Thursday, July 1, 2010

Canon Fodder

Why do we spend four years of high school English class reading and discussing mostly fiction, poetry, and drama? To prepare us for the rigors of real-life book club? Reading fiction is a wonderful pursuit. But few people actually do it in their professional lives. Too few do it in their free time. Is there a chance they don't like it because it was forced on them too early, too much? I don't have that data. I do have a few responses from friends:

Literature is art. Good literature can teach a great deal about the human condition. -- Bryan

True enough, although I think the "human condition" response is a conditioned one.

In sixth grade I hated math and I asked my father "what's the point?" I remember very specifically he said "it teaches you how to think." He was right. And literature teaches you empathy. Equally important, if not more so. -- Susan

Not to mention, it also teaches you to read. :)

I recently read Cormac McCarthy's The Road, which would likely qualify as a human condition teacher. His stylized writing and post-apocalyptic setting contained familiar "human vs. ____" elements, and included Pandora's hope-in-the-face-of-titanic-desperation moral (or curse). We are certainly meant to empathize with the suffering father, who must continually justify his decisions both to survive and to raise a child in such a world. These, though, are less elements of the human condition as they are of McCarthy's condition. As they are constructed of his experiences and perceptions of the world, they are at best a derivative lesson.

If the primary curriculum element of literature are empathy for the human condition, we could take them to Port-Au-Prince, or New Orleans, or the Gulf Coast, to wherever people suffer, and ask, "How can we help?" Would not such a scenario also force them to think? To problem-solve, prioritize, address logistical issues, sort, organize, communicate, and a host of other skills?

If, as Susan's father asserted, sixth-grade math can teach us how to think, at what point does higher-level math overtake thinking as the desired outcome? Can nothing teach "thinking" quite like trigonometry? How often are adults tasked with solving trigonometric functions (or even calculating a hypotenuse)? Yes, this is the familiar "When am I ever going to need to use this?" question. Or maybe it's the "Is this going to be on the test?" question, writ large.

Is it efficient to teach children to extract a valuable skill surreptitiously from an irrelevant one?

These aren't new questions. Why is the canon the canon? is asked by every student who suffers through it. I'm wondering if we teach around the goals, rather than toward them. And I'll be back with more questions.

No comments:

Post a Comment