English classes are pretty uniformly awful. There are many reasons for this, and I think the consequences are severe.
First, the analysis is at a level that an intelligent 5th grader is capable of. Not in middle or early high school classes, either. I honestly believe that a well read 5th grader of reasonable intelligence could manage a B in most AP English classes, and probably a 5 on the APs. In too many classrooms, deep analysis taking into account cultural elements not explained by the teacher will get blank stares not just from your peers, but all too often your teacher as well. Even the Nordic mythos, something that every English speaker should know (after all, English was heavily influenced by the Nordic peoples, and the pre Christian myths of Britain were much the same as theirs), is a reach. Apache stories, or the Anansi tales, or a Hindu story will doom you, because it is all but assured that you will have lost your reader by that point. And it isn’t even the issue of breadth of analysis that most irks me, although it does. It is also the issue of depth. I often complain about overanalyzing minutia in a story, certainly, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe that there is incredible depth that may be analyzed. The problem is that, because most people have been taught to be lazy in their thinking, they will latch onto the first pattern they see and try to make something of it, and never put in the intellectual effort to peel back the layers and find the complexity therein waiting. Many stories have layer upon layer of symbol, but it has nothing to do with extra uses of the word “the.”
Second, I take enormous issue with the dissection of the tools of language. The best way to kill a love of language is to pick its workings apart in such a way that their beauty is lost. The things teachers spend such excruciating amounts of time on (imagery, emotive language, logos, pathos, ethos, and the like) are elementary. By the time you reach high school, all of these should be second nature. They are the tools, not the substance. Just as you learn to add, subtract, multiply, and divide in elementary school so that you have the tools to begin the foundations of true mathematics by early middle school, you should have already lain these fundaments in elementary school. A child should have these tools of language at her disposal already. In high school, you should be discussing the ideas, the thoughts, the nuances. A carpenter does not need to stop and consider the use of a hammer. That high schoolers still must do the equivalent for their language reveals just how abysmal our language education is.
Third, the five paragraph essay.The five paragraph essay should be disposed of by 8th grade at the very latest. Just as a chef does not use brownie mix, no one attempting analysis of writing should be using such a restrictive and impoverished structure as the 5 paragraph essay. It should be viewed as a crutch, and something to be disposed with as soon as one has learned to write reasonably. It stunts thinking terribly. It is the rule of 3s laid completely bare, with no eloquence or elegance. 3s add power, but do not redeem writing so lacking that it cannot manage a fourth paragraph of analysis, or a 2 paragraph conclusion. And the idea of a single sentence that can adequately summarize the entire analysis of a literary work…
Fourth, the timed essay. The timed essay is one of the prime culprits in education’s encouragement of lazy and sloppy thinking. It is not a student’s fault if, when presented with a complex work to analyze in 45 minutes, she takes shortcuts in her thinking and her analysis is poor. Thoughtful analysis is not possible in such a short period of time. It takes reflection, thorough reading, and heavy revision to achieve that. Sadly, thanks to timed essays on tests and the lack of serious thought on the part of most teachers, we no longer have long, take home essays in large number. More intelligent analysis would improve writing on timed essays as well as on real essays, but in the race to teach the test, this is rarely considered.
The worst consequence of all, I think, is that English class turns students off of reading. I know that for me, English class has hurt my love of reading. It used to be that I read constantly. By 6th grade, I had read The Lord Of The Rings 6 times. I have read every Discworld book at least once, something like 15 of them twice, and a few as many as 5-10 times. I read the Aubrey-Maturin series in its entirety in Middle School. You get the idea. For the last two years of high school, I have averaged about one pleasure book every 4 months at best, and probably worse. I consume written material, yes (Cthulhu only knows how many words I read a day online), but reading a novel is different. It takes far more thought to read a well written novel than a well written blog post.
It is taken for granted that avid readers will usually peak in middle and early high school, but I think that that shows that there is something very wrong here. That is not as it should be. Reading should be lifelong. If it is dropping in high school, then there is a problem in high school. English classes are doing something terribly wrong if they are killing love of reading so very badly, and I truly think they are.
What to do about it? Well, I think that’s already been pretty well covered by what’s wrong. Start early. Expect thought from students. Challenge them. Teach them tools quickly, and then get on to the beauty of the written word, not the minute details of how it works that should already be second nature. And encourage everyone to be well read. It benefits us as a culture. People learn more, they think more, and they understand more. They are more creative when they read, because they are given more sources for inspiration. It seems that this demands a lot, but truly it does not. All of this is well within the average person’s capability. The question is not whether they can do it, but why the schools refuse to let them.