Mea Culpa

Last Sunday’s Washington Post ran an article I’m surprised more bloggers haven’t jumped on yet.   In her piece, “We’re Teaching Books That Don’t Stack Up”, English teacher Nancy Schnog laments the disconnect between her students and the classics of Western literature she is required to teach.  She cites a recent NEA survey that indicates that the percentage of 17-year-olds “who read nothing at all for pleasure has doubled” since 1988, and offers some anecdotal evidence about how that disregard for reading has translated into a complete disinterest in the “decidedly internal rewards of classical literature”.

Although she does ring the “digital natives” alarm as one contributing factor (meh), she also admits that:

…it’s time to acknowledge that the lure of visual media isn’t the only thing pushing our kids away from the page and toward the screen. We’ve shied away from discussing a most unfortunate culprit in the saga of diminishing teen reading: the high-school English classroom. As much as I hate to admit it, all too often it’s English teachers like me — as able and well-intentioned as we may be — who close down teen interest in reading.

The apathy runs both ways, though, and this bit struck pretty close to home for me:

When students have to produce an essay on a book they care nothing for, it becomes a nightmare for both the student (think “all-nighter”) and the teacher, who’ll spend precious weekend hours reading papers devoid of content. The upshot of this empty drill: teens increasingly resistant to great books.

So what’s happening in our secondary English classrooms?  Certainly, we want students reading material that they find engaging, but most schools, I imagine, also want to push the well-roundedness that a liberal arts education professes to provide, so it can’t be all “Miley Cyrus and Brittany [sic] Spears biographies”, as one particularly hyperbolic commenter wrote at another source.

After reading Dr. Schnog’s article, these are the essential questions I took away:

  1. What can we do to encourage, rather than discourage, student interest in reading?
  2. How can we “teach the classics” without “transform[ing] them into dessicated lab specimens fit for dissection”? (the words of a parent quoted in Schnog’s article)
  3. How important is the literary analysis essay to teaching secondary English? (OK, maybe not an essential question, but one I’ve been wrestling with for a few years now, and this is just as good a time as any to bring it up)

This one’s approaching TL;DR territory already; I’ll continue in a day or two.  Just wanted to clear my mental clipboard and float this out there… I have some thoughts of my own, but I’d appreciate yours as well, particularly on any other key takeaways from the article.

In the meantime, Dr. Schnog held a WaPo-sponsored Q&A session the day after the article was published; here’s the transcript.


  • ’ve seen this discussed a few other places (notably here, and the point seems to be that, besides a lack of interest, in our quest for HIGHER STANDARDS, we’re frequently pushing kids to read stuff before they’re actually mature enough to even understand the things they’ve read. I tried reading the Lord of the Rings at some point on my own early in high school, but just couldn’t get into it. When I gave it another shot in college, it completely blew my mind. I was ready for it in a way that I hadn’t been 4 years earlier.

    Sometimes we also don’t recognize that just because something is considered one of the great books, it doesn’t mean that it’s something for everybody. I had to slog my way through Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness three times and I hated it every single time. Since I was one of the few in my classes that refused to look at Cliff’s Notes, my essays on books were generally devoid of interesting content, since I had no clue what I was actually reading many of the books for (and most of my classmates did only because of the Notes…otherwise it would have been as over their heads as anything else).

    Honestly, when children are decreasingly interested in reading books, it’s time for us to actually consider how much it’s the fault of schools for making them dislike it so much.

  • Hi Damian,
    I jumped at this topic as I prepare to teach Grade 11 English Language Arts this year. The year culminates in a provincial exam with a literary analysis essay worth 40% of their Grade 11 (final high school year in Quebec) mark.

    So the questions you ask are close to my heart.

    I haven’t yet read the article and plan on reading it later today so I can look at these questions a bit deeper.

    Good post – so pertinent!

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