inspire in our students a love of the written word, we must be very thoughtful about what we assign and, perhaps more importantly, how we assign it. And although it doesn’t help to force Shakespeare down their throats, I’m also not sure we do them any favors by saying, “This Shakespeare stuff is too difficult. Don’t worry about it unless you decide to become an English major.” (Who would choose that major?)
Instead, perhaps the best approach will strive for balance: reading for reading’s sake on some days, and careful and well-planned considerations of more challenging texts on others. Only then we can begin to build mental bridges for our students between the sheer joy of a Grisham page-turner and the intellectual satisfaction of coming to understand a portion of the canon.
Wouldn’t it be lovely if they eventually picked up Macbeth on their own?