What’s in a Name: The Trouble with ‘English’

January 14, 2008

I’ve never been a very big fan of English class (as anyone who has tracked my academic rants in high school). Which I find quite strange, because I have a complete and total appreciation for the activities of reading and writing. I love to read, especially works that get me to think in a new way (whether that work be fiction, non-fiction, or some postmodern blend of the two). And I love to write, mainly because it’s close to the only thing I can do (excluding some basic algebra) where I don’t feel like I have to think. And with a mind that’s nonstop thinking, it can be nice to get away from that for a while.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately, especially out of books suited for the AP English Language and Composition class (okay, shoot me, I’ve temporarily transported myself back to high-school land. As I keep saying, the high school is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there!). They have gotten me to thinking: maybe the problem isn’t with me, maybe the problem is with the class!

I cannot think of any other subject taught in public school that is so absolutely confused about its purpose (close behind, however, is gym class: is the point physical fitness or the humiliation of those of us that don’t know how to throw or catch a spherical object? You can choose either one, but you must choose!). Should English class teach us how to read, how to write, how to love, how to not be racist (which I still uphold was the entire point of my 10th grade English curriculum!), or how to argue a point persuasively. Should English teach us how to best fulfill our human potential; or should it teach us the best place to put a comma? Again, it can do one or the other, but not both.

In the very name, then, we have a confusion. If I enter ‘chemistry’ class, I know very well I will be learning about chemistry. If I enter ‘calculus’ class, I can rest assured that on most days I won’t be dealing with the meaning of life. If I enter ‘geography’ class, I shouldn’t have to wonder if I’ll be learning about the Kennedy assassination (wait…). And yet, in ‘English’ class, the subject matter can range from anything as mundane as period placement to the most grand questions of the existential nature of human existence. Excuse me, why would we ever mix the two?!

It seems as if English takes on the role of the bastard child of public education, filling in the gaps left behind by the other subjects. Which is all well and good if you want to pass the ‘English’ section of the PSSAs (what’s that, Billy, you can spell ‘d-a-d’ out on the scantron? Well, by golly, here’s your diploma!). But it’s a horrible state of affairs if you’re actually concerned about any of those subjects that get mashed into the melting pot of a English curriculum.

‘English’ class could easily be separated into four or five other sub-classes, all of which belong together in a high school curriculum about as much as history belongs in a science classroom (yes, it’s important to understand the historical underpinnings of any scientific principle, but not when it gets in the way of learning what that principle is saying). The taxonomy of ‘English’ might flesh itself out with individual classes on the mechanics of writing, critical thinking, humanistic studies, philosophy, the art of rhetoric, the study of fiction, and the study of the classics. All of these subfields are eminently important for a young thinker (perhaps more so than knowing that the uranium is the heaviest non-synthetic element, or that centrifugal and centripetal are not the same thing), and yet they all get muddied together in English class. As a person that finds the study of all these fields very interesting in isolation (with the exception, perhaps, of the study of fiction when that fiction happens to be written by a certain Jane Austen), I do not find the mashing together of these subfields at all attractive. And if I, a lover of all things involving thinking, reading, and writing, do not find it so, how can we expect those that abhor such things to ever develop a liking for them?

I can understand the original premise for the mixing and matching of these separate fields. When public schools first came into existence, resources were scarce, and literacy perhaps even scarcer. If you only have 45 minutes a day to teach a student all they need to know about how to go about living as a person, you had best mix and match the best of parts. Use that Bible to teach them about parallelism. Contemplate what it means to be human by reading Frankenstein. In a economy of ideas based on scarcity, this all makes perfect sense.

But not today. Most children enter schools coming from a world absolutely dripping with the written, spoken, and felt word. Advertisements bombard students every hour of every day. Television, with real honest to gosh words, vie for their attention against computer websites and even their own friends. The computer itself has become a part of the lexicon, as have cellphones, to the point that conversations based almost solely on acronyms still get across (except for a certain English teacher that did not know what ‘WTF’ meant). Text messages have made an art of shorthand conversation.

In such a language rich world, the trick is no longer to expose children to language (one might argue the trick is to expose them to less of it), but rather to teach them how to harness it, how to do something with it. Critical thinking stands as the most important skill for for any individual in todays world, and yet a graduate of public school will not have one class on that subject throughout his entire educational career. College isn’t the time to reach people with these principles. Middle school is.

I don’t know if children still learn how to use dictionaries, but if they do, god bless. What a pointless exercise, even not so long ago when I first pursued it. I remember those ‘learning exercises,’ placing words in alphabetical order, and then looking, in that jumble of other words, for the one I needed, and then finally copying down exactly what the book already said. For what end? Computers get at words so much faster, and provide such a better context for that word, than any of the ‘student’ dictionaries ever could. In a similar vein, I fear that English has become outdated. Popular culture does a far better job in creating a common lexicon for us. Science classes do far better at teaching us how to think critically about the world around us. And the day to day situation of living in the modern world forces us to use and improve our language skills. Hopefully English will grow beyond its current position as the burial ground for old, stodgy ideas by old stodgy white men (and the occasional white woman).

But first, it has to change its name.

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2 Responses to “What’s in a Name: The Trouble with ‘English’”

  1. imlooking said

    Mhmm, I totally & 110% Agree with you. I consider myself an above-average writer and yet English is my worst subject. But, when I took a specific ‘Creative Writing class’ I excelled and I believe it is because the teacher decided to focus on one thing. I’m very close to ranting, but I’ll leave it at that.

  2. dave in the west said

    Well written argument sir, but I’m going to disagree with some parts. I see your point with the anti-racist/ humanity messages that are being taught in the classroom. I think that the teacher should not overemphasize these things any more than a government teacher should emphasize which political party to vote for. However, I think providing literature that covers these areas is an effective way to cover more material than just English at once, and in an efficient manner. I believe that subjects overlap to serve as extra repetition to make it easier for students to remember the vast amount of information that they are learning, and to see how it applies to everything around them.

    Why would students always read about something that has nothing to do with anything? While they will learn how to read, it is not as efficient as if they read about something that they’ve seen before and might use again somewhere else. Also, they will get a feeling that English is detached from the real world because nothing done in English class is ever really used outside of the scope of English in this case.

    Also, I have to say that I disagree with your claim that alphabetizing is a waste of time. Students gain certain cognitive skills that are very important for developing minds. They learn how to look for a word that has a particular property and put it in order. This is later developed into skills such as browsing for an answer on the internet, or even… a dictionary!

    So I mean, if I was the head of the English department (so help me Physics) I would have my own way of doing things because I’m not sure I like the way that English was taught to me. At least at certain points anyway. I just don’t like the class discussions about beliefs. Beliefs should not be addressed in English. Talk about the fucking book, lol. Anyways, that’ll give you something to chew on.

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