A gripe about English teachers

English teachers

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.


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  • mdgarnett

    Boy does this post bring back memories.  I started at the University of Texas in 1967 and in my freshman English lit class I had constant collisions with the instructor over this.  i distinctly remember big arguments over “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and Louisiana pine trees symbolizing death “because coffins are made from pine trees.”
    My entire first couple of years in Austin were young conservative country boy meets the liberal education establishment.  But I survived intact.

  • MacG

    This explains why Liberals find code in ordinary words.  Words get their meaning by definition in their context seems to be lost on so many.  But then it is close to absolute and we KNOW from our beloved liberal art teachers that there aren’t any of those – anywhere – ever – nonexistant they are – no where no how no way are there any absolutes.

  • JKB

    I come back time and again to this Paul Graham essay, The Age of the Essay an excellent takedown of the ignorance that as consumed college then high school “English”.  Really, after the long ignored classics were recovered and studied, the professors had to move on to something, otherwise they’d have to get real jobs:
    And so began the study of modern literature. There was a good deal of resistance at first. The first courses in English literature seem to have been offered by the newer colleges, particularly American ones. Dartmouth, the University of Vermont, Amherst, and University College, London taught English literature in the 1820s. But Harvard didn’t have a professor of English literature until 1876, and Oxford not till 1885. (Oxford had a chair of Chinese before it had one of English.) [2]

    What tipped the scales, at least in the US, seems to have been the idea that professors should do research as well as teach. This idea (along with the PhD, the department, and indeed the whole concept of the modern university) was imported from Germany in the late 19th century. Beginning at Johns Hopkins in 1876, the new model spread rapidly. 
    Writing was one of the casualties. Colleges had long taught English composition. But how do you do research on composition? The professors who taught math could be required to do original math, the professors who taught history could be required to write scholarly articles about history, but what about the professors who taught rhetoric or composition? What should they do research on? The closest thing seemed to be English literature. [3] 
    And so in the late 19th century the teaching of writing was inherited by English professors. This had two drawbacks: (a) an expert on literature need not himself be a good writer, any more than an art historian has to be a good painter, and (b) the subject of writing now tends to be literature, since that’s what the professor is interested in.
    As for what should be taught, I give you this book from 1913 I found.  It was the text book for Freshman Rhetoric back when colleges actually taught useful skills that would enhance their student’s academic abilities.
    Freshman Rhetoric, Slater, 1913 
    I could have really used such a book long ago when I was in school, even high school.  The chapter on notetaking is serious gold.  Clear concise with examples rather than the short disjointed lecture I remember.  BTW, look at the writing topic suggestions at the end of the first chapter.  Consider these were topics the typical freshman in 1913 was considered to be able to speak about as familiar subjects.  It isn’t that kids aren’t as knowledgeable today it is just that we now can get buy without such intimate knowledge of the world due to technology.

  • http://www.marchhareshouse.blogspot.com March Hare

    Mike Adams, a professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and a columnist at Townhall, once wrote about professors of English and their backgrounds.  NONE of them had Ph.Ds in English.  Instead, their degrees were in Ethnic or Gender Studies or some kind of Sociology degree or Humanities other than what most of us would recognize as “English.”
    This was brought home to me when DS#1 took an English class at a local community college and, with the exception of Bless Me, Ultima, all of his other books were “non-fiction” screeds: Nickeled and Dimed, Fast Food Nation, etc.  When questioned, he said the teacher told the class she assigns these kinds of books because she found that her students did not read fiction.
    I went on a tirade that had my four children sitting on the couch, stunned (partly because the tirade was not about something they had done!).  Basically, my points were:  you are in college.  You are there because you want to be, unlike high school.  You are taking this class because you need it to get what you want (a degree).  You should be studying The Great Classics of English literature, not the dregs of pop-sociology that are as poorly written as it is poorly researched.  If the teacher tells you to read Huckleberry Finn, then you read it or be penalized.  Obviously, this teacher wanted to be a “pal” to her students and not require anything that would make her unpopular.  Your boss will not care so much about being your pal.  Doing what you need to do, boring or not, pleasurable or not, is part of being an adult. 
    DS#1 agreed with me.  And also noted that the instructor was terrible:  disorganized and incoherent.  As the other children have progressed through the higher education system, it has not become any better. 

  • shirleyelizabeth

    I got to test out of most of my college English courses because I took the AP (or, “actually tried a little”) courses in high school. The two courses I still needed credits for were a course where we spent the semester constructing a website and writing papers around a single theme and then marketed the sites, and a business English class where our big project was presenting and selling the product/service our team had researched, tested, written up. It is evident that I was pretty lucky in this.
    My High School English teachers, though were very much as Bookworm describes, and therefore so very easy to score high marks from. To prepare for the essay prompts I would memorize thoughtful quotes and find a way to relate and work it into my writing no matter the topic at hand. This made me seem well read. They loved it. I would also work on the dictionary “Word of the Day” vocabulary, memorizing the more erudite or odd sounding words and purposely write to work them in. I had many of my sentences and allusions composed in my head before even seeing a prompt. The teachers ate it up. Was I ever even saying anything useful? Heck if I know. That’s all you have to do to please these people.

  • http://photoncourier.blogspot.com David Foster

    I had good English classes in both high school and college. But one thing I’ve always wondered is why have an ENGLISH class as opposed to a LITERATURE class? There is plenty of very important French, Russian, German, and other literature available in translation.
    Could it be the long-lingering influence of Tories who are sorry the Colonists won the revolution and wish they were still part of the Mother Country?

  • jj

    The Catcher In the Rye – sweet Jesus!  Charlie Brown Faces Life – and finds it weird.  What a piece of crap!  Original garbage.
    I only find one difficulty with your proposition with regard to what teachers should be teaching: most English teachers don’t know (a) basic grammar – I bet you can’t find two in a hundred who know the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs; they don’t have a (b) rich vocabulary, or a set of (c) solid writing skills; and they’re far too largely clueless about the (d) rich canon of beautiful writing in English.  You were being sarcastic with your list of what English teachers should teach, weren’t you?
    I was in a bookstore two days ago, wherein there happened to be a young lady – I have no idea how old she was, but something teenish, (between 13 and 18 they all look the same to me), and she was absorbed by the fiction section.  She was intensively looking for something, and – quite unexpectedly – turned to me for assistance.  Seems she needed something American for school.  (So she was what?  A senior?  17?  18?)  I said: “well, I’ll tell you: if you need something out of the annals of American literature you aren’t going to find it here.  This is American crap, not literature except by accident, and I wouldn’t waste my time on it.”  She said, rather doubtfully: “I’m pretty deeply into American literature, and I’m looking for something new.”  I replied: “ah, I see.  Then you’ve read every word by Henry James.”  “Ummm, no.”  Nathaniel Hawthorne?”   “Umm…”  “Stephen Crane?”  “Umm… no.”  “Melville?  Twain?  Irving?  Sherwood Anderson?  Thomas Wolfe?”  “No, no, no, no – and yeah!”  “No,” I said, “you haven’t read Thomas Wolfe.  You may have looked into Tom Wolfe because you saw Bonfire of the Vanities, and I pity you, but you haven’t read Thomas Wolfe.  How about F. Scott Fitzgerald?  Hemingway?  Faulkner? Bromfield?  Wilder?”  And of course the answer was no to all.  So I said something along the lines of: “you don’t need anything new in American literature – you haven’t yet begun to explore the foundations of American literature.  begin there.”  I’m sure I was obscure – and not at all helpful.

  • http://rockportconservatives.blogspot.com/ Ruth H

    I remember taking a literature class after I had been married to a marine biologist for over 10 years.  I also had 3 children.  I grew up on a coast with porpoises, watched them be trained for shows, and watched them in the wild with my husband and so I knew more than a little about them.  So when the Assistant Professor referred to them in ancient Greece or Rome, I forget which, playing with children he took it as an allegory.  I saw it as reporting because I knew/know how they do like to play.  At that time I started wondering how much more was being distorted, how much was some teachers imagination when it comes to the authors meaning?  Of course I will never know and I do not even know how much that has been researched.
    As for the young lady, I do know my granddaighters (one is now a college sophomore, one a high school sophomore) had an excellent education in current and past literature.  The one who is still in high school loves to come to our house because it is full of books, many of them purchased over 50 years ago and some over 100 years ago by her ggg grandmother.  Some kids get it, some just don’t, the “you can lead a horse to water” saying comes to mind.

  • http://OgBlog.net Earl

    My English teacher in 11th grade taught me to hate poetry by insisting that we explain what each poem meant…..and she wasn’t satisfied with the “superficial”.  Gah!!  My grandmother had recited Longfellow to us “Under the spreading chestnut tree, the village smithy stands….” and so on.  I enjoyed that.  Miss Kewley wrecked it for me, and it’s lasted to this day.
    Since I read constantly – no TV in our house – I could always write,  My beloved freshman English composition instructor – a summer course – was a South African and a wonderful guy, but he was teaching the dolts in the class, not me…so I got my A and moved along. 
    I liked him enough to take a Bible course from him during freshman year, and wasn’t sorry.  We’d read a different Bible story each week, and he’d assign roles (from the story) to students in the class, and require a paper from us for each week — “Tell the story from the point of view of the person you were assigned.” ….it was fabulous.  Very good for my imagination, and he was excellent at critiquing our writing, so I learned a lot from him. 
    But not literature.  The “Western Arts” course I took could easily have made me hate literature as well. They required us to read American fiction and then asked us picky little detailed questions about the stories – nothing more than trying to see if we’d actually fulfilled the assignment.  It was stupid, and being 18, so was I, so in rebellion I refused to do most of the reading and got a C in that class.
    I still read a lot, and I write, too…but I took Biology and never looked back.  I recognize most of the names jj listed, and have read at least one thing from each (except Anderson?  Bromfield?), but my education was seriously lacking in this area….and my experiences left me not all that eager to fill in the gaps.

  • Gringo

    Book: I adore reading but, with one exception, I loathed every high school or college English class I ever had.
    I am not the only one who felt that way! Several years ago in a visit to my hometown I was talking with the wife of a longtime friend about the  highly rated high school that  he, I and his sons attended. Their youngest son, a sophomore in college,  was majoring in engineering, in part to avoid English classes and writing- sounds like me.  Her son had recently called home for assistance in writing a paper! I said I had loathed [appropriate word, Book] my English classes in high school, where the focus was on turning students into junior literary critics. My friends’ wife said that was still the case at the high school- 40 years after I had graduated.
    The most enjoyable day in my  high school freshman English  class was when we had a substitute teacher who  assigned an essay asking our opinion on something. Adolescents want to express themselves. There should be more emphasis on expository writing – on widely varying topics- in high school. My high school had no  emphasis on expository writing- it was 100% junior literary critic. [Or, if you are going to write an essay, it has to be on literary criticism.]
    I would like to second JKB‘s endorsement of  Paul Graham’s The Age of the Essay. I came across it a month ago, and downloaded it to  my e-reader.
     Earl and I both learned to dislike poetry as a result of our encounter with high school English teachers. Yet I had liked poetry in junior high- even though I disliked the teacher. I still recall  some lines from Rime of the Ancient Mariner from my 8th grade class.  High school and college killed my liking of poetry. Many years later as a substitute teacher in a 5th grade class of “problem kids,” I saw how the teacher had used students reciting poetry to successfully engage them.After that experience in the classroom, while I never became a big poetry reader, I occasionally would SPEAK out while reading some poetry.It is the SPEAKING of poetry that makes it stand out. Just like song lyrics.
    Even I, the hater of English classes, can find  two points in favor of my English teachers in high school. My sophomore English teacher pointed out the green light in Great Gatsby- which must have made a point with me, because I still remember it 4 decades later.  I disagreed with my junior English teacher about knowing details in Shakespeare plays. I wanted 100% essays, instead of 50% details and 50 % essays. His reply: “If you don’t know the details, how can you argue the main points?” Some years later I took a Shakespeare class in college. I read every play twice, and for the first time in my life enjoyed an English class. Also got my only semester A in an English class. [Exams were all essay.]
    As Book and others have pointed out, to a great degree the great works of English and American literature are being bypassed in English classes today. jj’s story about the teenage girl who had no idea who the great writers in American literature were was sad, but indicative of where we are today.
    Today, you can purchase an e-reader for under $100 and download many of the great works of American literature for free from Project Gutenberg. [Its Australian counterpart has writers who died before 1950, such as Orwell or Scott Fitzgerald, who are still under copyright  in the US.]

  • Ron19

    A few decades ago, the (Education) powers that be lamented the lack of qualified math and science teachers for K-12.  The solution to the problem was to take teachers who basically knew nothing worthwhile about math and science and had no training to be teachers of such, and appoint volunteers to be math and science teachers. 
    The results , except for a few like Jaime Escalante of Stand and Deliver, are as bad to mediocre as the “English” teachers described above.  We probably all know horror stories about such people, and the students they taught.
    A friend asked me to help her daughter with her homework on a subject that she knew I’ve had a long-time interest in.  When I went to Amazon to buy the textbook, I found I could also buy the teacher’s guide for it; both books are updated yearly, it turns out, so sales remain profitable for the publisher.  The teacher’s guide was beautifully written and illustrated, and somebody who knew little about the subject could use the teachers guide and look very skilled and knowledgeable to a classroom full of students and parents who didn’t know any more than the teacher, except that there was a guide available for the teacher.
    I was duly impressed by this revelation.  This stuff was better than Schaum’s Outlines or Cliff’s Notes.  I’m confident that most of the Bookworm Room inhabitants could with guides like these, on their own, learn any course to an A+ level that is taught in K-12, and many/most undergraduate college courses.  Some online courses I’ve seen, for credit or just because you’re curious, are just as good.  And many non-educational books, such as the for Dummies books, are also excellent.
    About twenty some years ago, when I was trying to finally finish my bachelor’s degree, I went to my Calculus teacher’s office to ask a question about something.  While I was waiting for her to get to me, I looked at her bookshelf and counted over twenty recent college algebra textbooks.  Every one of them was different, and had different standards of how much should be taught and practiced, and the style of teaching seemed to be different in every one of them.  My conclusion was that after all these years, college algebra teachers and textbook writers still do not know how to teach college algebra.

  • JKB

    Oh, how I can relate.  I for some forgotten reason developed an aversion to Literature in high school.  A few times, I would stand in front of the Literature section at Walden’s bookstore thinking I should read some of them, but couldn’t bring myself to waste my money.  I don’t remember disliking The Scarlet Letter and such but for some reason.  Part may be the “term paper” about the only writing they teach but also the most useless, unless you are going for your PhD.  Probably because it had to be typed and we had a piece of crap Sears electric typewriter.  Can’t really shop at Sears since then either.  
    But a lot was the BS of literary criticism required.  Something which a high school and even undergraduate is distinctly unqualified to do.  A fact pointed out in the Freshman Rhetoric text I linked to above.  I had a low BS meter.  I started out in engineering in college but even the BS in the engineering lab reports.  Not the facts but the 5 pages demonstrating how everyone else ever to do the experiment got the same results.  I switched to Physics because the lab reports couldn’t be more than 1 page, hand written.  You had to be right and showing your work wasn’t included.  
    I wonder how many kids were turned off of “Literature” and perhaps even reading by the ignorant way high school “English” is taught.

  • http://OgBlog.net Earl

    How many people commenting on this post have actually read “Catcher in the Rye”.
    I haven’t….and how am I the worse for it?

  • jj

    I have, everyone of a certain age did, and it was garbage from page 1.  You may in fact be the better for having missed it.
    Sherwood Anderson was an enormously influential writer, who did a lot to form Fitzgerald, Wolfe, and Faulkner.  (He and Fitzgerald essentially made Maxwell Perkins look seriously at Hemingway.)  He was the master – the master, in the age of Fitzgerald and Hemingway – of the short story.  The story cycle that is Winesburg, Ohio is a good place to begin with him.  It’s the form at its best, and will live probably forever – I don’t think it’s ever been out of print.  Then move to the novels.
    Bromfield is Louis Bromfield, and you’ve probably seen a half dozen movies made of his books; somehow he was readily adaptable to that form.  (The Rains Came; Mrs. Parkington; Mr. Smith – a bunch of others.)  Mr. Smith is one of the classic American novels, a Pulitzer winner back when that meant something, and though not remotely my favorite of his (writing this inspired me to go look and count, I seem to have 16 of his novels) it’s a spectacular sample of fine writing, and probably a good place to begin with him.  But whatever of his you pick up will draw you right in.

  • http://caedmon-innkeeper.blogspot.co.uk/ Caedmon

    As an outsider (an Englishman) I would assume Catcher is on the syllabus because it was the first of a class of Mid Century novels centring on whiny men who feel they are too grand for this mundane world. The works of Richard Yates, William Gaddis and, yes, even Jack Kerouac spring to mind.
    Believe it or not, Catcher is not just the first but the best of these. And Holden Caulfield does have the excuse of being only 16 years old. 

  • Call me Lennie

    You know, Bookie, if you add a couple of letters to “English”, say an e and an s, you come up with with “Engles-ish” which perfectly descibes what ‘s actually going on in so-called English classes.
    For example, when I was a junior in high school (and a Jesuit high school to boot) we read “Siddhartha” the riveting story by a GERMAN author, translated from GERMAN, about a GERMAN man’s journey from Christianity to HINDU mysticism.  Now what this had to do with mastering the ENGLISH language, I cannot say, but its Marxist agenda is clear even to people who’ve never even heard of Marx.
    Oh, and I completely agree with you about “Catcher”.  The very fact that JD Salinger never wrote so much as a grocery list after this supposed epic literary masterpiece tell you everything you need to know.  The fact that it has any status at all is because the “Engels-ish” teaching guild found it a useful hook for  indoctrinating 13 and 14 year freshman of a certain era into the fine Marxist art of whining and sniveling about absolutely nothing

  • MacG

    “As an outsider (an Englishman) I would assume Catcher is on the syllabus…”
    I think the sentiment is that the list of books in American English classes today is that they are on the Silly-Bus. :)

  • Old Buckeye

    jj, as an aside, I used to live about 10 miles from “Winesburg, Ohio” (actually Clyde). It was on my weekly route of deliveries, one of which was to the Winesburg Inn, the town’s nod to their local guy. Pretty sure that restaurant folded, but it was a big attraction (30 years ago) and was upscale for Clyde, which is not much more than a wide spot in the road. In recent years it has been in the news because it appears to be the site of a cancer cluster, with multiple cases of adolescent cancer of a particular sort originating there.

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

    It used to be teachers were the top echelon achievers of their field, brought back to raise up another generation upon the shoulders of giants.
    Now, not so much.

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