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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Why even kids who like to read hate English class

English teachers are teaching kids to hate reading, writes Pamela Paul, a New York Times op-ed columnist, in response to Nathan Heller's New Yorker story on The End of the English Major.

Students dread "painstakingly marking up text with colored pencils in search of 'literary devices' — red for imagery and diction, yellow for tone or mood, etc.," she writes. "Students are instructed to read even popular fiction at an excruciatingly slow pace in the service of close reading in unison."

Common Core standards de-emphasized literature in favor of nonfiction, writes Paul. What's left is often chosen for brevity and simplicity. "Texts" must not be "deemed antiquated or lie outside the median of student body experiences" or be “triggering.”

The assumption is that kids aren’t discerning or tough enough to handle complexity or darkness, whether it’s the nastiness of Roald Dahl or the racism and sexism in 19th-century fiction, and that they can’t read within context or grasp the concept of history.
. . . Citing the need to appeal to fickle tastes with relevant and engaging content, teachers often lowball student competence. Too often, this means commercial middle grade and young adult novels such as “The Lightning Thief” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” or popular fiction like “The Outsiders,” or on the more ambitious end, accessible works of 20th-century fiction like “To Kill a Mockingbird” — all engaging novels that kids might read on their own — in lieu of knottier works that benefit from instruction and classroom discussion.

As a public high school student in the ’80s, Paul read “The Red Badge of Courage” and “The Scarlet Letter,” Shakespeare, Faulkner, Joyce, Conrad and Henry James, "authors whose work opened my mind and tested my abilities of comprehension and interpretation."

When I was in high school in the late '60s, we read a Conrad novel with a very offensive title (even then), as well as "Heart of Darkness," which must have been canceled long ago. We marveled at the length of Faulkner's sentences. We fell in love with T.S. Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." We laughed with Dickens. We read a lot of short stories, which exposed us to many writers. I still have my high school anthologies.

My daughter was in high school in the late '90s. They read very slowly and intensively, which means they couldn't "do" as many books. Some of the books didn't need to be discussed. Well, she ended up as a literary agent.

She just gave me a copy of Gabrielle Zevin's Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, which she highly recommends. I said, "Creeps in this petty pace from day to day. To the last syllable of recorded time."

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