Friday, May 28, 2004

High School Reading

Lots of political material to write about today: The Indian government has released the first draft of its Common Minimum Programme, the situation in Iraq is, unfortunately, not good, Indian-Americans are becoming a more politically active community. Still, politics will have to take a back seat because there's a much more interesting subject: Teaching English literature in High Schools.

Via Critical Mass, I found this excellent post on The Reading Experience. An extract:

I have myself almost come to the conclusion that literature ought not to be taught in the schools at all. Any use of it is destined to reduce it to stale schoolroom platitudes and musty classification. The most common justification is the one quoted above, that students will be led to read The Scarlet Letter after they've read Tuesdays With Morrie. It doesn't happen, or at least it only happens with students who were probably going to seek out Hawthorne or Dickens for themselves anyway. It happens so rarely that if this is the primary reason why literature is taught in school it's going a long way and to a lot of trouble to accomplish very little. Perhaps students who show an interest in reading serious literature should just be given a list of books they might want to seek out. If they'd like, maybe they could talk it all over with the teacher after school. In this scenario it wouldn't matter if the books were contemporary or classic, just as long as the student wasn't made to hate them or to trivialize them and maybe even indicated an interest in reading other books without being prompted.

There are interesting comments on both threads, but I'm just wondering how this applies to India. I agree whole-heartedly that teaching contemporary work of a lower quality merely to get students interested is not the best solution. It also short-changes students who are interested in good literature. The Indian problem, though, is different. Several high schools use syllabi an intelligent eight-year old can follow adequately. My own school followed the ICSE/ISC syllabus. One can't complain of low standards in the selection of material. A fourteen-year old is introduced to Shakespeare, and does two plays before graduating from high school. The poetry is equally good; in my senior year we read (among others) Milton, Yeats, Coleridge, Keats, and a selection of Indian poets. Still, I think that the average ISC graduating student knows far less of literature and literary criticism than a typical American student. I'm addicted to reading, but in my sixteen years of formal study, I have rarely been seriously challenged or stimulated by the literature we read (Two notable exceptions were Hamlet and some of the poetry in my final year). Of course, English is not a first language for most Indians. This isn't the most significant factor, though, because many students at my school both speak and write English with almost native fluency.

In spite of the wonderful curriculum, students don't benefit because nothing is expected from them. Essays require little insight or original thought; my final school-leaving exam had a question (20% of the final grade) which merely asked us to summarise one of the short stories we had read. This seriously hampers the growth of the occasional student who genuinely loves reading. Until I was twelve or thirteen, I would have considered myself the equal of a reasonably good English student anywhere in the world. (Ok, so I'm immodest. Deal with it!) After that, my literary reading stagnated to the point where I think I'm little better now, at 21, than I was seven years ago. Until that age, I read voraciously on my own, discovering new authors and books non-stop. Once I had exhausted my school library, I had nowhere to go (figuratively, not literally!). Books are expensive things to a fourteen-year old, so I stuck to authors I knew I would enjoy, rarely going beyond my rut of 'safe' books. This is where challenging school classes or a reading list would have been most useful, but I was unlucky. On the flip side, though, I began reading a lot more science/technical stuff. I already knew I wanted to study Computer Science, so I guess it worked out ok.

So what's the solution? First of all, Indian school boards need to acknowledge that there's a problem. Second, and this is crucial, students should not be tested on superficial knowledge of a book, because that leads to rote learning and studying Cliffs notes or the equivalent. Another solution might be to offer a separate, more advanced stream for some students. Finally, we need better English teachers. My class went through seven teachers in two years! One reason good faculty don't enter the profession is that in India, humanities are considered 'soft' subjects, less respected than the sciences. I've got no clue how to address that... I don't have all the answers. Ideas, anyone?

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