Banned Books vs. Required Reading

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Banned Books vs. Required Reading

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1burningbooks
jul. 17, 2009, 12:54pm

I am new to LibraryThing and the Banned Books group, and normally spend a great deal of time lurking through forums before I publish my first thread; however, I'm motivated to do so at the moment due to a trend I've noticed in a different group.

The defenders of books that are banned tend to be adamant in their battles against censorship due to deep-seated principles regarding the idea of "Freedom of Speech". Although I whole-heartedly agree with this mentality, my own feelings towards the negative implications of banning books has more to do with the fact that I find myself feeling distraught for those who are deprived of the opportunity to read certain works of which I'm extremely fond of; it's more empathetic regret than mere principle.

I was browsing a group that was focused on literature that people dislike, (a very negative group of LibraryThinger's, I've learned), and became aware of a disturbing thing going on in our society today.

It would appear that people of my generation, and those slightly younger and older, are being pushed into a trap which leads them to loathe books which I have a hard time believing they could possibly dislike. Now, I understand people have different tastes, and that books which I love will inevitably be hated by others. That being said, though, it's obvious to me that there's something else going on.

My favorite book, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn", and some others of my favorites, including "Lord of the Flies", are major targets in the hate-filled conversations amongst the accusers of "bad books". It was apparent that these books were not hated by everyone because they're bad books, (though some of the haters may have hated them for that reason); but instead, it was because these books were forced upon these readers by schools.

I've always maintained the theory that forced reading is a major cause of the reluctance of today's youth to actually spend time reading, but I had no idea how effective this unfortunate state of affairs actually was. It's obvious to me that people have a tendency to hate books which they are forced to read, especially when they're forced to read them while in their adolescence.

In my opinion, forcing books on people, especially teenagers, is doing more damage than it is being beneficial. Students are basically being encouraged to hate good books. In fact, as an un-published writer, I would much rather have my future books be banned by schools than be inducted into the repertoire of "required reading" books. It seems to me that kids are more prone to enjoy a book they're not supposed to read than one they "have" to read.

I find this to be a severe flaw in our society, and think it's extremely detrimental to the future of literature and to the intellectual well-being of our society. But I wonder: where do we draw the line? How can we encourage kids to read great literature without forcing it on them? With all the distractions today, such as television and the internet, how can literature compete?

In my opinion, banning books seems to be far less damaging than requiring them. I'm not suggesting we ban all the best books; I'm just calling attention to the fact that I think as bad as the act of banning books is, the opposite extreme of forcing books on people seems to be just as destructive. Is there an actual question in my post? Not really, I guess. I just wonder what other people's thoughts on this are. I mean, we're obviously all against banning books because it deprives people of opportunities, but in my mind, forcing books on people is equally as malevolent, if not more so, making it so that people are not only ignorant of certain literary works, but actually hate them.

2jennieg
jul. 17, 2009, 4:03pm

But how do you teach kids to read attentively and intelligently without assigning a book to the class? I'll grant you it could be done one-on-one or in small groups, but most high schools don't have the resources.

I may still loathe A Tale of Two Cities after all these years, but I read and enjoy Dickens, among others, and get more out of fiction than I would have without this sort of instruction.

3anamuk
jul. 17, 2009, 4:05pm

I was thinking about this just the other day, and how fortunate I was that it didn't happen to me (well apart from Betjemen who I doubt could have been saved by anything after a couple of his poems)

The Rights of the Reader is a great little book that talks about how to get people reading, has ideas for parents & educators. However until we step away from a test based educational experience I can't think of anything that will stop people hating say Of mice & men because of the paper they had to write or questions that they had to answer about George & Lenny or foreshadowing or something else rather than being able to read it at their own pace.

4burningbooks
jul. 17, 2009, 7:48pm

I was one of those kids that went to school only when I wanted to, and only did assignments if I wanted to do them. In English class, books were assigned to us and I would start reading them. If I didn't like the book I wouldn't finish it and wouldn't do the assignment. If I liked it, I would read it, but rarely do the assignment still. :p I was never forced into reading a book, if for no other reason than that I did not care whether I failed a class or not.

I agree with anamuk, that test-based "teaching" is a travesty. But I take it a step further and say that grades-based educational systems are "failing the test". I'm not sure what the best way to go about it is, but I feel like we need to find a way to motivate rather than bully and threaten kids by giving them F's and telling them they'll never get into college and never get a decent job if they don't read the assigned book and write a good essay and do well on the test.

I didn't graduate high school, because I hardly ever went. Yet, I'm more well-read than most of the people I know who graduated high school. Most of them hate books! It's as if requiring books is the new way of banning books! Incidentally, most of the books that I see being hated on for this are also being targeted by the banners. I'm almost tempted to support the banning of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" in hopes that when kids stop being forced to read it, they'll do so on their own and actually enjoy it. (I don't think I'd go that far, though.)

5Jesse_wiedinmyer
jul. 27, 2009, 10:37pm

I was one of those kids that went to school only when I wanted to, and only did assignments if I wanted to do them. In English class, books were assigned to us and I would start reading them. If I didn't like the book I wouldn't finish it and wouldn't do the assignment. If I liked it, I would read it, but rarely do the assignment still. :p I was never forced into reading a book, if for no other reason than that I did not care whether I failed a class or not.

Are you me?

6stephmo
Editat: jul. 27, 2009, 11:33pm

I really think it depends on how required reading is framed. A combination of parents and your first reading teachers with one negative comment can impact things for a very, very long time.

I was listening to a Ted lecture (ted.com - fun stuff) on the nature of happiness and the lecturer threw out a comment about the impact of negativity. Basically, a study showed that for every negative comment, SIX positive comments had to be made to offset it - imagine this in the context of required reading.

Of course, as a parent - or another person influencing a child - you only have influence over yourself. I volunteer with kids on weekends and also spend time with the teen volunteers. I'm very careful about what I say about their required reading. As much as I didn't like Great Expectations, I just try to stick to things like, "how about that crazy Mrs. Haversham?"

So, why required reading? I think that there's something to be said for the shared experience of reading that you can talk about for a lifetime. Even though I went to school high school in Kansas, when I went to college in Ohio, I met people with shared reading experiences outside of whatever the popular book of the day was. Even when I held various jobs, there was still the cannon that could be mentioned - those books that would be brought up in terms of metaphor or as analogy.

If we no longer have these shared reading experiences, we lose this bit of dialogue. We start partitioning ourselves into genres early on and we're stuck with the never-ending sports metaphors and analogies because everyone will assume you went to games in high school. Bleh.

Frankly, I'll always prefer the co-worker that will joke about a department or section going "Lord of the Flies" over "failing to play from the playbook" any day. Extra points to everyone that laughs at Lord of the Flies.

7mikema
jul. 27, 2009, 11:36pm

for me i honestly never enjoyed classic books and to this day hate shakespear but honestly i love reading and that started at school and being assighned to read and i havent stoped sin ce

8zhukora
jul. 27, 2009, 3:10am

stephmo #6

I agree. I think a lot of the reason why people hate reading books in school has less to do with the books themselves and the fact that they are assigned and more to do with a prevailing attitude in the students' wider environment that reading, especially school-related reading, is a chore. I went to school in an unusually educational-reading-positive environment where a disproportionately high number of the students were the offspring of academics. There were a handful of reading assignments throughout my early and high school education that were more or less universally acknowledged to be boring, unpleasant, or hard to get through, but for the most part students were pleased enough with their reading assignments that they would go out and buy their own copies of the books later, or on the rare occasions that textbooks were being replaced, they'd snatch up the old ones from the trash heap so they could keep the readings they liked.

For those not lucky enough to come from such a background, however, one of my high school Literature teachers had a clever solution--rather than offering only one book to read, she had a set list of readings that everyone would do, alternating with a collection of perhaps 8 or 10 books with similar themes but different topics and tones for the students to pick from as best suited their interests. This gave the illusion of much more independence while ensuring that everyone would still end up writing the same term paper prompt and pulling the same material out of the experience in the end.

Unfortunately I think that reading as a whole still has a bad enough rap among the general populace that it wouldn't be too wise to do away with assigned reading altogether and hope that students would develop interest in it on their own. Those who were already inclined to read would do so, and those who had never learned to appreciate it would continue through life with the same opinion. There will always be people go kicking and screaming through their education, but most will, in the end, have to grudgingly admit that it did them some good. Getting rid of assigned books in school just does not seem like the right solution to me.

9Tigercrane
jul. 28, 2009, 4:14am

#8 -- I agree. Does anyone think if they don't enjoy factoring polynomials, they shouldn't have to learn algebra -- or worse yet, are entitled to a good grade even if they haven't learned how to do it? And yet, students feel free to hate on literature just because someone else told them to read an assignment as part of a disciplined learning experience. I don't understand that.

10MerryMary
jul. 28, 2009, 4:19am

To take the attitude to it's logical conclusion, we should not have to show up for work if we don't feel like it, and we should never have to do what the boss or the customer wants if it is contrary to our own desires at the time.

11jenreidreads
jul. 28, 2009, 4:44am

What about the nerdy kids (like me) who honestly liked all the books that were required in school? (Well, okay, I didn't love Moby Dick.) When I got to college and discovered that there were different books that had been assigned to different people that I never got the chance to read, I went out and read them on my own for fun. That includes The Lord of the Flies, which I liked. Banned or not, I read anything I could get my hands on. I object to schools having to cater to the lowest common denominator.

12thorold
jul. 28, 2009, 6:13am

>I object to schools having to cater to the lowest common denominator.

...except in maths lessons?

13burningbooks
jul. 28, 2009, 7:08am

I just think the enjoyment of reading is a huge sacrifice to make in order to get people to read "great literature". Is teaching kids about the lessons learned from Dickens or Twain really worth the side effect of teaching them to hate reading anything else for the rest of their lives?

I mean, in today's society, there are so many distractions like video games and TV and the internet, that if you didn't require reading, there's a pretty good chance the majority of the younger generation wouldn't read a damn thing their whole lives. But there has to be some kind of middle ground, because it pains me to see my younger sister and brother - and all their friends - hating reading with a passion.

Sister: "My favorite book is 'Twilight'"

Me: "Oh, so you actually HAVE read a book!"

Sister: "No, but I saw the movie and it was really good."

Woe is us! :(

14thorold
jul. 28, 2009, 8:03am

Question: is there any evidence that being made to read Great Expectations or Lord of the flies actually discourages young people from reading other things? If not, then it isn't doing any more harm than the other unpleasant things one is made to do at school (play team sports, eat school dinners, colour in maps of Brazil, etc.), and it could potentially be beneficial to some of the kids in later life, so why worry about it?

15Irieisa
jul. 28, 2009, 1:16pm

>13 burningbooks: - Also woe that she liked the movie!

>14 thorold: - Well, being encouraged (not even forced!) to draw when I was younger has turned me off drawing entirely; I was told I was good, but at some point I realised how bad the quality was, and entered a state of embarrassment and reluctance. Have hardly drawn at all since. Not sure what, if anything, is to be learned from this.

That whole mess aside, being told to be nice has made me pretty antisocial (or more so than I would have been otherwise), being forced to play sports never really worked (I didn't care what they thought about me simply bumping the ball when I was meant to whack it), and being forced to read made me critical (i.e. I still appreciate the good ones, but I'm harsher on the whole).

16thorold
jul. 28, 2009, 2:54pm

>15 Irieisa:

Didn't Gussie Fink-Nottle say "'Faith and begob, education is a drawing out, not a putting in"?

17Irieisa
jul. 28, 2009, 3:03pm

>16 thorold: - Haven't started with Wodehouse yet...

Also don't know what "begob" means, and so can't determine what role faith is playing, but I don't think education is a drawing out. School may be, just not education in and of itself.

18reading_fox
jul. 28, 2009, 3:16pm

I don't think english lesson are actually trying to teach enjoyment of reading for readings sake though. If you are writing on essay comparing and contrasting the characters of Jane and Emma you are reading the books with a very different approach than when you are 'just' reading them.

While I read lord of the flies for my own enjoyment, I was 'forced' to read Mayor of casterbridge I prefer Mayor over Flies for many reasons. None of which are related to school.

People just dislike some books. And while I'm sure a negative experience in school doesn't help, I don't think it is totally responsible for all of the hate - for specific books or even for reading in general.

But it's a difficult area to study, there are lots of confounding variables, so mostly we're just left with opinions.

19lorax
jul. 28, 2009, 6:19pm

#9>

I agree. Does anyone think if they don't enjoy factoring polynomials, they shouldn't have to learn algebra -- or worse yet, are entitled to a good grade even if they haven't learned how to do it?

Absolutely they do! I used to TA introductory college astronomy, and the students would complain all the time about the math -- and this wasn't even at the level of factoring polynomials, this was things like plugging numbers into a simple equation, or solving for R in a 1/R^2 equation. They complained that it wasn't a "calculus class", so they shouldn't have to do any math at all!

Additionally, it's far more socially acceptable to say "Oh, I just can't handle math" than to say "Oh, I just can't read". People will talk about not reading, or lacking the time to do so, but saying they aren't any good at it is seen as being uneducated to a far greater extent than being bad at math is.

20Tigercrane
jul. 28, 2009, 8:23pm

That's kind of what I'm getting at. People think if they can read then they understand literature, and anything anyone wants to teach them about it is a waste of time and is somehow "elitist." The hard sciences don't suffer as much from this attitude as the humanities, in my opinion.

I assume most of the students in your class are there to satisfy a requirement, and not to become astronomers. They want the easy credit (whether they should get it or not is a separate issue), then they'll drop the subject entirely and go on to do something else, and if they really aren't good at math, that's the right outcome. No one gets concerned if people never do any math again beyond the basics.

21Jesse_wiedinmyer
jul. 28, 2009, 8:46pm

I'll concur with BurningBooks again.

22Jesse_wiedinmyer
jul. 28, 2009, 8:47pm

Though I probably have to take issue with this part -

I mean, in today's society, there are so many distractions like video games and TV and the internet, that if you didn't require reading, there's a pretty good chance the majority of the younger generation wouldn't read a damn thing their whole lives.

As it is, doesn't the "average" American read something along the lines of 4 books a year?

23Kira
jul. 29, 2009, 10:36pm

I don't mind requiring people to read, but I think requiring people to read specific books in specific rigid ways really takes away from the enjoyment and leads to people disliking reading as a whole. Actually, it's rather similar to the point made about teaching math in A Mathematician's Lament. Teach things in boring rote ways and people might learn, but they will correspondingly learn to hate the subject.

I read Lord of the Flies before being forced to read it and liked it. But even I grew to dislike it during the year I was forced to re-read it for class. Being tested chapter by chapter meant we couldn't read ahead or we might be penalized for not remembering what fit within one specific chapter. Being tested on abstracts we hadn't been taught such as "What does Piggy represent?" and being told the only correct answer was Knowledge/Wisdom really makes you think about books in a dull rigid sort of way. As though if you hadn't made a link between the flies and the devil, you clearly were stupid and couldn't possibly get the book. Overall, a very negative experience, and if people's only experiences were this chapter by chapter testing of minutae such as who said what to who, I don't blame them for disliking it.

I liked it much more in elementary school when we were given broad categories of books and told to pick one and do our report on it. For example, one month we were told to read an animal book -- that way the gist of the questions and topics we answered could be similar, but we could read Watership Down, Silverwing, Redwall, or whatever other book struck our fancy about animals. I recommend this style when possible, at least if it were interspersed with the classics forced upon the entire class, then people could see those weren't the only books that existed, and they could feel more free to read what they actually would enjoy. After all, no one book is everyone's cup of tea.

24Deesirings
jul. 29, 2009, 2:41am

Didn't anyone have experiences where they didn't expect to enjoy a required assigned text and were pleasantly surprised? That happened for me with The Chrysalids. I can't imagine I would ever have gotten around to reading that had it not been assigned.

I was visiting a museum as an adult once, during a day when lots of school kids were on a field trip and a lot of them had questionnaires to fill out about the exhibits. And the "good" students were just working to complete the questionnaire. Other kids, of course, were goofing off -- what the questionnaire is supposed to avoid having happened. But for me, that day, I was just able to relax and enjoy the day. Spend time looking at the exhibits in any way I wanted, not having to worry about completing a questionnaire. Part of the problem is I was pretty high strung about that kind of thing as a kid -- I thought if I didn't actually complete the questionnaires, there would be dire consequences. (There might have been, too. A teacher could have told my mother that I hadn't worked up to potential, my mother could have told me she was disappointed in me and I could have died inside.) My point, I suppose, is to agree that imposing structures on learning can be detrimental to learning. But it can also lead to pleasant surprises -- an unexpectedly good book, noticing a neat detail in an exhibit you wouldn't have otherwise...

25MerryMary
jul. 29, 2009, 3:08am

But the students were there for a purpose. Shouldn't there be consequences for "goofing off" and not doing what is asked? In adult life, won't these kids find out there are consequences for not doing required work?

Perhaps the teacher could have come up with some other way to measure the students' understanding of the exhibits. But, let's face it, life is full of uninteresting things that have to be done whether we want to or not. Learning is lots easier when it's fun and/or interesting, but we can't always have things made easy for us.

26Kira
jul. 30, 2009, 4:35am

I would agree that "life is full of uninteresting things that have to be done whether we want to or not". I think of laundry that way. But I sincerely hope people aren't taught that reading is as interesting as doing laundry. My pleasures with reading don't come from thinking of it as learning made difficult :)

I totally agree with Deesirings. I used to be completely focussed on getting those sorts of assignments done too, and would get good marks but not enjoy what I was doing. I specifically recall a trip to a local cemetery where I had to dash around finding specific famous people's graves, and sketch them, rather than being able to wander around studying whichever ones I encountered as I would have liked. I can now say I've seen the graves of Banting and Best and all... but was it worth it? (Although my biggest grievance was that after all that the kids who goofed off didn't get penalized ;p)

Sure there should be consequences for not doing required work. The question is what work should be required.

Thinking more about it, I think I object less to required readings, and more to the banal work that goes along with them. Read the book, have a discussion, sure... but making it a chore about defining 20 words per chapter hardly made me love Frankenstein. The exposure to books is good, the making it seem like an uninteresting labour is bad.

27MerryMary
jul. 30, 2009, 1:54pm

Oh, I agree. Trying to pass on the passion and love for the subject was my biggest challenge. And I really can't identify with people who find reading tedious. I just object to those who think everything should be a game. Who think if it isn't fun and absorbing it shouldn't be done. The followup work can be banal, especially to the brighter students, but sometimes things have to be done.

And have a little pity for the teachers who have to answer to the state with some kind of accountability - some way of demonstrating that the concepts were understood. The trip to the cemetery sounds like lots more fun than a classroom lecture. (But there should have been built in time for you to wander.) (Maybe she thought if you got interested, you'd go back on your own.) This teacher sounds more inventive than most!

28thorold
jul. 30, 2009, 2:42pm

>27 MerryMary:
It does seem to be far too easy to forget that the added value we got when reading a book in the context of school was the input from the teacher. We should give them some credit for the work they did!

I still remember with great pleasure a "general studies" course I took in one of my last years at high school, where the teacher blasted us through the entire history of the English novel in a very short space of time (8 weeks, I think). We only had time to read and discuss a couple of chapters from each book during the course, but the teacher made it so interesting that most of us were motivated to return to the texts and read them in full later on.

29stephmo
Editat: jul. 30, 2009, 7:21pm

It seems that everyone here is assuming that the sole goal of a reading/literature course is to teach a love of reading.

No one assumes this about math, science or history.

There's a reason to learn about novel structure - about character, about plot, about setting, about metaphor, about allegory, about scene, about narrative and a whole host of things that enhance the reading experience.

Sure, you can read and enjoy a book without knowing any of it - but knowing these things is like knowing more about wine. It's one thing to say, "I just drink what I like," to being able to crack open the code just a bit and get into that wide world that just POPS - that one that suddenly gives you a whole new vocabulary and new way of expressing things that actually gives you more of an ability to find things you never saw/smelled/tasted before.

Books are the same way. While finding 20 vocabulary words per chapter may not have added to the enjoyment of Frankenstein, what it was supposed to do was break people of the terrible habit of thinking, "I'll just get the gist of the word from the other words around it." Language is important - and the choice of it becomes important. When an author can use home, abode, dwelling, domicile or hermitage - do you think this is by chance? If one character calls it one thing and another character calls it another, is there a reason? Does everyone come equipped with an automatic recognition of the word hermitage?

Similarly, does everyone just accept allegory as told to them by an instructor? Or is it something that is better discussed in a group? At some point, there is value in having the deliberate allegory vs. you are a product of your environment allegory discussion. But if you just get told, "oh Alice in Wonderland is an allegory of British Imperialism" and there's no discussion - is that the end of it?

To me, saying that reading should just become this catch-all of "read what you want" means that books will just become this near entertainment thing. It's no longer about language skills and critical thinking skills.

When it becomes "do whatever you want" instead of theory - then you become what a lot of art and music programs became (a lot of those lost music appreciation and art history elements along the way). And then a lot of parents feel really good about demanding that their children not be "forced" to do something that doesn't matter or that could simply be done at home.

30zhukora
jul. 30, 2009, 6:48pm

@ #29

Completely, completely agree.

31Kira
Editat: jul. 30, 2009, 12:44am

I agree some structure is necessary at times, but I happen to completely disagree with your point that "what it was supposed to do was break people of the terrible habit of thinking, "I'll just get the gist of the word from the other words around it."

I think that is the best way of learning new words. Context gives you far more knowledge of a word than a sterile dictionary definition. As a child you certainly don't learn words from a dictionary, you learn them organically from context of it being said around you. Encourage a love of reading, and through context you will encounter many new words and learn them much more efficiently than painstakingly looking each one up when you come to it for the first time, because you will end up seeing them in a variety of places that enhance the nuance of the word. This is why so many people have trouble defining even words they use a lot, definitions can't grasp the full flavour of a word.

32stephmo
jul. 30, 2009, 2:35am

>31 Kira: And if you can't figure it out from context? Because this happens a lot more often than one thinks. He was

Take this from Pride & Prejudice:

Pray, my dear aunt, what is the difference in matrimonial affairs, between the mercenary and the prudent move? What does discretion end, and avarice begin? Last Christmas you were afraid of his marrying me, because it would be imprudent; and now, because he is trying to get a girl with only ten thousand pounds, you want to find out that he is a mercenary.

Now ask someone to define avarice only from this context.

If you attempt to go the "opposite of discretion," you'll likely be hurt because you're not from the regency period. It's not the "be discreet" we're used to today. It's really the part of "discretion is the better part of valor" idiom that most kids likely don't get.

With words like mercenary and imprudent in there and avarice sounding a lot like adversary, one will get the gist of "bad" - and they'll likely get that from the conversation. But what is the bad? If they go to that sterile dictionary definition, they find this:

excessive or insatiable desire for wealth or gain

You can read your paragraph and never get that organically. (The root means "crave" - it's a very deliberate word.) But if you've looked it up and/or discussed this in a class, you'll find that this discussion between Elizabeth and her aunt is far more than the good/bad "organic gist" first presented.

Elizabeth at first is saying, "look, I can appreciate that you want me to look cautious to him, but there's a fine line between merely looking cautious and making the guy feel like he's a gold-digging man-whore." This is what that cold dictionary definition reveals in regency language.

It also makes the last sentence more combative and less super-sleuth - it points out that Elizabeth realizes her aunt is finding fault in the marriage no matter what the situation.

Of course - there's a whole discussion to tie back to the first sentence in the novel as well (fortunes and wants of wives and all).

I appreciate wanting to do things organically, but there's a real advantage to looking up words. Otherwise, you're just kind of floating along guessing as to what the words might sort of mean.

33Kira
jul. 30, 2009, 3:24am

I don't see how mercenary will throw you off from the wealthy bit. It seems that each sentence has a clue that it has to do with desire for money, 'mercenary' in the first sentence, then, 'ten thousand pounds' in the end. Talking about marrying for money and describing it as avarice seems to make it clear to me. I also don't see how avarice sounding like adversary is relevant. Do people really assume things having av near the beginning are the same? The words don't really have much in common, and I didn't mean you should learn by context by just assuming similar looking words are the same. Obviously going to the root of 'crave' is ideal but then you may as well just have people look things up in Latin dictionaries and skip the English one altogether so that you can have more information.

For a counterexample, lets look at the dictionary difference of home/abode, your first minor example.

"Home: a house, apartment, or other shelter that is the usual residence of a person, family, or household ..."
"Abode: a place in which a person resides; residence; dwelling; habitation; home"

I don't see this being at all clear as to the difference in the two. In fact, they end up describing one as the other.

I guess my other main problem though is that if you wanted to learn words from a dictionary, they can just make you memorize lists of words. I used books called Wordly Wise every year in elementary school to learn word spellings and meanings. It had its purpose and was relatively fun for being a book about vocabulary. I just don't think novels are the place to make the focus on vocab. If you want to focus on dictionaries, have us read the dictionary. Then at least you aren't disguising your lesson and making everyone think that if you read a classic you must focus on every minute detail rather than appreciate it as a work of art. It would be like looking at a Seurat painting dot by dot. Who cares what exact colour each dot is if you can see the main picture? Sure, in an advanced art class this would be relevant, but at first glance it should be about the overall picture. It ruins a book to pick it apart the first time you read it, and you never want to reread it for the overarching cool plot you missed the first time.

Say you had to go look up avarice in that sentence to make sure you had the 100% right idea. Then you'd have to come back and read the paragraph all over and maybe go back and then look up discretion. Then you'd look it up, find your spot, start the page all over, and try again. At this rate, you will have forgotten why you cared who Elizabeth was marrying in the first place. If the book hinges on the word, sure look it up. But you shouldn't forcibly have to look up many definitions constantly to detract from the flow of the book. And if it's important to the book, it will likely come up again, and again, and the more times it is contextualized the better grasp you can get.

I'm not saying throw out all the dictionaries, I'm saying don't throw them at every student's head. Surely people can competently decide when to look up a word without having it formalized as a chore for those people who would rather not? If they are required to understand and discuss the book then they probably won't want to be made a fool if they don't understand a word that might come up in discussion.

On a somewhat tangential note, I read a thread on LT about whether one should read A Clockwork Orange with or without a reference list of what the words mean. Many people thought you should let it become clear by context, with someone saying "The whole point of A Clockwork Orange is that it "brainwashes" the reader into understanding Nadsat. No glossary or dictionary is necessary." I think most unknown words in books should fall into this category.

34stephmo
jul. 31, 2009, 5:21am

It ruins a book to pick it apart the first time you read it, and you never want to reread it for the overarching cool plot you missed the first time.

For me, not at all. This is actually the point of doing this in high school with great instructors and in a group - for some people, it becomes a passion. It becomes a treasure hunt in the right hands. You savor everything and look for the clues.

But it's like this with all learning. It is important to learn how things function and breathe. You do this when you take math, chemistry, history, biology, economics, civics, physical education or French. No one implies that learning the periodic table should be optional in chemistry. No one says that learning the capitals of Europe is a waste of time for history. No one says that you have killed the fun of the human body by learning to type blood. And so on...

This is the point of the thread - that was to explain the purpose of that particular lesson. Saying, "I'm saying don't throw them at every student's head," would be like me saying, "Geography is pointless and maps are always available on the internet, so no child should ever be forced to memorize world capitals." It's a valuable exercise and one will find precision in language through it.

For you, the precision of the language isn't all that important. For me, I started forgetting most of my periodic table when the finals were done and finished. It still works for both of us. I at least recognize that I got something out of the exercise of the periodic table and the experiments.

35Kira
jul. 31, 2009, 5:45am

Meh, I wasn't trying to say precision was unimportant, just that you can learn more precision by reading words repeatedly in a book than by looking it up in a dictionary. Urbandictionary.com exists because language evolves faster than dictionaries. In spelling bees a key question is "can you use it in a sentence for me" because it really helps understand the word better. I'm not disagreeing with you about the importance of understanding, only about how that understanding can best be reached.

And nobody pretends in chemistry you are doing a cool experiment while you rattle off the first 20 elements for your first quiz. The rote learning is not being passed off as something everyone should love. Whereas people tell you: Ooh look at this book you will love! and hand you a reading assignment and a copy of Romeo and Juliet to pick apart. Then people think all of reading books is like doing the assignment, and never pick up a book again. Schools hide the fact that what they mean when they say "Read and Enjoy!" is "You will be memorizing a list of words, and learning to spit out verbatim quotes of those word definitions!"

Chem is more upfront, like: You have to do this dull stuff first, we all know its dull, but if you don't want to burn yourself in an explosion we expect you to learn Hazmat symbols first. Then everyone knows they will get to the 'something better' of doing real experiments on your own. English class never takes you to that 'something better' point of branching out on your own experimenting with books. The vast majority seem to come out of English class thinking there is no 'something better' and people who love to read must be crazy if they enjoy reading as presented in the standard English class.

It reminds me of a pre-calc type class I took in Grade 12. Our teacher was so sad to teach us all the ridiculous formulae and not get to see us put it all together next semester in the actual Calculus class because she wouldn't be teaching it. She said it would all be worth it when we got to the 'Aha!' moment later. English class never takes you to that lightbulb moment with required readings, even at the most advanced English classes my high school had to offer.

36MerryMary
jul. 31, 2009, 6:24am

Never? Kind of a sweeping statement. I'm willing to bet there are "ahas" in English class too.

37MerryMary
Editat: jul. 31, 2009, 6:25am

Aha! Twitching fingers result in multiple posts. Revelation!

38thorold
jul. 31, 2009, 6:30am

I think it's a bit misleading to talk about "lightbulb moments" in education: my experience - in English as in science lessons - was that the light was always going on and off. You would feel really clever and think you understood a particular problem one moment, then a teacher would come along and say something like "...but that's an oversimplification: next year, when you do Quantum/Freud/Marx/Calculus/Saussure/the subjunctive, you'll see that it's much more complicated than that."


Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night:
God said, 'Let Newton Be!' and all was light.
It did not last; the Devil howling 'Ho!
Let Einstein Be!' restored the status quo.

39stephmo
jul. 31, 2009, 1:31pm

You will be memorizing a list of words, and learning to spit out verbatim quotes of those word definitions

But that's not the lesson - you had those lessons in grade school. Just like you learned how to do basic reading comprehension - remember, the lessons where you'd read 5 paragraphs and spit back the number of things, the location and maybe how Sally felt because the sentence said, "Sally felt sad." You also had some basic grammar lessons along the way.

So it's no longer just vocab or just grammar or just comprehension - it's now the synthesis of all of these things. This is includes analyzing language, setting, sentence structure and discussing how writing is a deliberate action.

Watching how dialogue is formed for a certain character will speak volumes - if a character calls someone vacuous instead of stupid and you've been told along the way that they dropped out of school in the 4th grade, what does this tell you?

This is the class. I agree it needs to be a positive lesson - just as a teacher who presents a course in algebra should remain positive - but at no point should a course be dumbed down for fear that someone may not love something in the future.

Would someone advocating not teaching a section on factorials because it made them "hate" math be taken seriously?

40_Zoe_
jul. 31, 2009, 4:17pm

So it's no longer just vocab or just grammar or just comprehension - it's now the synthesis of all of these things.

Weren't you just arguing that the best way to learn vocabulary is looking in the dictionary rather than reading books and paying attention to the context in which words are used? Where's the synthesis here? The "look up 20 words from this chapter" approach is essentially the same as the elementary school approach; looking up a word in a dictionary does not equal "analyzing language".

but at no point should a course be dumbed down for fear that someone may not love something in the future

The claim wasn't that a course should be dumbed down for fear that someone may not love the material in the future. The claim was that a course should not be dumbed down. Forcing all students to look up words like "avarice" in the dictionary is essentially a dumbing-down of the course, on the premise that the students are both ignorant and stupid. You yourself seem to be promoting the view that students are ignorant and stupid, with the claim that they need to look up "avarice" because otherwise they would think it's the same as "adversary", both being words that start with an "a" and have a "v" somewhere near the beginning.

Would someone advocating not teaching a section on factorials because it made them "hate" math be taken seriously?

Absolutely. If I said, "Hey, I already understand factorials and can demonstrate my knowledge to you; can you give me some more advanced work to do rather than making me fill out tedious factorial worksheets ad nauseam?", the best teachers would be the ones who said, "Great! An eager student! I'd be happy to come up with something more interesting for you so that you end up loving this subject rather than hating it". The bad teachers would be the ones who said, "Sorry, this is the lesson plan and we're sticking to it. Everyone must do exactly the same work, no matter how boring and repetitive it is."

41stephmo
Editat: jul. 31, 2009, 7:20pm

Where's the synthesis here?

Because you're now using all the skills. I guess I should have said, "and just like you wouldn't forgo the basic skill of addition in advanced math or utilizing your introductory geography lessons in AP World History, you wouldn't simply ignore the dictionary when it comes to language discussion."

I'm not contradicting myself - how else would you intelligently discuss the utilization of language? Or are you assuming that one would really just wing it during such a discussion? Would you really go in to discuss why certain bits of language were used over others without being sure of what the word really meant?

And you can ignore the fact that a student was asked to look up words they wouldn't have seen from Frankenstein. Wow - what a boring and repetitive lesson. To actually appreciate the language instead of just assume that they know what the word means from context. Or is it your contention that if they can't figure it out, they're simply ignorant and stupid?

And, honestly, for all the tutoring I did of high school students in college, avarice was never one of those "natural" words. The kids I tutored were not ignorant and stupid. I had one girl who remembered it was "one of the deadly sins" once. Most kids knew avarice was inherently bad, but that was about it. Shocking, but true - avarice just doesn't come up in everyday conversation.

The lesson on Frankenstein wasn't a worksheet. It was designed to point out that assumptive reading can be lazy reading. This attitude in telling people that a "bad teacher" would have you look up something you don't understand is sheer craziness.

But, hey, it's only love of reading that we should be teaching - and since that's sacrosanct, we can't be bothered with something as horrific as admitting you don't know what a word means.

42_Zoe_
jul. 31, 2009, 7:55pm

Apparently your high school English classes were very different from mine. In my experience, the assignments to look up 20 words were not connected to any other discussion; they were an entirely separate thing and once you had looked up your 20 words, it was time to move on to something else.

This attitude in telling people that a "bad teacher" would have you look up something you don't understand is sheer craziness.

It's also sheer craziness to imagine that you'll get somewhere in a discussion by misrepresenting people's statements so that you can proclaim them to be "sheer craziness", rather than actually addressing the points raised.

Nowhere did I say that a "bad teacher" is one who tells people to look up things they don't understand. I said that a "bad teacher" is one who assumes that all students are exactly the same, and forces them to work accordingly. "Look up words you don't understand as you read the book" is a perfectly reasonable instruction; "Look up and record the definitions of exactly 20 words per chapter" is excessively rigid and often pointless, wasting time that could be better spent doing something that actually requires thought.

I think it should go without saying that the students who go for tutoring are perhaps not at the very top of the class. There are plenty of high school students who are familiar with the word "avarice", and asking them to look it up in a dictionary and write down the definition to prove that they've done it is a waste of their time. At the same time, there are students who would benefit from looking up far more than 20 words per chapter. One size does not fit all.

I have nothing against admitting that I don't know what a word means. I do, however, object to pretending that I don't know a word when I actually do--which is what the "look up 20 words that you don't know" assignments often amounted to.

43_Zoe_
jul. 31, 2009, 8:00pm

I should add that I've studied several modern and dead languages, where the modern languages generally took the approach of "use a dictionary only if the word seems essential to your understanding and you can't figure it out from context", while the dead language generally took the approach of "look up every single word and prepare a perfect translation of this passage". Any guesses about which method resulted in a better overall understanding of the language?

44stephmo
Editat: jul. 31, 2009, 10:25pm

It's also sheer craziness to imagine that you'll get somewhere in a discussion by misrepresenting people's statements so that you can proclaim them to be "sheer craziness", rather than actually addressing the points raised. So you're the only one allowed to do this by assuming that looking up things in the dictionary is essentially the same as the elementary school approach after I go through an entire discussion on the precision of language? Gotcha.

And then you want to add your non-sequitor argument? Because your examples for foreign language study =/= analysis of language usage in literature. Or do you feel that economics is the same as physics since both involve equations?

I went to a public school. Nothing special outside of having parents that didn't let me use " but this is stupid" as an excuse not to do assignments. In fact, if I said something was dumb or stupid, their response was typically, "how lucky for you, that means it will be easy for you to do!" My parents had a pretty low tolerance for b.s. They were also pretty on top of all of the work that was assigned, so they also knew when I was just trying to get out of work I didn't feel like doing.

And, yes, we had discussion on the use of language - why authors chose to use certain words. It went back a long way. I can remember discussing Lenny's speech patterns in the eighth grade. Steinbeck is subtle, but it's there. George is uneducated, but his speech is just a bit better than Lenny's if you start to break it down their discussions - which we did. And that book remains one of my favorites to this day.

Another lookup from Of Mice & Men - which we did in the encyclopedia! back in the day - was Luger. Carlson's Luger played a big part, but it's never overtly stated why he has a Luger or a gun. We were asked why he was so mean compared to the rest of the ranch hands. And this is memorable to me - our teacher asked us why Steinbeck kept talking about the Luger. Duh, because it was a gun, we said. Instructor presses - but why a Luger? We look it up - they're German pistols and they were issued to German Officers during WWI and WWII. Of Mice & Men was published in the mid-30s.

At this point a HUGE clue falls into place about Carlson. This gun was probably a war trophy for him - perhaps taken from a German officer. But here he is a veteran of the war to end all wars and is now a bitter ranch hand. The usage of "Luger" suddenly gives this character a whole different dimension. Steinbeck could have easily given him a "Smith & Wesson" or just a "pistol." But he went with "Luger." This is where these lessons and discussions started.

But, hey, that was just some crap we looked up. And I probably didn't learn anything that everyone else here was born knowing.

45_Zoe_
jul. 31, 2009, 1:53am

I'm not sure how describing your English class in detail refutes my claim that mine was different.

I think foreign language study is very relevant when you're claiming that native English speakers have no grasp of the meaning of words or how to determine the meaning naturally. Vocabulary acquisition=vocabulary acquisition, by a basic principle of logic.

Also, since the conversation is about precision of language, you might be interested in noting that the spelling is sequitur.

46Kira
ag. 1, 2009, 4:31am

Well, for me I think it all comes down to a difference of classes. I wasn't talking about the synthesis that you appear to have been stephmo. In my experience, we did isolated segments that we were isolatedly marked on, and never synthesized anything. So the work truly never became meaningful because we weren't looking up historical things such as a 'Luger' rather than a generic 'pistol'. We were looking up words that were just adjectives a 3rd person narrator was using, for example. They were good to know, but not pivotal and certainly not topics of discussion.

"but at no point should a course be dumbed down..." I agree. To me the dictionary definitions were dumbing down.

I think we are just talking mostly at cross-purposes. We both agree synthesis is good. We both agree expanding vocabulary is good. I just never experienced the expanding of vocabulary actually being synthesized into a lesson. It was always isolated and trivial.

The format we were usually taught a required reading in went as such: Read x number of chapters every z days/weeks. After week 1, have discussion about intro, or read part of the book aloud perhaps; week 2, have 'easier' assignments due such as 'Make a personal dictionary of 50 words you didn't understand in this book'; week 3, write essay rough draft of an essay about the main theme of the novel, week 4, edit essay and hand it in, week 5, do presentation/skit where you a) (if shakespeare) recite/enact a passage or b) (if novel) present on a tangentially related topic such as eugenics to Frankenstein, or survival tactics to Lord of the Flies. There was no synthesis of any of this. You would do your section, get your mark, then move along to a seemingly unrelated section. In some ways I think they were purposefully completely distinct so that if you hadn't understood the theme in the essay section, you wouldn't fail every other section too. The book would stand as the basis for extracting markable assignments, but there would be no cohesion to the actual lessons.

So overall I don't think we disagree (except about how to learn words :)) we just had different types of lessons so we are speaking from different positions.

47Amtep
ag. 1, 2009, 8:41am

I find this thread interesting because it makes the opposite point of this article: If We Taught English the Way We Teach Mathematics....
The intro:
Imagine that your only contact with "English" as a subject was through classes in school. Suppose that those classes, from elementary school right through to high school, amounted to nothing more than reading dictionaries, getting drilled in spelling and formal grammatical construction, and memorizing vast vocabulary lists -- you never read a novel, nor a poem; never had contact with anything beyond the pedantic complexity of English spelling and formal grammar, and precise definitions for an endless array of words. You would probably hate the subject.


However, I find myself agreeing with both. The reading assignments I had in school did turn reading into a chore, even though I was an avid reader otherwise. Fortunately I was able to confine the effect to one language. The Dutch teacher was strict about what books were to be read, while the English teacher allowed us to read what we liked and then tell him about it. It's now 20 years later, and I realize that I've read only four books by Dutch authors since then.

(background: I'm bilingual, and I went to high school in the Netherlands. I gained my fluency in English while attending junior high in Texas.)