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Teaching People To Hate Literature This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

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   Why can't Americans read? Today, it seems that adult society, with the exception of a small, elite group, reads next to nothing. Relatively few people read novels, and almost no one reads poetry. Why is it that love of reading isn't widespread? It is evident that people are not born with an aversion to reading. Young children love poetry and nursery rhymes, and they beg for bedtime stories. Yet something happens between elementary school and adulthood that kills our natural love of the written word. I believe that the major force working against a love of literature is, ironically, middle and high school English classes.

The first flaw in the secondary school literature programs lies in book selection. Often those who select the books are so concerned with whether the book in question is important enough, classic enough, relevant enough, fits in with the theme of the year, and is part of the so-called literary canon, that they lose sight of the fact that reading is supposed to be a pleasurable experience. Sometimes the books are selected so poorly that kids are driven away, especially if they are just starting to read serious novels. But in my opinion, the real, fundamental flaw lies not in what books are chosen, but in how they are taught.

Literature classes seem to go out of their way to force children to hate reading. All one has to do to realize this is to look at the way books are taught. One is not able to simply read a book and absorb it. Instead, students dissect books and analyze them, effectively ripping the novel to shreds. I still remember my seventh grade English teacher insisting that we had to "read with our pencils," methodically underlining important or symbolic passages. Reading with a pencil turned literature into drudgery.

Surely authors do not write books so readers can dissect every sentence and analyze every comma. Teaching English this way is like a couple constantly discussing the meaning of their relationship. The communication gets lost in the words. A book is a whole, and should be read as such. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Does this mean that the study of the structure of literature has no place in education? Of course not. For some who will specialize in literature, this is appropriate at some point after high school, just as some art students go on to analyze brush strokes and some musicians study music theory. However, in a high school literature course, the most important objective to be gained is a love of reading. Moreover, the current method of teaching is failing to impart more than the most basic skills. According to a 1989 study, only about five percent of seventeen-year-olds in the United States could read at the advanced level, which the study defined as being able to understand the links between ideas even when those links are not explicitly stated and to make appropriate generalizations even when the texts lack clear introductions or explanations. Less than 40 percent could read at the adept level, defined as being able to find, understand, summarize and explain relatively complicated literary and informational material.

What can be done about the serious problems in our system of teaching literature? Obviously we can't stop teaching. What we must do is realize that the aim of literature is to have some sort of emotional impact on the reader. Sentence structure or parallel construction are only tools. Books should be taught through open discussion and not through structured study. I have always found that I enjoy books much more when I read them on my own. If one walks away from a book having disliked the experience of reading and studying it, then it matters little how accurately the book was analyzed; the whole experience was wasted.

I would argue that we must rethink the objectives and methods of teaching secondary school literature. Good books speak for themselves, and we shouldn't try too hard to pull them apart to find the meaning. If the meaning is there, it will find us. As Archibald MacLeish wrote in his poem "Ars Poetica," "A poem should not mean but be." He does not mean that poems have no meaning, but that they must be understood on their own terms, not analyzed. Teachers and fellow students can help guide us and share the experience, but too much structured study can destroy the pleasure of reading. As Mark Twain wrote in the humorous, but very significant introduction to his masterpiece, Huckleberry Finn:

"Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot." n


This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.






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