Feeling is not learning

Stupidity from the New York Times opinion page. According to NY public middle school teacher Claire Needell Hollander:

New teachers may feel so overwhelmed by the itemization of skills in the Common Core that they will depend on prepared materials to ensure their students are getting the proper allotment of practice in answering “common core-aligned” questions like “analyze how a drama’s or poem’s form or structure … contributes to its meaning.” Does good literary analysis even answer such questions or does it pose them?

Excuse me? Studying the relationship between form and meaning is the point of literary analysis. An English teacher who doesn’t understand that has no business teaching English, no matter how “geeky” or enthusiastic she might be about her subject. Talking about feelings is what you do at a book club. Or in therapy. Ms. Hollander’s question calls to mind a teenager’s reaction when faced with a concept she doesn’t quite understand — rather than admit her perplexity, she clumsily tries to suggest that the whole thing never made sense in the first place.

To be fair, I understand her fear that schools will strip the (few) remaining bits of life from classrooms across the United States, but at least in theory, the Core’s emphasis on understanding that texts don’t magically come into existence, that they convey meaning through a series of specific choices about structure, diction, imagery, register, and so on, is one of the things that it gets right! Without understanding how texts are constructed, how things like irony, wordplay, and metaphor work, students have no tools for making literal sense out of challenging works. After years of teachers like Ms. Hollander, they have literally *never* been asked to read a text closely — fiction, non-fiction, nothing. As I’ve heard from so many students staring down baffling Critical Reading passages, “it’s just a bunch of words.”

I would be interested to know what Ms. Hollander proposes to a student doesn’t have an emotional reaction to what she’s reading? What would she suggest? That the student just keep reading until she feels something? Eventually, she’ll just learn to fake it, but she certainly won’t learn anything. Worse yet, what if a student can’t even really understand what he’s reading? (I haven’t met many middle-schoolers — or, for that matter, many high school juniors — who could really “get” The Color Purple, never mind grapple with the issues it raises in anything but the most clichéd manner, but perhaps Ms. Hollander’s students are an exceptionally precocious bunch.) Or what about a student who had the “wrong” kind of emotion (presumably one who didn’t feel sufficiently upset about Celie’s victimhood)? What would Ms. Hollander do then?

To be clear, I’m not advocating an approach that mechanically reduces literature down to a series of dry rhetorical figures in order to avoid any discussion of the actual ideas it contains — when I was studying in Paris, I loathed that aspect of the French system — but rather one that takes into account the fact that understanding how texts say what they say is a crucial part of appreciating what they say. The best teachers I had, both in English and otherwise, were intensely passionate about their subjects, and they conveyed that passion in ways that made what they had to say unforgettable. But they never confused their love for their subjects with the kind of facile touchy-feelyness advocated here.

Thank you to Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein for pointing out that this kind of “therapeutic” approach is actually quite manipulative. Describing a typical middle-school assignment, he writes:

Most specimens of narrative writing in the [Demonstrating Character] units involve some sort of personal experience, reflection, or opinion. One from a 7th-grade unit on Civil Rights may be the very worst, which asks students to pretend they were witnesses to the horrific bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church and a friend was seriously injured. “What emotions are you feeling?” it proposes. “How will these events affect your future? What will you do to see that justice is served?”

As a college teacher of freshman English, I can see no sense in these assignments. They don’t improve critical aptitude, and they encourage a mode of reading and writing that will likely never happen in a college major or their eventual job. There is a theory behind it, of course, holding that only if students can relate to their subjects will they do their best and most authentic writing, not to mention explore and develop their unique selves.

The notion sounds properly student-centered, the motives educational, but in practice few 14-year-olds have the intellectual and emotional equipment to respond. Puberty turns them inside out, the tribalisms of middle school confound them, the worlds seems awfully big, the message of youth culture impart fantastical versions of peers, and they’re not sure who they are.

What lurid imaginings do we throw them into when we tell them to witness a bombing? Do we really expect 7th graders to ruminate upon their integrity? Ponder these assignments closely and they start to look less benevolent and more coercive. One of them in an 8th grade unit on “Adolescent identities” mentions a short story involving self-sacrifice, then says,

Think of a time in your life where you have put someone else’s needs or wants, like a family member or friend, ahead of your own desires. Convey to an audience of your peers what the circumstances of that time were, who you sacrificed for and what led you to that decision.

A 14-year-old receiving it must wonder just how self-sacrificing he must appear. If the student doesn’t remember too much and still has to fill more pages, she will fabricate the necessary details. Should he admit to having resented the self-sacrifice? Should she congratulate herself for her good deeds? The whole exercise involves so many tricky expectations that the student wonders what implicit lesson he should take from it. (http://educationnext.org/the-me-curriculum/)

And furthermore:

Without focused training in deep analysis of literary and non-literary texts, students enter college un-ready for its reading demands. Students generally can complete low-grade analytical tasks such as identifying a thesis, charting evidence at different points in an argument, and discovering various biases. But college level assignments ask for more. Students must handle multi-layered statements with shifting undertones and overtones. They must pick up implicit and explicit allusions. They must expand their vocabulary and distinguish metaphors and ironies and other verbal subtleties.

Those capacities come not from contextualist orientations (although “outside” information helps), but from slow, deliberate textual analysis. The more teachers slip away from it, the more remediation we may expect to see on college campuses, a problem already burdening colleges with developing capacities that should have been acquired years earlier. Indeed, when ACT pored over college-readiness data from 2005, it found that “the clearest differentiator in reading between students who are college ready and students who are not is the ability to comprehend complex texts.” More reader response exercises for 9th-11th-graders are only going to exacerbate the problem.(http://educationnext.org/not-just-which-books-teachers-teach-but-how-they-teach-them/)

Amen.