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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Harvard students can't handle 'The Scarlet Letter' -- but prisoners can


“The last time I taught The Scarlet Letter, I discovered that my students were really struggling to understand the sentences as sentences — like, having trouble identifying the subject and the verb,” Amanda Claybaugh told New Yorker writer Nathan Heller. After all, "the nineteenth-century was a long time ago." She is an English professor at Harvard, where she's also dean of undergraduate education.

Harvard.


Students there and everywhere are rejecting English and humanities majors, Heller writes in The End of the English Major.


Tara K. Menon, a junior professor, "linked the shift to students arriving at college with a sense that the unenlightened past had nothing left to teach," he writes.


English majors are up at Arizona State University, thanks to a large online program that draws older students, writes Heller. Starbucks is funding barista McKenna Nelson's online bachelor's degree in English. She hopes to become a teacher.


Who else loves learning about the humanities? The maximum-security prisoners she teaches are motivated and hard-working, writes Brooke Allen in the Wall Street Journal. Some have been reading books for decades in prison and "would hold their own in any graduate seminar." Because they've "had rough experiences out in the real world," she writes, they are "less liable to fall prey to facile ideologies."


With no access to cellphones or the internet, her incarcerated students "have retained their attention spans," Allen writes. "My friends who teach at Harvard tell me administrators have advised them to change topics or activities several times in each class meeting because the students simply can’t focus for that long."

I have taught classes on the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, Romanticism, George Orwell, South Asian fiction. We’ve done seminars on Adam Smith and Alexis de Tocqueville. Together we have read Montaigne, Rousseau, Keats, Erasmus, Locke, Montesquieu, Wollstonecraft, Byron, Goethe, Petrarch, Rabelais, Saadat Hasan Manto, Rohinton Mistry. The students write essays in longhand; during the pandemic I taught a correspondence class via snail mail.

The New Yorker story quotes James Shapiro, a professor at Columbia, who compared teaching George Eliot's Middlemarch to landing a 747 on a rural airstrip. Many of Allen's students read -- and appreciate -- Middlemarch, she writes.


9 commentaires


josephmeyer4
19 mars 2023

Generations ago the National Council of Teachers of English forbade the teaching of grammar as taking time better spent on reading and writing, and potentially making students from homes where standard English is not spoken feel bad.


Very few Americans who did not attend private or parochial school have had any exposure to English grammar.

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Invité
10 mars 2023

Why, by the way, is the woman in the picture *not* wearing a scarlet letter, but a red dress with an "A" on it? Are they just *trying* to mess with us?

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Invité
09 mars 2023

You can read "The Scarlett Letter" online and study the text. While it uses a fair portion of words that aren't widely used today (eg, "edifice" to refer to a building), there is nothing particularly hard to read about it. The sentences are a little long, but quite clear (and nothing like some old prose where a sentence can run on for a page or more). These kids have never had to read anything but easy, modern text.

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Invité
17 mars 2023
En réponse à

That excerpt is from Hawthorne's wordy preface, not from the text of "The Scarlet Letter" itself. The text begins in quite an exciting way: Hester standing on the scaffold wearing the scarlet letter and holding her baby, while her self-righteous neighbors stand around gossiping about her--and raising the page-turning question as to who the infant's father might be.

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Invité
08 mars 2023

Well, in the past, the residential college was a bit like prison. A group of people isolated from the day-to-day of the commercial world where to pass the time they could discuss things that require thought but are not pressing. But as students got television, cars, and now internet/social media, this aspect of the residential college has died. The workaday world is in their dorm rooms.


I went to sea. It was a bit nice to leave the world behind. Deal with what you learned in the mail. The official messages were even short due to cost. But then came email at sea, and today even internet feeds. What used to wait in a letter forwarded to the post o…


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Invité
08 mars 2023

As has been pointed out, if someone turned in a creative writing assignment that read like the Scarlet Letter, the student would receive a failing grade.

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