The trouble with required reading

A friend was complaining about how off-putting the list of required reading was for her son returning to school, and I empathized. Then several more people mentioned the same topic on Facebook, and I thought, “Well it’s the beginning of the school year, so everyone is seeing their kids’ list and remembering their own experiences back in the day.”

Then had an article about the ways high school destroys the reading enthusiasm of many kids, and I wondered if a new school year was the only explanation.

The article makes some good points (though I’m sorry, anyone who thinks The Scarlet Letter was boring has a reading comprehension problem), but I felt it was missing the boat. The more I thought about it (including my immediate defensiveness about one book) I realized this is about individual bad experiences, which causes each analyst to focus on specific details rather than fully generalizing to a real explanation.

My own bad experiences with required readings broke down to two catagories:

  1. Teachers who scoffed at my ability to comprehend
  2. Cry, The Beloved Country

You don’t really know that

The first can best be exemplified by my 7th Grade Reading teacher, Mr Ems. As we read assigned books, we were supposed to write down words we found with which we were unfamiliar, then look them up in a dictionary and copy the definitions. He was very upset at how short my list for my first book was. When I insisted those were the only words I’d had to look up, he composed a quiz, just for me… and gave it to me, verbally, in front of the class.

When I correctly defined the first word on the quiz, “musculature” he said that there was no way I knew that word. “You’re guessing because it looks like the word ‘muscle’!”

“I assumed it derived from the same Latin root, and in context of the sentence, that’s obviously what it meant.”

“Latin root?”

I nodded. “Yes, musculus.”

“Where did you learn about Latin roots?”

“Um, second grade?”

He pointed at another kid in class. “Do you know what a Latin root is?”

I interrupted. “I didn’t go to second grade here. We lived in Ft Collins in second grade, and they had me study Greek and Latin roots.”

I gave a decent explanation of most of the rest of the words on his quiz, but he argued with each one, continuing the guessing accusation. He said I was going to get an F for the quarter for lying to him. It was one of several times Mom had to bring my grandparents in (that whole dynamic is worth a string of blog posts on its own) to talk to the principal and the teacher.

Cry, the Beloved Country

One of the books Mr Ems made us read that year was Cry, the Beloved Country. If you’re not familiar, it was written by a South African and published just before Apartheid became an official policy there. The book is about the racial and cultural issues South Africa was struggling with during the 1940s. The main character is a black pastor from a rural part of the country who goes to Johannesburg to help take care of his seriously ill sister, and to look for his estranged son. During the search for his son he becomes involved in various troubles of other relatives and friends. Before he finds his son he finds the young woman his son got pregnant. He doesn’t find his son until his son is arrested for murder, a murder he probably didn’t commit.

It’s not a happy book. Justice is not served. The son is executed. The sister runs away. People back at the main character’s village aren’t willing to take action which seems necessary to make their lives better. The author tries to end it on a hopeful note, but it’s more patronizing than uplifting (in my opinion).

Granted, Cry… tackles some difficult topics. Wrestling with difficult texts and learning how to explain why you do or do not like them are good learning experiences.

The problem was that the teacher I first explored this with was the same guy who thought that figuring out what words were from the context of how they were used was somehow cheating. So our class discussions weren’t terribly enlightening.

And then, in ninth grade, Mr Chinn had us read the same book. Everyone in the class groaned when he brought it out. We’d all just gone through the book a couple years earlier. Mr Chinn assured us we would enjoy it more this time. And while it was true that his discussions of the book were much more interesting, I’m not sure we wouldn’t have all benefited more from discussing a book that most of the class wasn’t already familiar with (and hated).

Then my family moved again and in tenth grade my English teacher wanted us to read it again. I told her I had been through it just the year before, and two years before that. She said it was the required curriculum and I would have to write two essays about it and take the test on it, just like everyone else. I took her response as permission to skip most of the book. I got As on both essays and the test, but I didn’t feel that I learned anything new from discussing it a third time.

When I graduated high school I thought I was finally free from Cry, the Beloved Country. It’s generally considered 9-10th grade level (my 7th grade class had been an Advanced Placement class, which is why I suppose we covered it there).

I spent a few years going part-time at community college (changing majors and trying to save money) before finally transferring to a university. Said university required, in addition to the English classes I’d taken at the community college, an additional quarter of Introduction to Literature. And there, on the syllabus, was Cry, the Beloved Country.

I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or scream.

Prof. Reynoldson, at least, recognized that I genuinely wanted to study something else, not simply get out of doing the work. She rejected the authors I suggested, as they were all American or English, because she said one of that reason Cry… was on the list was because it represented Third World literature. Never mind that Cry… was written by a white author of British and Dutch forebears, in English, and intentionally in a style that imitated the King James version of the Bible.

She assigned me, instead, an English translation of a Japanese novel, written in the 1950s, that explored the cultural upheaval in Japan during the post-war era. I feel a bit guilty that I don’t remember the title of the novel. The plot, yes, but not the title. Some of its themes paralleled Cry…, and the story ends in a tragedy, but it was infinitely more interesting than I had ever found Cry, the Beloved Country to be. I had to do a bit more work, because the professor made me take the standard test for Cry… in addition to a test for the alternative book, and she had me do an extra essay, as well.

But I was much happier, and felt that I had actually learned something new.

Why we’re stuck in this situation

Most teachers don’t have the time to tailor curriculum to every student. It’s easy for teachers crafting new curricula to use books that have a long history of being standard texts. There’s lots of study materials, sample tests, and you can point to all the other schools teaching it as justification for cost, et cetera. Objections from students or parents can be dismissed as signs of laziness or an unwillingness to leave comfort zones.

All of those things contribute to the problem.

But I think a bigger culprit is something that another professor referred to as The Misunderstood Puritan Work Ethic: if you’re having fun, it isn’t work. My seventh grade teacher’s hostility to the notion of deriving a definition from context is a great example of this. To fulfill his assignment the reader had to stop reading the story every time an unfamiliar word appeared. If you were enthralled in the story so much that you hardly noticed unfamiliar words, something is terribly wrong with you. Books aren’t meant to be fun, they must be instructional!

If a book is happy, uplifting, or entertaining, some people just don’t believe that it can be as good for the mind as a serious book. Again, if you’re having fun, it isn’t really work. Even Prof Reynoldson’s alternative text was a serious downer of a book. Not all books need to have a happy ending, of course. One of my favorite Shakespearean plays, Othello, is a tragedy—all the innocent people die and the villain’s motives are never revealed. But there’s a poetic rhythm to the language that makes the incredible web of lies and subtle insults spun by the villain feel almost like music. There’s a wicked delight in how the villain relishes his power over the characters he manipulates. And most of the bad things that happen to the characters are the results of their own poor choices—poor choices made under the influence of a manipulative scoundrel, yes, but choices nonetheless.

You can’t learn without being challenged. You have to leave your comfort zone, expose yourself to different viewpoints, different styles, different paradigms. But too much of the required reading in our official curricula come from the viewpoint that if it is enjoyable, it isn’t worthwhile.

Which is defeating the purpose.

3 thoughts on “The trouble with required reading

  1. “Design of Cities” was my college equivalent of your “Cry”. I think I was required to read it in almost every design class that I had. The book wasn’t awful, but 5 times? Really?

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