[OPINION] English Matters! (But the Books Don’t)

By: Iris Utroske

"You are not immune to propaganda" image courtesy of Tumblr user MarkVomit

It has universally agreed upon that the English branch of the public education system is in desperate need of reform. Interest in reading is stagnating, prompting droves of students to Sparknote books so overwhelmingly that some teachers even explicitly recommend the practice as a semi-viable strategy for passing tests. Furthermore, it seems, many students fail to even see the value in the literary analysis to begin with, questioning what makes such an esoteric skill vital enough to have an entire core class dedicated to it.

Many critics believe the problem to be that the skills taught by English class are simply worthless, of no value to contemporary society and so of no interest to contemporary students. I, however, believe this to be a misunderstanding; the analytical skills English attempts to hone are important outside of the classroom, it’s just that teaching those skills via books is an utterly outdated approach that does nothing but mask the reasons why analysis matters to begin with.

ENGLISH, IN THEORY

Before we can understand the issues with teaching students analysis via centuries-old literature, however, we first need to explain why the English curriculum holds these skills in such high regard in the first place. This is best revealed by examining the book-based classwork teachers give and the skills they are designed to sharpen, namely, literary analysis, rhetorical analysis, and Socratic seminar. Respectively, these serve to teach students to understand what a book’s argument is, how a book manipulates emotions to make that argument, and how that argument relates to the real world. 

In short, then, it appears that the primary purpose of the class is to teach media literacy, that is, the skill of interpreting and critically evaluating the messages conveyed by a work of art.

Now, ignoring for the moment what methods are actually used to impart this skill set, it is admirable for English to attempt to teach it in the first place, because media literacy itself is vital to informed life in a media-centric world.

As citizens of the Information Age, we are constantly surrounded by media, and by extension, the manipulative messaging most of it carries. Be it through Mr. Clean trying to sell us Proctor and Gamble cleaning products or Captain America working to reinforce our patriotism and unconditional love of freedom, nearly everything we consume is trying to manipulate our worldviews somehow, often to disturbingly great success. This is, of course, how propaganda works; almost all of our mass media is manipulation of this kind, using the very same thematic and rhetorical strategies one is taught to understand in English class to subconsciously shape our understandings of the world. And without media literacy, none of us would ever know it.

So given this, it might seem to make perfect sense that English would teach students to analyze and critically examine these types of messages in media. If one is taught to understand how, say, To Kill a Mockingbird makes its arguments about the nature of innocence, then piercing through the manipulative jingoism implicit in Call of Duty’s gameplay or the right-libertarian rhetoric of a Marvel movie should become child’s play, no?

However, English’s entire method of teaching collapses when faced with this lone question: why books?

LITERATURE: THE GOLDEN CALF

Important as it may have once been, literature has been losing relevance to daily life for decades. With the advent of increasingly accessible mediums of communication (radio, film, television, and eventually the Internet), the willingness of the average citizen to dedicate the relatively high amount of time and effort that reading demands has all but vanished. Be that for good or ill, the fact of the matter is that books are not exactly of great influence on the contemporary student’s worldview. So again, why not study more modern and relevant art forms that actually influence the lives of students beyond the classroom?

It’s certainly not for a lack of intelligent and complex classics to study in such mediums. In film, of course, there are dozens of well-respected works such as Citizen Kane and Gone With the Wind. And even certain more popular and beloved movies, for instance the George Lucas-directed entries of the Star Wars franchise, feature immensely complex webs of philosophy and intertextual cinematic language worthy of any analyst’s attention. 

Elsewhere, in the unfairly-dismissed realm of video games, there exist fascinating storytelling experiments which use the uniquely interactive nature of gaming as a means of impactfully making their points, such as The Beginner’s Guide, Undertale, and Shadow of the Colossus

And even on websites as soulless and devoid of creativity as YouTube, one can occasionally stumble upon a brilliant work of art deserving of study. See, for instance, Jesse Wood’s Horseshoe Finale, a grand thesis on the nature of artistry disguised as a parody of My Little Pony videos, or Jonni Phillip’s Wasteland, an incredibly inventive commentary on everything from mental illness to the metaphysical nature of reality itself, nonetheless dressed up in the aesthetics of typical YouTube animation and comedy. 

These examples and others like them would certainly be far more entertaining and useful as subjects of study for the average student today than yet another unreadable Dickens novel.

Now obviously, none of this is to argue that books are entirely worthless as subjects of study. Books do still play at least something of a notable role in our culture at large, see things like the popularity of The Hunger Games and the YA dystopia trend it inspired foreshadowing the anti-capitalist sentiments that now predominate the millennial generation, and so still worthy of some degree of analysis. 

And equally, the works of Shakespeare and others like him are still legitimately great enough as emotional experiences for those interested in them to justify their being presented to students at least in some small way, albeit probably in dedicated, non-mandatory literature classes.

But regardless, the idea that books deserve to be the sole focus of the curriculum is absurd.

Many students neither care enough to read books in full, nor receive enough influence from them as a medium to justify the of totalizing focus placed on them by the school system. Classes on media literacy in general are a necessary evolution of English, and the best way of both reinvigorating interest in analysis of art and providing skills that are actually applicable to the lives of students in the real world.

4 comments

  1. Lain Iwakura 12 November, 2019 at 07:33 Reply

    >yet another unreadable Dickens novel
    as though you read more than one of those in all of high school
    >Literature: The Golden Calf
    i get you were trying to make a point about its wrongful idolization but usually ‘golden calf’ has to do with greed worship specifically, are you implicating that English is somehow greedy for focusing solely on books?
    >”As citizens of the Information Age, we are constantly surrounded by media, and by extension, the manipulative messaging most of it carries. ”
    *proceeded to provide literally two examples and a bunch of links to cultivation theory stuff*
    you do realize that cultivation theory doesn’t necessarily implicate that cultivation is willful on the part of the artist, no? and that therefore propaganda is a needlessly inflammatory phrase which doesn’t accurately describe your conception of mass media?
    >”It has universally agreed upon that the English branch of the public education system is in desperate need of reform”
    [citation needed], people in power seem to think it’s getting along just fine
    >”Many critics believe the problem to be that the skills taught by English class are simply worthless, of no value to contemporary society and so of no interest to contemporary students.”
    is it critics who believe that? or uninformed students? nobody worthy of being called a ‘critic’ would hold such a moronically oversimplified view
    >”the right-libertarian rhetoric of a Marvel movie ”
    *proceeded to link to a video that argues Marvel is actually super pro-military and pro-state*
    >Citizen Kane and Gone With the Wind
    yeah, like kids today would be interested in black and white art films about unintelligable subject matter any more than they would literature
    >With the advent of increasingly accessible mediums of communication, the willingness of the average citizen to dedicate the relatively high amount of time and effort that reading demands has all but vanished.
    [citation needed], like do you really think that’s all there is to it? that we’re just lazy and don’t want to read anymore? you’re no better than the older generations who think we’re lazy for having to deal with the impacts of mature capitalism and postmodernity.

    what a frustrating article

  2. A Student 12 November, 2019 at 20:37 Reply

    Outstanding article! It’s time the English curriculum comes into the 21st century and implements more relevant and engaging pieces of literature for the betterment of our intelligence.

  3. A toast 18 November, 2019 at 16:31 Reply

    With all due respect, from what I have seen it is not the books that are the main problem in the English curriculum but instead how we teach the subject matter. Many students including myself generally enjoy literature and seek out books to read on our own time. Furthermore, we also don’t mind reading most of the books present in our English class- notable ones include Catcher in the Rye, Raisin in the Sun, and Lord of the Flies. But it is how we are taught to systematically break down the book into different parts that makes the current English teaching system broken. At the end of the day books are a form of art, a way for authors to express their thoughts and ideas onto a backdrop of a story. As it stands now, the English teaching system tells you how to view books in a right and wrong fashion, causing students that may view a book in a different light, which should be allowed when viewing any form of art, to be punished for having different ideas than ones that are acceptable. To put this into perspective, imagine an art class where students are taught by having them draw the same picture, with the same pencil, the same colors, the same lines. Many would come to hate it even though real art is nothing like that, and it’s the same thing for English. In English we are taught what the theme of the story is instead of allowing students to think of it for themselves, and then we are taught how to structure our thoughts about the theme and are forced to write about it in a essay that is to be structured into four or five paragraphs. It’s no wonder then that a lot of students hate books. We are forced into only seeing books in one way and then we must write about them in only one way. I agree that English matters, but in contrast to your thoughts, the books also matter.

    • Lain Iwakura 19 November, 2019 at 14:42 Reply

      I agree that the restrictive structure of the essays students actually write in English class is an issue as well that certainly doesn’t help this situation, but I would also argue that the actual analytical methods taught in English for books aren’t that bad either. The language through which art communicates its ideas isn’t as set in stone as the language we speak, but nonetheless it is present in the vast majority of art. I don’t really see how one can argue that Lord of the Flies isn’t primarily about the self-defeating nature of anarchism and the inherent darkness of humanity, for instance. There’s certainly other stuff there – you can use it as a part of understanding how British culture thought of war at the time, just as you can do an in-depth case study on the psychology of individual characters, but to assert that those things are the main point of the book is a losing battle, because almost all of the book’s major events, reoccurring symbols (as denoted by their unusual frequency of appearance, namely the conch, glasses, the fire on the mountain, etc.), character conflicts, and so on. So while I understand taking issue with essay structure specifically suffocating the amount of analysis which can be done, I’d argue that teaching literature as though there is a coherent core to a work there to be understood by the audience isn’t a problem (though I also wouldn’t mind gonzo analysis being encouraged every now and then, but still, to focus on that as the main issue would detract from teaching media literacy and move towards just cultivating enjoyment in reading for its own sake, which isn’t universally possible). The difference between this and your analogy with painting is that analysis is determining the elements underlying a text which objectively exists and has defined characteristics which can be evaluated, whereas painting creates meaning anew from nothing and is therefore far less constrained.

      Regardless, I would also argue that literature, though certainly applicable by some, is not a taste all can acquire, and that you overestimate the degree to which most students enjoy things like Catcher in the Rye or Lord of the Flies. Certainly there are some people who enjoy these things, but there’s a reason why their Sparknotes pages are as popular as they are. Speaking personally, as much as I can appreciate the thematic or linguistic intricacies of a great writer, and as much as I’ve tried to get emotionally invested in literary classics, I just outright don’t get much emotionally out of books, at least not compared to film, video games, paintings, and others. I understand it, I appreciate it, I know how to relate to it, but it just doesn’t resonate with me, and hasn’t for as long as I can remember. Not to say that those other things are universally going to be of interest to students either, but the degree to which people who are going to be interested in media that they consume as a part of their daily lives is on average going to be far greater than their interest in books, which, outside of beach vacations and airplanes, aren’t something most people are encouraged pay much attention to.

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