I adore reading but, with one exception, I loathed every high school or college English class I ever had. Watching my children go through high school English classes reminded me why: the books they believe we should read are dull and the teacher’s firmly believe that a cigar is invariably anything but a smoke. (The exception was one vigorous, eccentric, acerbic English teacher who managed, while still obsessing over sexual imagery, to teach us actual thinking and writing skills.)
Maybe I’m a cultural troglodyte, but I think Catcher in the Rye is a dreadful book. It was certainly groundbreaking when published, because nobody before had ever thought that readers would want to spend time with a self-involved, neurotic, boring, angry, sex-obsessed prep school boy. Apparently post-WWII audiences, exhausted by years of being on and reading about blood-soaked foreign shores were, in fact, hungering for some narcissistic fare. But why did the book become part of the American literary canon? Outside of a certain type of English teacher, I’ve never spoken to anyone who actually liked it or learned from it — and that’s true whether we’re speaking about learning more about the English language or learning more about life.
To those English teachers reading this blog, I can assure you that this post is not aimed at you. If you’re the kind of person who would read a conservative political blog, I’m pretty sure you’re not the kind who would take Oscar Wilde’s opiate-infused Picture of Dorian Gray, and spend two full lecture periods focusing on the sexual symbolism of the various flowers described in the book. (No kidding; that’s what one of my English teachers did.) Wilde’s book was kind of fun, and he certain knows how to use the English language, but our classroom time would have been better spent understanding how he used structure, vocabulary and obvious imagery (as opposed to pre-Freudian sexual stuff), to write his famous book.
What I keep wondering is what English teachers (or the Boards that set their curriculum) think they’re supposed to teach. If I were writing the curriculum, I would say that they should teach (a) basic grammar; (b) rich vocabulary; (c) solid writing skills; and (d) the true canon of beautiful writing that shows our English language being used in the best, highest way. One can quibble over who should be in that list, but modern English is sterile without knowing Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Dickens, Austen, etc. These works are the backbone of a lush, flexible, varied use of our English language. (It’s hard to think of any 20th or 21st century books about which this can be said.) Read these books and you will be able to speak and write with more grace, fluidity, and richness than would come from a thousand readings about that whiny little bastard Holden Caufield.
Today, every English class seems to be about amateur psychology. The kids are forced to read navel-gazing books that aren’t about the English language — its use and beauty — but are, instead, about modern existential angst. When did narcissistic angst shove the English language out of English classrooms?
Kids should be reading big books with big ideas, rather than small books about little people obsessed with their puny discontents. Kids should be reading beautifully-written books that embrace our marvelous, multi-faceted, exceptionally-rich English language, instead of reading books that delight in the use of obscenities, slang, and bad grammar — all intended to show the author’s hip, navel-gazing credentials.
Our country would be a much better place if all high school and college-level basic English classes were wiped off the curriculum. We’d then start fresh with books and poems that celebrate the English language and the human spirit.