What Should We Teach in High School Literature Classes?

Bibliophilist Society, Commentary

Paul Schleifer, SWU Professor

If you were to come to my house, you might notice that the molding in one of our bathrooms is incomplete. It’s been incomplete for quite a few years. You might wonder why; I know my wife does. But the explanation is pretty simple. I’m really terrible at doing molding. Because I’m bad at it, I tend to avoid doing it. Furthermore, I don’t particularly enjoy doing it. I know people who really enjoy doing projects around the house—carpentry, electrical stuff, plumbing—but I’m not like them. And I couldn’t even tell you which came first, my dislike of doing those things or my inability to them very well.

But it is probably a truism that we don’t like doing things that we don’t do well, and we don’t do well those things we don’t like doing. So if people need to learn how to do something, perhaps they should be taught to do so in an enjoyable way, or in a way that makes the activity enjoyable.

My second daughter started teaching high school English last year at the ripe old age of 29. One of the things she has discovered is that many, perhaps most, of her students do not like reading and aren’t very good at it. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised if they are not very good readers if they do not enjoy doing it. The question she and I have been knocking around almost since she started is “Why?” And also, “What can we do about it?”

First of all, let me get this out of the way. Reading is important. That is definitely a truism. If you look, you can find many web pages devoted to explaining how important it is to read out loud to children. And not just to babies, but also to older children. A study that came out in 2015 said that brain scans reveal activation in those areas of the brain that deal with understanding language. And from personal experience I can tell you that reading to your children or grandchildren brings you closer to them. Nevertheless, not all parents read to their kids. My daughter has a student this year who told her, “My parents never read to me.”

For older children and adults, reading is also important. Again, there are numerous studies that demonstrate the importance of reading. A 2016 study, by Thalia Goldstein of Pace University, showed a clear correlation between the reading of fiction and theory of mind. According to Brittany Thompson, “Overall, Theory of Mind involves understanding another person’s knowledge, beliefs, emotions, and intentions and using that understanding to navigate social situations.” Goldstein makes clear that correlation is not causation, but the fact that there is such a correlation should make us take notice. Influential leaders from a variety of fields talk about the importance of reading. A listing of professions that do not require reading are, in fact, not particularly impressive.

So reading is important. And we reflect the importance of reading by requiring it through every level of schooling. And that’s a good thing. But what kind of reading do we require of our students in high school, and do those required readings help our students become good readers?

In South Carolina, my home state for the last 32 years, each grade has certain recommended texts. For instance, Shakespeare is recommended in every grade but 11th:

English 1: Romeo and Juliet

English 2: Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (optional)

English 4: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and/or The Merchant of Venice (at least one)

Now, there is a certain irony in South Carolina schools requiring Shakespeare plays in three of the four years because English Education majors in the state are no longer required to take any Shakespeare, a change implemented in 2016. I know this because I teach English, including Shakespeare, at a small private college in the Upstate of South Carolina. But the real issue is whether we should be teaching Shakespeare to American high school students in the 21st century, and I would say “no.”

Why would a professor whose Ph.D. is in English Renaissance literature object to teaching Shakespeare in high school? Very simply, because doing so turns students off to Shakespeare far more often than it turns students on to Shakespeare. I just directed an honors thesis on linguistics for a very bright student who managed to avoid taking our required Shakespeare class (she convinced her adviser to let her substitute something else). She told me she didn’t like Shakespeare. Yes, I do have a few students who tell me that they love Shakespeare, but they are few and far between. And I am convinced that most students dislike Shakespeare because of their high school experience.

One of the problems with teaching Shakespeare is that the language is early modern English, which is somewhat different from today’s English. You might say, “But I read Shakespeare,” and you would be right. But here’s a big difference: not all, but many of us from the Baby Boom generation grew up reading the King James Version of the Bible. I know I did. And while I am not at all wedded to the KJV and read my Bible in more recent translations, there are still certain passages of Scripture that sound right only in the KJV, probably because I had to memorize them as a kid (for instance, the 23rd Psalm). Reading Shakespeare, therefore, was not a huge stretch. Today’s kids, those who read the Bible, read the NIV or the ESV or the ASV if we’re lucky, or one of the paraphrases like The Message if we’re not. And far fewer kids are reading the Bible at all. When they confront Shakespeare, they do not have the sound of early modern English in their heads to help them deal with the language.

Something else that makes reading Shakespeare difficult is that it is drama rather than fiction, and many of our students have no experience with drama. My undergraduate degree is in theater, and I’ve been in and directed plays. When I read a Shakespeare play, I direct it in my head. My students cannot do that because they lack the experience, and so when I teach Shakespeare, I strongly encourage them to watch a production of the play. But finding good productions of the play is not always easy. I really enjoy the BBC productions from the 1970s, but they don’t sell as well to kids today. And seeing a production, even a good one, doesn’t solve the language problem.

Another recommended text for my daughter’s students is The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, published in 1850, much more recently than Shakespeare’s plays. Though the language is certainly far easier than Shakespeare’s, it is still somewhat problematic for high school students today. For instance, during a class discussion, it became evident to my daughter that her students did not know what the word bosom means; they thought it meant backside. In addition, the premise, that a woman could be publicly shamed for committing adultery, is totally foreign to the experience of our students.

The Crucible, by Arthur Miller, is another recommended text. I was once in a production of The Crucible (Reverend Hale), and it is a good play. The language is even less difficult than that of The Scarlet Letter, but the premise is still pretty difficult to deal with, at least the part of apparently rational judges believing that people can be witches. Also, as with Shakespeare, we have the problem of students reading drama. And while I like the play, I do find it annoying that Miller distorted the history so much that it ought to have been dissociated from the Salem witch trials. He also turned it into a political allegory of the McCarthy hearings, which is why educators on the political Left love the play. Besides, there are better American plays, if one feels it necessary to teach drama to high school students.

Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Miller. I could write about some of the other authors that students have to read, like Elie Wiesel or Jonathan Swift, but I think the point is made. Difficult readings are not enjoyable for students who are not good readers to begin with. And I think it is hard for teachers  to be faced, almost constantly, with the apathy and even dislike of the works that the teachers have come to love. I have felt that even with my own children when they rejected some of my recommendations over the years. For instance, my son loved reading some of the Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter novels, but he would not give James Fenimore Cooper any time at all. I loved both Burroughs and Cooper when I was a boy, but times and interests change.

So if we are not going to teach the “classics,” what should we be teaching in our high school language arts classrooms. Well, I’m glad you asked.

First, before I attempt to answer that question, I think we have to establish some principles for choosing the readings.

Principle number 1: the readings should be relatively contemporary. Think about Shakespeare: when he wrote, he was extremely popular, popular enough to cause jealousy among his contemporaries (Robert Greene famously called him an “upstart crow”). He was also highly respected, receiving praise from numerous contemporaries, including the highly critical Ben Jonson. Shakespeare’s audience had a wide range, from the well-educated aristocrats to the common folk. His income depended not upon the high quality of his writing but upon attendance to the afternoon performances. In other words, it is very likely that Shakespeare was more concerned with his popularity than with the literary sophistication of his work, and his contemporaries loved him for it. And the same can be said of most of the classic authors through history—Chaucer, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Dickens, Twain, Williams, Neil Simon, and others. They wrote for their contemporary audience, not with an eye to high school students several centuries in the future.

While it is difficult to determine whether a particular work will someday be considered a classic, there is a lot of good contemporary literature out there. And a lot of that literature would appeal to the young people of today. Much of it is genre literature. Let’s walk through a bit of it.

Science fiction:    There is a lot of not-very-good science fiction, and if you are more familiar with science fiction movies than you are with science fiction, you could very easily have a fairly low opinion of the genre. However, there is a lot of very well written science fiction, and much of it deals with intriguing ideas. SF includes both short stories and novels. A couple of my favorite short stores are “The Ones Who Walk away from Omelas” by Ursula LeGuin and “The Star” by Arthur C. Clarke. Among the better authors are Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, William Gibson, Harlan Ellison, Neil Gaimon, Neal Stephenson, Orson Scott Card, Kim Stanley Robinson, Greg Bear, Andre Norton, C. J. Cherryh, Brian Aldiss, Lois McMaster Bujold, Margaret Atwood, James Tiptree, Octavia Butler, Tanith Lee, Stephen R. Donaldson, among many others. These writers exhibit a range of styles and ideas that could appeal to quite a few students.

Fantasy literature:  There is a much broader array of fantasy literature today than there was when I was a high school student, and while a lot of it is imitative and formulaic, a lot of it is quite good. Of course there is the classic fantasy literature of J.R.R. Tolkien, Madeleine L’Engle, and C.S. Lewis, and those authors have their devotees. But there is a lot that is more contemporary. Some of the better writers today include J. K. Rowling, Diana Gabaldon, Jim Butcher, N. K. Jemisin, May Sage, Suzanne Collins, Rick Riordan, Veronica Roth, Lois Lowry, Marissa Mayer, Christopher Paolini, Scott Westerfelt, Ally Condie, Garth Nix, Susan Cooper, among many others. And these authors represent a wide variety of styles, from the adaptations of myth of Riordan to the urban fantasy of Butcher to the dystopian future romances of Condie. And while most of the fantasy literature we remember is the novels or even the trilogies, like The Lord of the Rings, there is a host of short fantasy literature as well, much of it full of inventiveness and thought.

Romance literature: I am not as familiar with contemporary romance fiction as I am with some of the other genres, but I know that there is a wide variety of authors, such as Nicholas Sparks, Nora Roberts, Sandra Brown, Debbie Macomber, Brittainy Cherry, and others; and I should mention that reading romance may lead to reading the great romance of the past, authors like Jane Austen, the Brontes, and even Dickens and Trollope.

Crime fiction: Crime fiction, which happens to be the most popular genre of fiction in any medium, has both short and long forms from such authors as Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allen Poe, Raymond Chandler, Dashielle Hammett, Dorothy L. Sayers, P. D. James, Robert B. Parker, and more recently, John Grisham, Harlan Coben, Stieg Larsson, Patricia Cornwell, Sue Grafton, and many others.

Dystopian fiction: Dystopian fiction has become especially popular in the last couple of decades, though there are authors that predate the current fad: Alduous Huxley, Ray Bradbury, George Orwell, Philip K. Dick, Margaret Atwood, Suzanne Collins, J. G. Ballard, Scott Westerfeld, Lois Lowry, Veronica Roth, James Dashner, Marissa Meyer, and many others.

Drama: There is also relatively contemporary drama that would appeal to young people more than the “classics.” A few that I can think of would include The Glass Menagerie; Ah, Wilderness!; any of several one-act plays by Chekhov; Barefoot in the Park or Brighton Beach Memoirs or The Odd Couple or The Goodbye Girl or others by Neil Simon; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead or The Real Inspector Hound or any of several others by Tom Stoppard; and perhaps plays by Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Thornton Wilder, Edward Albee, or others. And those names do not include musical theater and all the great work done in that genre.

Fairy Tales: I would also include fairy tales in my English curriculum. Some think fairy tales are for children, but they haven’t read Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories.” I like to compare versions of fairy tales from Perrault and Grimm, and I like to expose my students to the real Hans Christian Anderson and the real Wizard of Oz.

Non-fiction prose: Picking out good non-fiction prose can be a bit difficult because such prose is often linked to specific contemporary events; furthermore, essays are often political or religious, and I would avoid such topics in the classroom just as at the dinner table. However, there are some writers that teens should find accessible and entertaining, including George Orwell, Joan Didion, David Sedaris, George Plimpton, Dave Barry, James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Robert Atwan, David Foster Wallace, Michael Sokolove, Frank DeFord, Tony Kornheiser, Jacob M. Appel, among many others.

In addition, there are many, many well-written and entertaining bloggers on the internet, writing about things our students find interesting.

Principle number 2: The works we ask our students to read should be accessible to them. There is a theory current that we should challenge our students with difficult readings. The problem with this theory is that it assumes the students will actually do this challenging reading. Even if the teacher plans to give quizzes and demands in-class discussion of these difficult works, students have access to Google and SparkNotes and CliffsNotes and Pink Monkey and Schmoop and…. How does it encourage students to read any kind of literature if they can simply read a summary on one of these websites? And I think that it is obvious that the more difficult the work is, the more likely the students will go to these websites instead of actually reading the work.

Let’s think about Shakespeare. Here’s a speech from Mercutio, a character so dynamic and funny that Harold Bloom says that Shakespeare had to kill him in Act 3 so that he wouldn’t take over the whole play.

If love be blind, love cannot hit the mark.
Now will he sit under a medlar tree,
And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone.
Romeo, that she were, O, that she were
An open et caetera, thou a poperin pear!
Romeo, good night: I’ll to my truckle-bed;
This field-bed is too cold for me to sleep. (2.1)

First of all, I challenge any English teacher to figure out what Shakespeare means by “medlars” from the context clues (if you are unaware, high school English teachers are told that students should try to figure out unfamiliar words from the context clues). Or “poperin.” Or “truckle-bed” (think “trundle bed”). “Field-bed” might submit to a reasonable guess. So most readers are left to looking these words up if they really want to make sense of the speech. If the students go so far as to look up “poperin,” they will likely find out that it is an archaic kind of pear. If they are lucky (or if their parents are unlucky), they learn that “poperin” is pronounced like “pop her in” and that a “poperin pear” is Early Modern English slang for the male sexual organ. And that might lead a really clever student to understand that “et caetera,” in this passage, means not “and so forth” as it usually might but rather something more akin to “bleep” (the sound we might make to indicate that something untoward has been said, in this case “vagina”). Then add to that the problems with “medlar tree” and the fruit called a medlar (or “open-arse fruit”) and one might realize that it can take several minutes just to have a chance at understanding a rather risqué joke which is no longer funny after such a lengthy explanation. Then again, there is the alternative of looking it up on Schmoop, but then we lose whatever benefits we might have expected from getting students to engage with difficult texts. And that is dealing with 8 lines from a play that is over 3000 lines long.

But isn’t Shakespeare important? Sure. Shakespeare is the best recorder of the nature of human beings and their conflicts in human history. But Newton’s discovery of calculus is also important and yet we do not expect high school students to understand calculus, or at least not most high school students, and those who do take calculus are seniors who have understood the lower level math classes. We do not expect a 9th grader who has not yet learned algebra to be able to comprehend calculus. We don’t argue that we should throw that 9th grader into calculus to make her struggle with difficult material. If we did, would we be surprised that the students get frustrated with their lack of understanding and just give up on the material? Would we be surprised if they hated calculus? If no, then why are we surprised when kids hate literature?

So what should we require of high school students in English classes? What should be our goals when it comes to students and literature?

The first goal should be to find, at every grade level, literature that students enjoy reading. The best book in the world is useless to the student who does not read it. Of course, not every student will enjoy any particular work, so variety in the high school classroom is critical. I discovered that I was, at least partially, a nerd in the 7th grade. Our 7th-grade English class was reading a novel called Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes. I had gotten sick, so I was reading it at home, to keep up with my school work, and I realized that I was enjoying the book. I do not know if any of my classmates enjoyed it. Now, it is true that I was a reader. When I was 10, my family moved, right after the school year was over, and for that first summer I did not have any friends nearby, except for James Fenimore Cooper and Edgar Rice Burroughs—I loved the Leatherstocking Tales and the John Carter novels. Through reading Cooper and Burroughs, I developed a love for reading. When my mom, who would bring me books from the library when I was sick or bored, brought home The Hobbit, I was hooked on fantasy. And when she brought home Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, I read it avidly (though I would never recommend handing Jude the Obscure to a 6th grader—I don’t know what my mom was thinking). So it will take a variety of works at every grade level so that most of the students will find at least something to enjoy during the year.

The second goal should be to find works that the students can understand and talk about, and that they want to understand and talk about. I did my undergrad at Davidson College back in the mid-1970s. Some of the best classroom discussions I can remember happened outside the classroom. We had a pub on campus that served beer and wine (the age then was 18). So I and some of my friends would occasionally take a study break on a Tuesday or Wednesday or Thursday evening to share a pitcher of beer and talk, and often those talks focused on whatever we were reading in our classes—literature, philosophy, psychology, theology, whatever. Of course, we also had classroom discussions in our classes, in large part because most of us read and engaged with the material we were assigned. I am not suggesting that we buy our high school students a pitcher of beer or that they will get together in the evenings to discuss what they are reading for class, although it would be much more likely if the assigned reading was Tolkien or Lois Lowry or J. K. Rowling than Shakespeare or Hawthorne.

If we assign literature that our students can understand and discuss, then we should also be able to avoid the misguided practice of directing their understanding of the literature. I’m sure you know what I mean: “As you read this story, consider carefully….” Or, “The story we are reading next week is a story about….” Such direction distorts the reader’s first experience with a story. And students learn that the purpose of reading a story or a poem or a play is to confirm what the teacher told them to find in it. We also have to drop the practice of asking students to look for “the theme” in a story or poem. Literary works are experiences, not treasure hunts, and most such experiences can reveal a variety of ideas or themes. Furthermore, the construction of meaning comes from a collaboration of the writer, the text, and the reader, so it is unlikely that every reader of a text will derive the same exact ideas from it. Of course, there are a few works that do have a single theme—works like Aesop’s Fables or some of the fairy tales as told by Charles Perrault—but not many.

The third goal we should have for reading is to help students see how reading is something we do in life, beyond the boundaries of the page. Former coaching great Bill Walsh wrote that one of the traits of a successful quarterback is the ability to “read” defenses. Experts in marketing talk about the value of reading customers. There is extensive literature  psychology regarding people’s abilities to read faces. Some psychologists take the weak form of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis in arguing that we read faces and that our language somewhat determines how we read faces. The point is here that reading books can help us to read other things in life.

Finally, the fourth goal of reading should be to make our students better students and better people. People who read know more than people who do not read. Apparently, if we are to believe some recent studies, people who read live longer than people who don’t read (though I doubt that this is a cause and effect relationship; if the correlation exists, it is likely just a correlation). Students who read independently do better in school and beyond—they have larger vocabularies, more knowledge, better verbal fluency, and better comprehension of what they do read.

In addition, people who read, according to some recent studies, develop the ability to feel empathy. According to Psychology Today, “It appears that reading fiction can improve the reader’s ability to put themselves in another person’s shoes.” In another place, the same author writes, “One of the benefits of getting outside yourself by putting yourself in someone else’s shoes through a novel is that it improves theory of mind.”

Having theory of mind allows one to attribute thoughts, desires, and intentions to others, to predict or explain their actions, and to posit their intentions. As originally defined, it enables one to understand that mental states can be the cause of—and thus be used to explain and predict—the behavior of others. Being able to attribute mental states to others and understanding them as causes of behavior implies, in part, that one must be able to conceive of the mind as a “generator of representations.” If a person does not have a complete theory of mind, it may be a sign of cognitive or developmental impairment.

So as Prevention magazine says in a headline, reading fiction can make you a better person. We want our young people to read. Reading helps them be better students, better employees, better people. Ideally, we want them to read the great works of literature and serious works of fiction. But before we can even begin to hope that our young people will seriously read Shakespeare, Eliot, or Tolstoy, they have to become good readers. And before they can become good readers, they have to become readers. And just as we would not introduce someone to woodworking by asking them to build an armoire in the Empire tradition, we should not ask someone who is not a good reader to start down the road of reading by taking on Ulysses. It’s about time that we teach our students where they are and work towards making them better.

The way we are doing things in our public schools is obviously not working. Reading is too important for us to allow the situation to continue as is. Our children are too important.