May 12, 2011

DEATH TO HIGH SCHOOL ENGLISH CLASS: I broadly agree with the article, but have a very specific concern, as a parent with a child going through the exit from high school.  My perception is that our finest high school English programs are still essentially about literature.  Which is okay, so long as it’s not too wacky.  But what students need, so far as I can tell, is not training in either the reading of literature for substance (most of it fiction and poetry, not non-fiction of the kind that most of the rest of life consists of). Or training in the tropes of literary analysis (metaphors, similes, the logic of analogies, which, I grant, is important; innovation in anything is often metaphor, the metaphorical leap later shown to be true of the world).

What most students – oh, let’s not cavil, my kid and her friends – need is training in logic.  Not necessarily symbolic logic, though that’s good, but informal logic in written language.  The problem with even very well taught English classes is that they teach as though there were nothing but Aristotle’s Poetics … and no Logic.  (One very useful, and spreading textbook, is Everything’s an Argument.) Put another way, the author of the Salon article acknowledges that she will not possess the technical skills of science, math, or engineering. (Although we trust that she will make the effort to understand the output of these fields sufficiently to connect them to society and the world, even without possessing them as technical skill sets.  We trust also that she will take at least a class in basic calculus and basic statistics and basic accounting, sufficient to make it through a not-so-great MBA program, and that she will make an effort to keep those basic skills alive through numeracy in everyday life.)

Past those things, however, pretty much the only skill that’s left is the ability to engage in clear and persuasive logical reasoning, including the sometimes inelegant and even brutal, but essential, apparatus of logic, deductive and inductive, in written communication.  It is not so great if you don’t possess that one, either.

Update: I have received quite a lot of interesting emails about this, both endorsements and some pushback.  I’ve asked one high school teacher I personally know, Mary McConnell (bio below), to expand her views into a short post that I’ve put below the fold.  This is an important debate for parents, students, and teachers, and my thanks to her for letting me post this:

More reading, less reflecting

A few years ago I scandalized my friends in the English department of the Catholic high school where I taught (and still teach online) by talking our principal into offering and letting me teach AP Language and Composition.

My colleagues had no qualms about my teaching AP U.S. and Comparative Government, AP European History, or concurrent enrollment (community college credit) economics. I’d studied those subjects in college and graduate school. . . and I was head of the social studies department, after all.

But had I taken any English courses in college?

Only one – something about contemporary literature – and it was, frankly, more or less a joke.

So why was I trying to lure our brightest high school juniors away from American literature into what was, essentially, a class in rhetoric and argumentation?

It was an act of despair. While I wasn’t quite ready to proclaim “Death to High School English Class,” I empathize with Kim Brooks’ dismay: “I’ve sat at my desk, a stack of their two-to-three-page papers before me, and felt overwhelmed to the point of physical paralysis by all the things they don’t know how to do when it comes to written communication in the English language.”

Substitute AP history and government essays, and I’ve sat at the same desk. Where is your thesis? Have you offered any evidence to support it – or, if I get lucky and excavate some support – why does your evidence support your thesis (where is your warrant)? And that’s before I begin counting up the run on sentences, misplaced antecedents, shifting tenses, and sentences garbled beyond recognition by delete, copy and paste.

Yet while I agree with Kim Brooks that far too few students have mastered either grammar or organization, I believe the problems go much deeper.

At the heart of my students’ writing problems lie reading problems. They encounter very few expository, argumentative, persuasive essays in any of their classes. For the most part, students read either textbooks or literature. Both have their virtues, but neither teaches the elements of argumentation. Textbooks predigest evidence; literature reaches into our minds with different, albeit very important, tools. So when I would ask my students to read Federalist 10 – or even a Washington Post op-ed – they found it almost impossible either to extract information or to parse claims.

What’s more, many of their high school writing assignments positively abjure argumentation. Trying to engage their interest or to help them connect to difficult literary texts, teachers encourage students to “reflect” – often not even on the text, but on their own reaction to the text. Teenagers, already a cauldron of emotions, rather enjoy boiling over onto paper, as long as authenticity trumps accuracy or analysis. They “reflect” all the time, mostly on their cell phones in indecipherable shorthand. Building, supporting, and defending a thesis – that’s much less fun. Teaching them to how do it, and grading the results, is much harder work as well.

I, too, loved my high school literature classes,and I believe that literature, taught thoroughly, can hone students’ analytical and rhetorical skills. But English classes need to move beyond literature, and teachers in other subjects need to give those beleaguered English teachers some help.


Mary McConnell taught history, government, economics and composition at Juan Diego Catholic High School in Salt Lake City for six years, and has continued as an online writing instructor and educational consultant after relocating with her husband to Palo Alto in 2009. A former Rhodes scholar, she began her career as a legislative assistant to Rep. Jack Kemp, ran the speechwriting office in the Pentagon, and served as Public Issues Director for FMC Corporation before taking a few years off to home school her three children. She blogs on education issues for the Deseret News, at:

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