The Inadequacy of High School English
Russell Degnan

In the last week there has been a half a dozen posts on Troppo on the teaching of english in high school and its relationship to po-mo, literary criticism, politics, and culture wars. I don't want to dwell on those areas, though the discussions are well worth looking through. What I do want to do is talk about what I experienced in high school, just over a decade ago, how it affects me now - being back at university - and where I think it failed.

English was always the slack class, the one you turned up to, read a few books, wrote a bad book review, a poor creative piece, and an essay with no discernable structure, logic or ideas. In six years of it the only benefit was a sloppy introduction to critical thinking in year 12 and three books I'd read again: Animal Farm (11), The Crucible (12) and Life of Martin Guerre (12). I gained more from reading Orwell's 'Politics and the English Language' a few years ago than in all the years of teaching that preceded that event. Any appreciation of art came from travelling, and of literature from surfing the web - particularly the cultural gold-mine that is Arts and Letters Daily.

But if I didn't get anything out of it, what about others? One of the odd things about university and school is that you never see other students work. You could be producing relative diamonds or coal; you don't know, the mark is a only a bare guide, mostly meaningless. I have always talked my work down; I can't stand to read it, and I don't feel comfortable with others doing likewise - fortunately noone does, see the sitemeter. Yet my current essays come back with "you write well", or "polished", or some-such I don't truly believe. I can only conclude the worst of others.

Something went wrong, but it isn't the literary criticism elements of year 12. That is useful in its own way - though some of the stuff on show at Troppo is a bit over the top. The inadequacies I perceive in my english predate that year. And they are inadequacies at the most basic level of English, at that level that underlies the teaching of English - even the existence of English as a 'thing'; the need to communicate with others. What I lacked was the following:

1. I didn't read enough Sort of. I read a lot in high school. In year 7 there was a certificate given for every 5 hours of reading done up to 50. I got all mine at the first monthly year-level meeting. But what I read was crap - mostly fantasy books of low merit. There was no diversity of styles, of vintage, or of genres, and no classics. In a different essay, Orwell described one of the four reasons for why he and others write - the others being sheer egoism, historical impulse, and political purpose - as aesthetic enthusiasm. You need to read, a lot, and widely, to appreciate it.

Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact or one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story.

I appreciate these qualities now, but how many people do? It should, like an appreciation of other culturally beautiful things - music, art, movies - be taught.

2. I didn't write enough Until I got email, and overseas friends, I didn't write for pleasure. I estimate my average output in high school at maybe 2000-3000 words a year. It is closer, now, including essays, emails and this blog, to 60,000. As well as reading other writers to learn good ways of turning phrases, you need to practice it yourself. Students should be writing 400-500 words a week. The topic doesn't matter, but the exercise does, and it is so easy to do, once you gain the habit.

3. I didn't learn no proper grammar Not after grade 5 anyway, and not in a way that has helped guide me in my quixotic quest to learn latin. Grammatical rules can be over-rated, because the best rule is normally what sounds good is good - although that is a cultural construct as any non-native speaker of English will tell you. But it helps to know the basics and I don't. What structural grammar I do know comes almost exclusively from doing a Computer Science degree, where structure and grammar are synonymous with working code. Learning another germanic and another latin language would have been good too, they give good insights into the structure of English itself.

4. I didn't learn what an essay was Paul Graham rightly notes that there are two kinds of essays. The type that produces an argument - with an introduction, definitions, argument and conclusion - and the type that explores a question or two. I was taught neither. Not method, nor structure, not meanings nor aims, not what an essay was, nor why I was writing one. The former I was introduced to at University take II - though it has similarities with programming again; the latter, by blogosphere convention. In high school, everything was an assignment, where ideas are pilfered from books, and placed in some order that was either given us or looked good on a poster. I was never told how to explore ideas or argue them out. I am not sure where they expect these important concepts to be learnt if not school. Comments by tutors on the general standard of essays at university would seem to indicate that I wasn't alone.

If english isn't being adequately taught in schools it is in these, more basic, areas that it is failing. The means by which we communicate are not being taught well enough. Neither the love of doing so. It needs, in part, better teachers, but there are other ways of communicating ideas than through teachers. Many of the great text-books are titled the "Art of ..."; on every page of these books carrying such suggestive titles, is a love for their topic that inspires their reader. Reading and writing needs someone to write something similar. Not just for students, but for everyone, to remind us why we do it.

Passing Fancy 16th February, 2005 23:44:32   [#] 


I'd largely agree
Something is wrong Russ, as again I find little to disagree with you on here.

As far as my own experience goes, I did at least learn something about essay types and structures in high school, and I suspect I probably did more writing than you did. I did not, however, learn much grammar, and we certainly didn't get exposed to much "literature".

While there's certainly room for more quality reading in high school, I do wonder about the enthusiasm some of the works the Western canon amongst the Troppo-ites. Shakespeare, great though his best works are, is in a sufficiently different language as to make understanding it damned hard work. Jane Austen might be witty, but expecting teenage boys to see the wit might be pushing things. And so on. A little bit of realism as to the actual capabilities of the average teenager might not go astray.
Rob...  17th February, 2005 10:05:25  

It is hard to say
On the one hand, my memories of year 9 english were that no discussion was ever had on the books assigned because barely anyone had read them.

On the other, there was a popular and successful film using that same Shakespearean language less than a decade ago. Partly this is because they don't try to find meaning in every phrase. I find that it is best to read the bard quickly - like a movie; to gain the rhythym of his prose and let the meanings flow over you, than to dwell long over, being akin to passing yon a thicket.

Quality can breed enthusiasm.

I wouldn't want on force literature on students either, but they need to go and find things, and it needs to be broader than what they currently see. Did you read essayists in school? Poetry? I didn't. Shakespeare is great because he is so creative in his phrasing. For similar reasons I think this is one of the funniest things I have ever read. High literature be damned.

And I really think writing is more important than reading. And idiot can read. You don't really learn until you try and do it yourself.
Russ  17th February, 2005 12:27:49