"Butchering." That's what one of my former students, a young man who loves creative writing but rarely gets to do any at school, called English class. He was referring to the endless picking apart of linguistic details that loses teens in a haze of "So what?" The reading quizzes that turn, say, "Hamlet" into a Q&A on facts, symbols and themes. The thesis-driven essay assignments that require students to write about a novel they can't muster any passion for ("The Scarlet Letter" is high on teens' list of most dreaded). I'll never forget what one parent, bemoaning his daughter's aversion to great books after she took AP English Literature, wrote to me: "What I've seen teachers do is take living, breathing works of art and transform them into dessicated lab specimens fit for dissection."
And naturally, guess what the younguns are liking:
One of my recent juniors was particularly eloquent on the subject. After having sat in my classroom for a year forcefully projecting his boredom, he started an e-mail dialogue with me over the summer. "The reason for studying fiction escapes me," he wrote. "Why waste time thinking about fabricated situations when there are plenty of real situations that need solutions? Cloning, ozone depletion, and alternate fuels are a few of the countless problems that need to be addressed by the next generation, my generation."
Okay, you may think, this is a kid geared to excel in history and science, not literature. But read his closing words: "Granted fiction has a place in this world, but it is not in the classroom. It is beside the night lamp next to your bed, the car ride to the beach, the soft glow of a fireplace. Fiction is about spending beautiful days indoors because you can't wait to get to the next page. Because I like science fiction, my Shakespeare, my Fitzgerald, my Dickinson are Haldeman, Asimov, Herbert. They dare me to think and question my beliefs."
...I'm not suggesting that every 11th-grade English teacher adopt "Catcher in the Rye," drop Shakespeare or ride the multicultural bandwagon. But if we really want to recruit teen readers, we're going to have to be strenuous advocates for fresh and innovative reading incentives. If that means an end to business as usual -- abolishing dry-bones literature tests, cutting back on fact-based quizzes, adding works of science fiction or popular nonfiction to the reading list -- so be it. We can continue to alienate teen readers, or we can hear them, acknowledge their tastes, engage directly with their resistance to serious reading and move gradually, with sensitivity to what's age-appropriate, toward the realm of great literature.
Sweet honeybee of infinity, at last someone who understands that great books become great because they resonate the emotions of readers, not the synapses of academics.
I just spent the summer going back through some of the the old classics of SF and speculative fiction. If the point of a literature class is to get students to appreciate good storytelling, characterization, and plot, then why the bloody hell is so much of what students to read so horribly dry? (ESPECIALLY the "multicultural" stuff).