Literary posers are pretty easy to identify. Just like high school English teachers can tell who amongst their students actually read the assignment and who purchased Cliffs Notes the night before and skimmed them for the story’s salient details. A work of literature is so much more than just a series of events.
A student can know all the characters’ names and most notable attributes and not understand anything about what motivates them or how they interact with each other. Conversely, a student can understand the essence of a story and really connect with the author (even if he or she is long dead) but not be able to recollect major details about the book’s plot. A truly great English teacher will not only teach his or her students to do well on the AP English Literature exam, but to understand and connect with literature in a way that will the make the students’ lives that much more fulfilling.
Not every high school English student, even the ones in AP classes, are destined to become literary scholars or English professors, but all of them can have their lives enhanced by fiction, poetry and essays if they’re introduced to them in the right way. Reading and writing can be true outlets and comfort zones for people, but high school English teachers seem more focused on teaching students Hamlet quotes and the difference between alliteration and assonance to acknowledge that, leaving a lot of students hating the very works of literature they could have really loved.
There’s a crisis happening in American education these days. Students of all levels are not testing as well as their foreign counterparts, and politicians of every leaning are looking for someone or something to blame. The teachers are the easiest targets, but of course their jobs aren’t easy. It’s unlikely that many of the politicians, parents, and administrators who are quick to criticize the largely overworked and underpaid teachers of America would be willing to take on a classroom or kindergarteners, or an 8th grade health class.
There’s no easy solution to what’s happening in the classroom around the country, but there might be something to encouraging students to leave learning, in all disciplines, and not just to focus on their standardized test performance. Students can really find themselves in geometry, biology, or Moby Dick, and if they can achieve a true joy of learning, it could lead to better performance, not just on the standardized tests at the end of the year, but in all of their classes and the rest of their lives.
It’s lofty, and maybe too idealistic, but placing more and more strictures on students and teachers just doesn’t seem to be yielding the results that anyone wants to see. And even if this approach didn’t improve America’s rankings in the international education sphere, it could improve the lives of students (and teachers and parents) living in America, which would also be a pleasant result.