This post is sponsored by Grammarly. I tried Grammarly’s grammar check free of charge because every time someone splits an infinitive, an angel in heaven sheds a tear.
As a professional educator, there is nothing I enjoy more than sitting around a table with my colleagues analyzing assessment data. What often happens after about an hour of pouring over numbers and charts and graphs is that I begin to question everything I do as a teacher. I feel this sense of guilt and failure that, even though I set the school record a few years back for the number of students to pass a single AP exam, a large number of my students still don’t know how to attach a subordinate clause properly to an independent clause.
The Many Hats of an English Teacher
A while back, I once again found myself in the annual ritual of sitting at a table with my fellow English teachers, staring at the latest testing data, which – on the one hand – was very encouraging: we are doing a lot of things really well to prepare our students for college. But looking at the areas for growth brought up a lot of questions about what we teach and how we teach it.
See, part of the problem is that the job of a high school English teacher is really about eight jobs in one. We are commissioned to teach critical reading, writing, vocabulary, grammar, literary analysis, public speaking, critical thinking, and rhetoric; so it is a constant juggling act. How do you focus more time and energy on grammar without cutting out poetry? Or how do you build students’ vocabulary without sacrificing a classic novel?
It boils down to the never-ending tug-of-war between teaching the art and science of the English language. Most of us English teachers became English teachers because we love literature and want to inspire that same passion in our students. But the reality is that we have to equip them with the reading and writing skills they will need to be successful in college and beyond. Pragmatism would say have them read Huck Finn and Hamlet and a few Emily Dickinson poems, and spend the rest of the time on syllogisms and comma splices.
More than just Pragmatism
But we need to read good literature and we need to teach the next generation to do the same. Yes, I know that the vast majority of my non-English-teaching colleagues and most of my students won’t ever need to know the symbolism of the great Mississippi River in Huck Finn. Nor are they likely to engage in an intelligent debate about whether Hamlet actually goes crazy or whether it’s all an act. And they will probably never be tested on why Miss Dickinson capitalizes seemingly random words throughout her poems. Outside of an appearance on Jeopardy!, most of this knowledge will have little consequence in their “real world” lives.
Why We Need Good Fiction
But we need to read good literature, for a reason far more important than its “real world” application. David Foster Wallace, author of the postmodern epic novel Infinite Jest and recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Award, once said, “Fiction is about what it means to be a f***ing human being.” See, it is through storytelling that we make sense of the human experience. Ideas like love or heroism or betrayal are too vague and abstract by themselves; they seem just out of reach of our comprehension. But illustrated through a story, these intangible concepts suddenly become much easier to grab ahold of.
This is nothing new; all throughout history, people of every tribe and nation have told stories to try to understand who we are and why we are here, to give meaning to our otherwise hollow existence. Ancient civilizations told stories to explain the natural phenomena they witnessed on a daily, seasonally, or yearly basis. Most all of the world’s major religions use narratives to describe the creation of our world, man’s relationship to his god, and – for many faiths – how it all will one day end. Even today, we continue to rely on the writing and telling and reading of stories to help us make sense of this thing we call life.
Good Writers Must Be Good Readers
So while reading and discussing the great works of literature may have little bearing on test scores and may not help a young person succeed in college and may have little to do with their careers as adults, these great works of literature are essential to understanding ourselves and the world around us. They help to provide us with meaning and purpose; they give us a unique lens through which to see ourselves. They are an indispensable piece of the human experience, one we cannot live without.