A Dirty Little Secret about English Class

My son Leonard is taking Honors English as a sophomore at Vandalia-Butler High School.   Based on his subtle hints, I have discovered that this course has him particularly frustrated (he sent me 5 separate emails on the topic last night)…

I’ve asked my sons the same question at the dinner table for the last fifteen years: “What did you learn new today?” Since Leonard’s response has been relatively consistent for the past 30 days (“The analysis of literature in my English class is crazy”), I’m convinced that we have an example of a rampant problem that happens to be a dirty little secret – namely, comparative literature is a bunch of horse manure.

I remember arguing with my High School English teacher about the story, “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka. If you recall, this is the story where the protagonist becomes a cockroach… After spending an hour in class reviewing all the symbolism and finer nuances of the story, I remarked: “Perhaps Kafka didn’t believe in symbolism at all and he was just writing a science fiction novel about the transformation of a human into an insect.” Obviously, this didn’t go over very well with my teacher, but represented my way of communicating my exasperation with the emphasis on finding symbolism from minutiae.

Ironically, my first cousin, Nancy, graduated from the University of Michigan [Ugh!] with a PhD in Comparative Literature!  Over the years, I’ve often assumed that this is probably the core reason why she lacks a relatively rational viewpoint in understanding mankind (you guessed it, she has a lefty viewpoint).

After 20 years of working in industry and performing scientific research, I’ve discovered the difference between an “a priori solution” and “post facto serendipity”. For example, I’ve been leading an engineering development project over the past 18 months that didn’t have a specifically defined answer (i.e., no up-front solution). After a year of hard work, we experimented with many alternatives that – when presented to the rookie – appear that we had a grand plan from the beginning… In many ways authors and their stories follow the same path. They start out with a vision and want to tell a story, but they are rarely that shrewd to be able to accommodate all of the nuances that English teachers lead you to believe.

After a little research, we’ve discovered that English teachers and the over-analysis of literature is a wide-spread problem (I’ll give credit to Leonard who took the time to research other people’s opinions about this subject).

For example, Ben Evans writes on a blog about the difficulties he encountered analyzing literature according to the expectations of his English teacher, “I would write what I thought about the book that I read instead of agreeing with the teachers own view of the book. The teacher would hold me after class and say that I didn’t understand what I was reading… In the ensuing years, I learned how to listen to what the teacher was saying and to write papers that agreed with what they thought.”

Meanwhile, Rebecca Levy remarks on a blog about the issue of over-analyzing literature, “I’m talking about people like Hemingway, Faulkner, Twain, Steinbeck, or even Shakespeare. Could we maybe be overanalyzing what they had to say? After all, how do we KNOW what they REALLY meant?”

Could all of this over-analysis in our English classes be one of the great inhibitors that’s turning our children away from reading literature?

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