Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Educationally speaking

I did it, I graded 81 final examinations on CanLit! That 60ish hours of careful consideration of undergraduate views on many major Canadian authors has made me question the value of the general liberal arts education. I don't (think I) mean that facetiously. When I first started marking, when students would started spouting made-up information on books they clearly hadn't read, I would think to myself, slashing angrily with my orange pen, "Why take the course if you refuse to learn anything? University is, if nothing else, expensive! Take credits you care about."

Then, about 10 papers in, I got it--they don't have a choice. I don't think this class per se is a requirement, but I believe some sort of low level arts class is, and this one foots the bill. I actually witnessed an attractive, reasonably organized-looking couple at the exam high-five each other while exclaiming, "Last English class ever!"

Indeed. Much as I loved my liberal arts education, and much as it has benefited me in my chosen career path as a marginally employed daydreamer, I question the value of making future engineers and media designers and office managers read short stories and poems. It only makes them angry, or worse, horribly formulaic in their reading. These are the people who grow up to read The Lovely Bones because it teaches so much about the grieving process. End-result focused reading (what's the value-add? what's the lesson learned?) is scary to me as a writer, because I'm not sure my work *has* a educational component, except in that airy, literary, experiental sort of way. That's the sort of thing I like best to, wait, what I *really* like to read is entertainment, for the joy of it. If it looks boring, I don't wanna read it.

That being said, in high school, undergrad and even now, I read some things that I don't exactly "enjoy" but that broaden my context, expose me to new ideas or challenge me to think in new ways. I like that part of it, even if I don't like the book itself. That is what keeps me taking recommendations from all sorts of people with tastes completely unlike mine--I want to get smarter, better at this reading thing.

But that's kinda my job, you know? As a writery person (someday I'll make it a noun...) Besides, if anybody tries to *insist* on me reading something, I'll balk. My spare time is too limited, and my poor brain, too. Are these balky undergrads really learning anything other than how to regurgitate reading guides and, more depressingly, how to hate literature and all its "lessons"? I worry. If requirements are punitive and boring, will they make students elect to never read again? Lots of smart people don't read. Even fewer people read fiction--lots of super-intelligent academics don't read outside their own fields, and they aren't boring, stultified or trivial. I enjoy talking to these non-readers at parties; often, you'd never even *know* (we should make them wear funny hats!)

Why should books be some sort cod-liver oil of the mind? Believe me, if you were reading these exams, you'd know that enforced reading isn't joyful. But on the other hand... I took a bunch of elective maths when I was an undergrad, which nearly killed me, and I studied music for fourteen years despite showing zero aptitude for it. Why? Because I liked the way those things made me think, what they did for my brain. And then I stopped, because I'm not young enough to just absorb new things at random, or to have the free time to do it in. I'm sure even my best theorem proofs and sonatas seemed like rote drudgery to anyone who had a gift for those disciplines, but it wasn't the end product that was important to me; it was the way my thoughts spun on after that ending. I can't remember for the life of me how to calculate the area under a curve, but I think I'm smarter still for having learnt it once.

So what is the answer? To read or not to read? Have there been studies done, what percentage of the population over 22 reads for pleasure, and if there is an intelligence quotient correspondence? And what about those of us who took one little course in chaos theory? Did that add brain cells or stress them to death?

Just curious.

From the 100 years war to the Crimea


Patrick McEvoy-Halston said...

my problem with most reading is that it's one way: the reader forever taking in an extended lecture. conversation is better, maybe.

number of people 22 and under that read stuff on the net has got to be very high, me thinks. lots of readers out there amongst the youngins.

despite knowing so many authors who really are so very, very, brave, i still kind of think of them as a bunch of reclusive scaredy cats: people the well-adjusted high fiver could teach bunches to.

i've been in undergrad liberal arts courses where there was no doubt most were having a blast and learning and teaching bunches to one another. teacher's approach is most important: does s/he know his/her students have bunches to teach him/her as well? but also important is material: for example, nothing written in the 18th century is worth reading--any emotionally healthy person knows this. (one 18th-century lit prof taught a course called "18th-century now," a course which featured contemporary texts which dealt with the 18th-century in some way. it was easily his most successful course.)

it's about the student, not about the curriculum. so long as you're growin, it's okay if you didn't read much of the book.

reading too little is terrible if it keeps you narrow. Reading too much is terrible if you're already where you ought to be.

Kerry said...

I have never met a smart person who didn't read. And I don't care what they read: nonfiction, manga, cookbooks, sci-fi, The Lovely Bones, true crime, chick lit, Archie comics, erotica? I don't care. Goodness comes in books, and there is a book for everyone. If you don't know that, I'm not so sure that I want to be your friend.

When I was in undergrad, I did not so love learning the way I do today. I am sure I wrote essays that made TAs want to gouge out their tonsils, but life was fuller then (of ridiculous things but) and I remember writing papers all night the night before. I was not sufficiently engaged with what I had to learn (do I remember anything from my 17th Century Lit course? no).

But it set me on a path. Cod-liver oil paved the way for tastier things. It's process I think. We won't find much of an end-result for ages, but one will come around I promise. Some people are in university who should be doing something else they like better, but others are just learning how to start learning. You're helping them.

Congratulations on being finished. Hope you have plenty of time for day-dreaming now.


The Chapati Kid said...

I would have to agree with Kerry. My "surveys" of English and American lit classes hurt my biceps because the books were so heavy to carry around. Undergrad wasn't about studying for me. It was about making friends and having fun. I worked enough to get my grades and keep my scholarship, but I think I read fewer books for pleasure in those four years than ever else in my life. I think you're either born with a love for reading books or you're not. Or you cultivate it at a very young age. And it doesn't matter what you read. Who are we to judge what book is a "worthier" read than another? That's the chocolate-vanilla debate, isn't it? I think we can sit on our high horses in grad school, because unlike undergrad, which was sort of a "thing you have to do" to get a "good" job (har har), we *choose* to put our good jobs on hold (or at least I did) to pursue something we really want. And it makes our perspective on undergrad life all skewed because all of a sudden, we're the cream of the crop and we can't stand to see the thing we love to do best be desecrated in such an unholy fashion!

This is my two cents' worth. Good discussion!

Kerry said...

Oh my! For clarity's sake:

"I meant 'you' as that person who doesn't think there is a book for them (certainly not you RR!!). Goodness gracious I don't communicate well. I am very sure I want to be your friend."

And very well put Ms. Merchant!

Ransermo said...

I guess it depends what you define as reading RR. I know people who would never, and I mean "never", touch a novel, but read through complex business books or consume three newspapers and two weeklies every day.
My Dad doesn't read, but watches countless documentaries and listens to audiobooks.
What about someone who has read the minutes & debates of Canadian/British/Australian Parliament
Are such people not well read?

I'm not a lit-major,but I think "reading" is a matter of challenging one's self. I do think you need to mix it up. I assume reading the 1-3 of all "Top 100" list of different fiction types (i.e. novel,business,non-fiction, short story collections etc.) would probably do your mind some good.

As far as the quality issue. There is no accounting for taste, I think there are some constants in "badness"; grammar,spelling and basic story structure and so forth. I think certain books can be personally "bad" for an individual in the not expanding your horizon sort of way(Like always reading the same genre from the cradle to the grave).

That's my two cents as a non-lit major.

Patrick McEvoy-Halston said...
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