Thanks so much for this. I am an English major mom whose oldest kid is a first-year in college. He is strongly considering a drama/English double major, and I am all for it! Critical thinking and writing? Yes! Our Title One public HS isn't fantastic in the ELA department, BUT the AP Lit teacher (which is senior year) is incredible, and reading Beloved in that class with her was definitely a high point for my son. I get that STEM is important, but we need arts and writing, too!

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Mar 15·edited Mar 15

I loved reading your thoughts Sara and now need to find a couple of hours to go through the New Yorker article because my brain is spinning just from skimming it. I get why the author mostly frames STEM vs humanities as a binary in this discussion but I find this frustrating (as a scientist and as reader who loves nothing more than engaging deeply with books) and the fact that these are mostly considered as opposing subjects rather than potentially complementary ones is maybe part of the problem.

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One of the most important moments I remember from my undergrad years was having a college professor tell the class a literary analysis papers comparing two Frost poems could be whatever--it just had to be supported by the text. That was the first time I was able to approach texts as an expansive experience, rather than playing a torturous game of whack-a-mole with a English teacher's will to teach one way of interpreting an author's work.

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Great piece. Thanks for writing it. I could feel the damage my AP English teacher imposed on me decades ago creeping back into my consciousness.

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As a teacher, librarian and parent I loved this thoughtful piece and am going to hold back my extreme frustration at Paul and all others who criticize K-12 classrooms without ever having stepped foot in one 😉 I am an avid reader and loved my HS and college English classes, but never wanted to combine my love of reading with analyzing it and writing about it beyond as a hobby. (Library work is very different!) In my place in the current public high school world, and as a middle class high school parent, the current cost of college is so prohibitive for so many of us that I definitely see that as a barrier for so many kids now when choosing a major. Thanks again for your thoughts on this!

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Such a thoughtful response Sara. I agree that a balance is really what all readers need- from children all to way up to me! Some books that we can fly through independently and some that benefit from time spent discussing with others.

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Such a thought provoking post Sara! I want to check out both of these articles - I think you're exactly right about how Pamela Paul is tackling her new opinion role- she seems to want to really stir the pot about quite a few things.

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Spot on.

I studied English fifty years ago at Glasgow University, where only canonical texts were ever considered. It simply wouldn’t have crossed anyone’s mind that modern accessible texts could, let alone should, be studied.

I had gone to university intending to study English and Drama but was prevented from continuing studying English beyond the first year, in which only post-19th century books were studied, and going on to the second year where the full Chaucer and beyond where taught (even though Chaucer was taught in schools at that time) so I can’t comment on how I would have enjoyed those texts.

Why wasn’t I able to move on to those? Because I hadn’t passed Latin O, or Ordinary, Grade, the exam the most able students take at fifteen or sixteen here in Scotland. The given reason? I wouldn’t be able to study English Language without it, this dispute my grasp of Latin, such as it I’d, had always been on my understanding of English, not the other way round! (I loathed studying Latin; its almost mathematical construction seemed to my teenage mind utterly unlike any language that anyone might actually have spoken! So I switched to German, and found it much the same, though I did at least pass the exam.)

When I was unable to go on to second-year English at university I switched to Psychology; as I said to my tutor at the time, it was a relief to be studying how real people behave, not fictional characters, because I’d become disenchanted with the then teaching approach, based on the then current emphasis on Leavis and his ideas, which regarded the examination of fictional characters’ motives and personalities as paramount.

So it was fascinating to me to read how English is taught in American universities, and I was distressed to discover how few students are choosing it in these ‘everything must be vocational’ days. English can, as you say, be excellent vocational training as it provides a grounding in analytic thought -- an highly-transferable vocational skill -- that few other subjects can offer.

But I was even more distressed to discover the current emphasis on almost pathological analysis using virtually scientific methods and formulae. This approach sounds even more dreary than the one taught here in the 1960s. At least back then we were encouraged to respond directly to characters, even if the analysis of them is if they were real people struck me as absurd, and the teaching of any other methods of analysis was never even mentioned. We were expected simply to use our own wits in how we approached, apprehended and analysed a text using little more than what little we’d been taught at school, which was itself so much less than pupils are taught today, even in the U.K.

I was therefore a little depressed to discover that not only had very little changed in teaching methods when my daughter also studied English at Glasgow fifteen years ago. Even many of the same texts were used in the first year. (We both hated having to read Dickens’ ‘Bleak House’ and loved Austen) though I envied her the chance to study Nabokov, a writer who would probably have seemed too risqué for seventeen-year-olds (as I was) to study (bright students can go to uni earlier in Scotland than in the US, I think) even in the so-called ‘Swinging Sixties’ although D.H. Lawrence was considered okay.

So it seems to me that what you are calling for in the teaching of English is correct; there is as much a need for pure enjoyment and a natural response to a text as there is for analysis so rigorous it can lead a student to feeling a text has been pronounced dead at the end. Some kind of synthesis of the two is needed if students are to begin signing up to study English at university in greater numbers, as well as wider promotion of English as a genuinely vocational subject, widely applicable to all sorts of careers. (I ended up as a college lecturer teaching Psychology and Psychodrama, based on the Drama part of my degree, while my daughter is now a successful producer of arts documentaries.)

I think you post deserves wider dissemination, and I have passed it on to my daughter. It will be interesting, to me, to discover what she makes of it, and what wider effect, if any, your post can achieve. Preferably before my two-year-old granddaughter in turn, perhaps, grows up to study English at university, here or perhaps even in America.

Thank you for your excellent and thought-provoking post.

Aileen Mitchell Stewart

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I love this analysis of both articles. I am also an english major and I pursued the degree because of my love of books with no thought to future jobs. That said, I've got most of my jobs because of my English degree, so ... it worked out. I am watching my 9 year old struggle with reading and being engaged in books...and wonder if way reading is being taught is the problem. We are also in the midst of a school district wide push to ban lots of books, so a lot of the books she was interested in have been removed from the classroom.

I look forward to seeing more of you thoughts on this issues. Thank for this newsletter...I look forward to it so much.

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Sara this is so thoughtful! I enjoyed talked with you about this the other day and I’m still pondering these articles as well but you’ve brought up some amazing points. Thank you!

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This is such a great exploration of this complex topic. My background is: English major/elem. ed., elementary teacher, homeschool mom, and now teaching a small homeschool high school literature class for the last few years. My experience of high school English somehow didn't dampen my already strong love of reading and I did go on to major in English, I think in part due to a wonderful English teacher I had twice in HS. She was definitely teaching from the canon (probably didn't have a lot of choice - it was the 80s) and she certainly taught all of the usual things about how to read and dissect literature. But she also had such an enthusiasm for language and words and stories and encouraged lots of discussion and exploration of the text as long as we had details from the book to back up our thoughts. Somehow I came through my English major in college, though, without, as you mentioned could be a problem, getting any information or guidance on how I could use an English major. I had planned to go into elementary education so it didn't matter at the time. However, I now worry that if my own kids were to pick something like English or another liberal arts type degree, they wouldn't be competitive in the job market at this point in time. I know logically that there are many, many benefits to having an English degree and many career routes, but it's hard to ignore all of the push for STEM education and degrees. That said, I still very much value the idea of imparting a love of reading and an ability to read and think about what you're reading, form opinions about what you read and defend your opinions, write your thoughts about what you read effectively, and also to come to a text from many different directions and think about it in different ways. I hope that I'm teaching my students now in this way and encouraging a love of reading through providing a variety of experiences for them, not just the traditional canon (although I'm not moving away from that completely). Your paragraph beginning "Because if there is one thing I took away from my English major..." resonated deeply with me and is pretty much how I strive to teach my literature classes. Thanks for sharing these thoughtfully crafted words with us. Looking forward to reading more on this topic from you!

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