Thursday, September 30, 2010

Language Arts Sucks, Revisited

I was just rereading Michael Chabon’s excellent book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and thinking about the circumstances that led me to read it, and my discovery of the whole mess of contemporary fiction authors that have influenced me and whose books I’ve carried in boxes from my parents’ house to my dorm rooms to my apartments. I’m lucky to have found the books I love, thanks to the people (not least my mother) who cared about literature and introduced me to authors they thought I would enjoy, and who turned out to be right. Later on, of course, there were the short story collections I went out of my way to buy, and the writing workshop syllabi that forced me to purchase contemporary fiction, and at present I’m pretty confident in my ability to find authors and stories I will enjoy, as long as I have the time to read them.

While thinking about all of this, I suddenly became enraged.

Why? Because I realized that I had taken seven years, in public middle and high school, of “Language Arts,” which was supposed to teach me how to write but also teach me how to read, and more importantly to point me in the direction of books. I learned something from those classes, I suppose, and god knows my teachers tried their best (well, most of them did), but god also knows that those classes did little to influence my love of reading. It might be accurate to say that my love of reading survived Language Arts classes, that I unaccountably love Shakespeare and 1984 despite my education. Most students don’t, and I often wonder if the way we teach literature is designed to stop students from reading.

I know I’ve written the same post before but fuck, isn’t there a way to teach through contemporary fiction that might engage students a little more than teaching them through ancient fiction? Imagine if I was taught The Fortress of Solitude in one of my AP LA classes in high school. It would have given the teacher the chance to talk about:

  • Race relations in America. I know this subject is often touched on, but the history of blacks and whites usually stops around the time of MLK. Richard Wright is wonderful, but perhaps a little dated on some subjects? (Also, not insignificantly, this book discusses race from a white [Jewish] perspective.)

  • Bullying, intimidation, how you feel when you don’t belong in a neighborhood

  • The music of Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, and a slew of old soul, R&B, and fuck groups like the Supremes, the Four Tops, and Marvin Gaye. How many kids know about the tragic death of Marvin Gaye?

  • A tie-in to Dylan: The practice of Jewish performers changing their names to more “normal” ones. Why was this important? What does Jewish identity mean? Why did black performers not change their names—oh, yes, because they were given slave names by their masters. Whole discussions of the power of naming might ensue.

  • Finally, the idea of superpowers in the real world. What would you do if you had the power to fly? Would you try to fight evil? How? Would you rather be invisible or have the power to fly?

That syllabus for the book I came up with off the top of my head would be far, far, more engaging than any Language Arts class I’ve ever had. With something like Shakespeare, or even Conrad, teachers spend have their time trying to get kids to understand what the fuck they just read, if the kids bothered to read it at all and didn’t give up on the text for being too difficult. (Also, with Heart of Darkness teachers have to wrestle with the question of whether the book is outrageously racist or not.) Would it be too much to ask that teachers teaching literature let their kids know that literature is something that doesn’t just happen in the past?


  1. Move to Australia dude. We have all that in our curriculum. I'm a student teacher and on my last placements my supervisor actually ran a class on Superheroes. (Yes, it was an English elective!)

  2. That's not a bad idea. I could root for Australian Rules Football and force myself to enjoy cricket and sunlight. And there's no Tea Party down there, right?