If I had a million dollars, I'd build you a school.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

What Can You Do With English?

In an earlier post I talked about my former student, Adam, who liked to make the argument that English was a useless class. When we really got to the heart of it, what Adam believed was that reading fiction did not belong in school. He often equated it to having a class about watching movies (not remembering in the moment that he was sitting in a Spanish Culture Through Film class). Books and movies were for entertainment, if you liked that sort of thing (Adam didn't--at least not in the case of books), and didn't belong in an academic classroom. Adam was a pragmatic guy. He wanted to grow up, get a good paying job, and settle down to the task of making lots of money. Reading books just didn't fit into that scheme, although he was willing to admit that the writing skills aspect of English class was probably worth his time.

I had this discussion with Adam more times than I care to admit, hoping in vain that someday I would find just the right argument to convince him of the validity of reading fiction in school, but I never made the breakthrough. As is often the case when we get into a discussion like this, my failure was due to the fact that I didn't have a great answer to the question. I had never questioned the value of reading books. I loved reading in school. English and Spanish were always my favorite classes, and I studied Spanish in college mostly to keep reading all of the wonderful books there were to discover in my second language. Reading the great works of literature was a part of education that I always took for granted.

The goal behind this blog, though, is to not take anything for granted. Everything in our someday school should have a reason, and we should know exactly what it is. I've already argued that there is value to knowing about literature. Today's topic relates to the skills we get from English class.

I'll leave writing aside for the moment. If Adam was willing to admit the usefulness of learning to write well, I will assume for now that most of the readers of this blog are on the same page. What I want to present is an argument to convince my friend Adam, if he ever stumbles across this blog, that all those books he was forced to read were worth the time he may or may not have spent reading them.

Adam and I ended up leaving that school the same year, he to graduate, and me to join my future wife on Long Island, where she was starting graduate school the following fall. My new school on Long Island had a summer reading list for teachers. We were supposed to pick one book from the list and be prepared to discuss it during the before-school faculty meetings. I chose to read Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, and in its pages found the argument I had been looking for. I haven't seen Adam since then, so I haven't had a chance to test it out, but I like to think it would have at least made him think for a second that reading books was good for him.

For those of you who are not familiar with the book, it is a memoir of Nafisi's experiences leading a clandestine course in Western literature for women during the early days of the Islamic Republic. In addition to Lolita, they read a wide variety of books including The Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice , and Daisy Miller . The book is both a fascinating view of what it was like to be a woman in Iran during that huge cultural transition, as well as a love letter to great literature. Here is what she says about what we learn from these books:

Imagination in these works is equated with empathy; we can't experience all that
others have gone through, but we can understand even the most monstrous
individuals in works of fiction. A good novel is one that shows the complexity
of individuals, and creates enough space for all these characters to have a
voice; in this way a novel is called democratic--not that it advocates democracy
but that by nature it is so. (p. 132)

By reading about the experiences of other people, even (or maybe especially) fictional people, we learn to imagine what it would be like to be someone else. We learn empathy.

Empathy can be a rare skill during our school-age years. Teenagers have enough of their own stuff going on that it is often hard to step outside themselves and think about what it is like to be someone else. Reading fiction gives them a comparatively safe environment to explore that process. When the class discusses why a character behaved in a certain way at a critical moment in the story, or what might have motivated the antagonist to commit a heinous act, they are learning to empathize, to use their imaginations to connect with other people. That is a skill worth developing.

So, Adam, if you're out there, are you convinced?

As always, the names of any students mentioned in this blog are changed to protect their privacy.

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