Do we waste good literature on the young?I've been thinking for a long time that maybe some of the literature we teachers love might not really be right for our students. I'm the yearbook adviser,...

Do we waste good literature on the young?

I've been thinking for a long time that maybe some of the literature we teachers love might not really be right for our students. I'm the yearbook adviser, and one of my staff members is taking AP English. She was assigned an essay on the poem "Convergence of the Twain" by Thomas Hardy. I had to explain the poem to her, what the poet meant by Immanent Will and Pride of Life. Hardy uses such uncommonly used language that she had to look up almost every other word: e.g. salamandrine fires.

Do our students have the life experience and maturity to understand such texts? Do you think the authors ever once had the notion that someday a 16-year-old kid would be writing a critical essay about his novel/story/poem/play?

Wasn't it Twain who said youth is wasted on the young?

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accessteacher's profile pic

accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I must admit as a teacher who has worked with mature learners and in high school, it is amazing seeing the difference. Mature learners are able to understand the profound themes behind the classics whereas high school students really don't at times. But then, I am finding myself that I am really only "getting" such themes and ideas now that I have my degree and am teaching, but I would never have gone on to study English if I had not been exposed to some of these texts in my ignorant state.

cybil's profile pic

cybil | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

Posted on

Do we waste good literature on the young?

I've been thinking for a long time that maybe some of the literature we teachers love might not really be right for our students. I'm the yearbook adviser, and one of my staff members is taking AP English. She was assigned an essay on the poem "Convergence of the Twain" by Thomas Hardy. I had to explain the poem to her, what the poet meant by Immanent Will and Pride of Life. Hardy uses such uncommonly used language that she had to look up almost every other word: e.g. salamandrine fires.

Do our students have the life experience and maturity to understand such texts? Do you think the authors ever once had the notion that someday a 16-year-old kid would be writing a critical essay about his novel/story/poem/play?

Wasn't it Twain who said youth is wasted on the young?

"Convergence of the Twain" was actually on the AP English Lit and Comp exam several years ago, and students were required to write an essay analyzing it. Your teacher is may just be trying to use that poem as a means to prepare her students, perhaps in a desperate move to give them some practice.  If, however, she doesn't understand the poem, obviously her choice is a poor one. Does she have experience as an AP teacher?

The essays written by students, by the way, followed the sought-after distribution results, but there were some serious misreadings. For example, Mark Twain drowned! 

malibrarian's profile pic

malibrarian | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

Posted on

In all honesty, our world history teacher is terrible and spends most of his time focusing on the Americans in WWII.  I guess he figures that since it happened in Europe, it must not count as American history.  I spend most of my lecture time fixing the historical inaccuracies he's pounded into our kids.  *sigh*

Good heavens!  That school and those students are fortunate to have you!!!

mrerick's profile pic

mrerick | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Associate Educator

Posted on

In all honesty, our world history teacher is terrible and spends most of his time focusing on the Americans in WWII.  I guess he figures that since it happened in Europe, it must not count as American history.  I spend most of my lecture time fixing the historical inaccuracies he's pounded into our kids.  *sigh*

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linda-allen | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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When I teach classics, I have remind the students to think back on a time when everyone read regularly and words were second nature and most everyone had a decent vocabulary and we weren't such a "push a button or take a pill" society.  By saying that we teach literature that is just too hard for them to get, aren't we guilty of "dumbing down" an already dulled society?  That's not to say that the founders of our society were smarter (although I tend to believe they were) than most of American society today, but that we today just don't work as hard at knowing a little bit about everything.  We are too specialized into our little compartments and tend to ignore what we can hire someone else to do.  Isn't it our job as teachers to get kids to broaden their horizons and think beyond what they like?  Or should we practice an educational system like they have in Japan and Korea--by sixth grade, kids are put on a track for what they will do the rest of their lives.  They take tests to get into the "good" high schools and then again to get into the "good" universities, and if you don't cut the mustard, you pump gas or are a teller at the bank.  No college.  Then, we would be teaching the "good" literature to only those who could handle it.  Yikes!  Do I sound cynical today or what?  Sorry, guys.  I need the weekend...

I didn't mean that we're asking kids to read texts that are too hard for them but that they just aren't mature enough to really grasp the meaning. But then I wonder just how we gauge maturity. Who were the almighty English profs. who decided which piece of literature should be taught at each grade level? Maybe that's an idea for another discussion topic: Why do 9th graders read Romeo and Juliet? Why do 11th graders read American lit.? Who made these decisions?!?!?!

I've wondered that same question except about history classes.  Why do our students take World Geography as freshmen, World History as sophomores, then American History as juniors?  Are we telling our students that knowledge of the rest of the world is more important than that of our home?  Kids who drop out will have slept through all the world classes without even having a chance to ignore their American history teachers...something not quite right about that.

One thing that "they" got right, though, is saving British literature for seniors.  Thankfully we can save the really good stuff for the older kids!

Does the world history course at your school begin with the Renaissance? It does at mine. I guess everything else is ancient history!

mrerick's profile pic

mrerick | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Associate Educator

Posted on

When I teach classics, I have remind the students to think back on a time when everyone read regularly and words were second nature and most everyone had a decent vocabulary and we weren't such a "push a button or take a pill" society.  By saying that we teach literature that is just too hard for them to get, aren't we guilty of "dumbing down" an already dulled society?  That's not to say that the founders of our society were smarter (although I tend to believe they were) than most of American society today, but that we today just don't work as hard at knowing a little bit about everything.  We are too specialized into our little compartments and tend to ignore what we can hire someone else to do.  Isn't it our job as teachers to get kids to broaden their horizons and think beyond what they like?  Or should we practice an educational system like they have in Japan and Korea--by sixth grade, kids are put on a track for what they will do the rest of their lives.  They take tests to get into the "good" high schools and then again to get into the "good" universities, and if you don't cut the mustard, you pump gas or are a teller at the bank.  No college.  Then, we would be teaching the "good" literature to only those who could handle it.  Yikes!  Do I sound cynical today or what?  Sorry, guys.  I need the weekend...

I didn't mean that we're asking kids to read texts that are too hard for them but that they just aren't mature enough to really grasp the meaning. But then I wonder just how we gauge maturity. Who were the almighty English profs. who decided which piece of literature should be taught at each grade level? Maybe that's an idea for another discussion topic: Why do 9th graders read Romeo and Juliet? Why do 11th graders read American lit.? Who made these decisions?!?!?!

I've wondered that same question except about history classes.  Why do our students take World Geography as freshmen, World History as sophomores, then American History as juniors?  Are we telling our students that knowledge of the rest of the world is more important than that of our home?  Kids who drop out will have slept through all the world classes without even having a chance to ignore their American history teachers...something not quite right about that.

One thing that "they" got right, though, is saving British literature for seniors.  Thankfully we can save the really good stuff for the older kids!

malibrarian's profile pic

malibrarian | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

Posted on

When I teach classics, I have remind the students to think back on a time when everyone read regularly and words were second nature and most everyone had a decent vocabulary and we weren't such a "push a button or take a pill" society.  By saying that we teach literature that is just too hard for them to get, aren't we guilty of "dumbing down" an already dulled society?  That's not to say that the founders of our society were smarter (although I tend to believe they were) than most of American society today, but that we today just don't work as hard at knowing a little bit about everything.  We are too specialized into our little compartments and tend to ignore what we can hire someone else to do.  Isn't it our job as teachers to get kids to broaden their horizons and think beyond what they like?  Or should we practice an educational system like they have in Japan and Korea--by sixth grade, kids are put on a track for what they will do the rest of their lives.  They take tests to get into the "good" high schools and then again to get into the "good" universities, and if you don't cut the mustard, you pump gas or are a teller at the bank.  No college.  Then, we would be teaching the "good" literature to only those who could handle it.  Yikes!  Do I sound cynical today or what?  Sorry, guys.  I need the weekend...

I didn't mean that we're asking kids to read texts that are too hard for them but that they just aren't mature enough to really grasp the meaning. But then I wonder just how we gauge maturity. Who were the almighty English profs. who decided which piece of literature should be taught at each grade level? Maybe that's an idea for another discussion topic: Why do 9th graders read Romeo and Juliet? Why do 11th graders read American lit.? Who made these decisions?!?!?!

I guess in the case of public schools, it must have been a superintendent somewhere along the line that decided these things...is that correct?  I know when our school got started, 11 years ago, a group of 3-4 guys (the "BOARD") got together and chose the reading lists as our headmaster had no clue what was best.  I've slowly been making changes to it as a lot of those books were SNOOZERS and some really had very little literary merit.  I mean, honestly, "The Art of War" by Sun Tzu (I think that's correctly spelled??) was on the 11th grade list...students would cringe when they saw that on the bookshelf under 11th grade!

linda-allen's profile pic

linda-allen | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

Posted on

When I teach classics, I have remind the students to think back on a time when everyone read regularly and words were second nature and most everyone had a decent vocabulary and we weren't such a "push a button or take a pill" society.  By saying that we teach literature that is just too hard for them to get, aren't we guilty of "dumbing down" an already dulled society?  That's not to say that the founders of our society were smarter (although I tend to believe they were) than most of American society today, but that we today just don't work as hard at knowing a little bit about everything.  We are too specialized into our little compartments and tend to ignore what we can hire someone else to do.  Isn't it our job as teachers to get kids to broaden their horizons and think beyond what they like?  Or should we practice an educational system like they have in Japan and Korea--by sixth grade, kids are put on a track for what they will do the rest of their lives.  They take tests to get into the "good" high schools and then again to get into the "good" universities, and if you don't cut the mustard, you pump gas or are a teller at the bank.  No college.  Then, we would be teaching the "good" literature to only those who could handle it.  Yikes!  Do I sound cynical today or what?  Sorry, guys.  I need the weekend...

I didn't mean that we're asking kids to read texts that are too hard for them but that they just aren't mature enough to really grasp the meaning. But then I wonder just how we gauge maturity. Who were the almighty English profs. who decided which piece of literature should be taught at each grade level? Maybe that's an idea for another discussion topic: Why do 9th graders read Romeo and Juliet? Why do 11th graders read American lit.? Who made these decisions?!?!?!

amy-lepore's profile pic

amy-lepore | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

When I teach classics, I have remind the students to think back on a time when everyone read regularly and words were second nature and most everyone had a decent vocabulary and we weren't such a "push a button or take a pill" society.  By saying that we teach literature that is just too hard for them to get, aren't we guilty of "dumbing down" an already dulled society?  That's not to say that the founders of our society were smarter (although I tend to believe they were) than most of American society today, but that we today just don't work as hard at knowing a little bit about everything.  We are too specialized into our little compartments and tend to ignore what we can hire someone else to do.  Isn't it our job as teachers to get kids to broaden their horizons and think beyond what they like?  Or should we practice an educational system like they have in Japan and Korea--by sixth grade, kids are put on a track for what they will do the rest of their lives.  They take tests to get into the "good" high schools and then again to get into the "good" universities, and if you don't cut the mustard, you pump gas or are a teller at the bank.  No college.  Then, we would be teaching the "good" literature to only those who could handle it.  Yikes!  Do I sound cynical today or what?  Sorry, guys.  I need the weekend...

mrerick's profile pic

mrerick | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Associate Educator

Posted on

I don't think the good literature is "wasted" on the young; I just don't think they appreciate it quite as much as we do.  The problem is that, like you've all said, we bring a much wider and deeper understanding of literature process and analysis to everything we read.  We're able to find most of the nuances of various authors and make educated interpretations of the novels.  Chances are, most of our students can't do that at all, or at least can't anywhere near the level we can; however, I don't think the novel is wasted on them.  Even though they can't understand how deep and meaningful a story can be, they can still appreciate the story for being a good tale.  I always think of Grapes of Wrath when a discussion like this arises.  Even if a student had no prior knowledge of the Great Depression, migrant workers, Okies, Hoovervilles, etc., and even if they didn't understand foreshadowing, irony, allusion, and juxtaposition, most readers would still enjoy a good story about a family that meets challenges.

I think we're doing the right thing just introducing this literature to our students.  In some cases, there will be students who remember what a good read some book was and, as an adult, will pick it up and read it again - this time, hopefully, understanding it a little better than the first time.  Mission accomplished!

malibrarian's profile pic

malibrarian | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

Posted on

I have thought the very same thing and often times when my students are missing the mark, I hear Twain's words ringing in my head. We read things that I feel so passionately about and I try to convey some life lessons while I'm at it and while their heads nod and they answer questions, I know they do not understand the depth of what I'm trying to get across.

In answer to your question, no they don't have the life experience or maturity to read Hardy or anything else that is so complex, but when will they study such things? When will our students, if we don't expose them to the richness of literature, grab on for themselves and indulge in the power of the word. Many will not so the only place they'll ever get to experience it is through us. Perhaps if we can get them exposed young, even if the lessons, language, and interpretations aren't fully grasped, they will appreciate and have the ability to think more fully for themselves later on. For my students hardly any go on to college so if they don't get the experience with me, they never will and I can't let them loose into the world without some exposure to some great literature.

I definitely agree, and have also wondered at times why on earth we're force-feeding these books down these kids' throats.  The thing I have to remind myself about is that we never know what is going to reach a kid.  For some, it will be the fantasy lit that we give them a chance to read.  For others (and yes, I was one of these), it might be Dickens, Twain, London, or Wodehouse that really appeals to someone and starts a lifetime of love for great literature.

Two of my Brit Lit students last year (both girls) absolutely fell in love with Kipling's "The Complete Stalky and Co."  So much so that not only did they read it last year, but have also kept copies of the books to read over and over again this year.  They just think it's hilarious, and I never would have bet money in a million years that those two girls would have enjoyed Kipling, or "Stalky" in particular, so much.

clane is right - if not us, if not now, then who will make the attempt to light this fire under them?

linda-allen's profile pic

linda-allen | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

Posted on

You make a very convincing case. It makes me think of a Bible verse: "Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it" (Prov. 22:6).

clane's profile pic

clane | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

Posted on

I have thought the very same thing and often times when my students are missing the mark, I hear Twain's words ringing in my head. We read things that I feel so passionately about and I try to convey some life lessons while I'm at it and while their heads nod and they answer questions, I know they do not understand the depth of what I'm trying to get across.

In answer to your question, no they don't have the life experience or maturity to read Hardy or anything else that is so complex, but when will they study such things? When will our students, if we don't expose them to the richness of literature, grab on for themselves and indulge in the power of the word. Many will not so the only place they'll ever get to experience it is through us. Perhaps if we can get them exposed young, even if the lessons, language, and interpretations aren't fully grasped, they will appreciate and have the ability to think more fully for themselves later on. For my students hardly any go on to college so if they don't get the experience with me, they never will and I can't let them loose into the world without some exposure to some great literature.

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