Recently there was some discussion about schools in the U.K. preferring not to accept a collection of classic literature. The debate about what sorts of literature is best used in schools seems never ending. I personally like to teach classical literature like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland because I love it and know my enthusiasm for these books get my students enthusiastic too. I also like teaching books that they’d not read on their own. I’m careful to also have an independent reading strand going on in my classroom— the kids are required to read books of their own choice every evening for homework and often in school as well — so I don’t worry that I’m compromising their enjoyment by teaching classical books I love.
At the same time I’m sympathetic to those who have had miserable classroom experiences with classical literature. To some degree my response to that is the problem is not the literature, but the teaching. A terrible teacher will destroy the most relevant text just as a fantastic teacher can make even a mediocre work come alive.
I’m prompted to write this because of another Education Week article I just came across, “Dark Themes Get Kids Reading.” Worthwhile reading as it provides more of teacher/educator perspective on this issue.
Eons ago — last week, that is — there was a lively (one of my favorite euphemistic words) debate at Read Roger provoked by a teacher’s Holocaust unit . “What bothers me the most about this project is its profound anti-intellectualism.” wrote Roger. Since I heartily agreed with him, I was very glad to come across Nel Noddings’ Education Week article, “The New Anti-Intellectualism in America.”
Noddings writes about the “fake academic courses” that now exist, courses that make it seem as if students are studying more rigorously, but really aren’t. For example, she writes of math classes where no word problems or proofs are done — critical activities for students to truly understand and not just do rote memorization for tests. While, Noddings notes, they end up with algebra and geometry on their transcripts, what they really have had is “… pseudo-algebra and pseudo-geometry. This is pedagogical fraud, and such students are doubly cheated.”
The tremendous emphasis on specific learning objectives also, Noddings feels, “…works against the development of intellectual habits of mind.” Reducing what students are to learn to a list of outcomes only encourages them to memorize material for tests and then immediately forget it. Sadly, more complex thinking, learning for learning’s sake, the flexing of intellectual muscles — none of that is the goal. As a result, “Students come to expect that they should have answers at their fingertips instead of developing an attitude of inquiry—one of willingness to figure things out.” writes Noddings.
Intellectual education is about struggling to think. It is about messing around with ideas. About grappling with stuff that doesn’t fit easily and tidily into one neatly expressed statement. To me, that is what learning is all about and my heart goes out to those students not getting it. Ends Nodding, “Intellectual life is challenging, enormously diverse, and rewarding. It requires initiative and independent thinking, not the tedious following of orders. It should not be reduced to mental drudgery.” Indeed it should not.