When I was in high school, I took Advanced Placement English in my senior year.
(A note for those not familiar with the American education system as it existed in my time: high schools often provide “Advanced Placement” courses for students who are capable — at least in theory — of college-level work. These courses end with concentrated standardized examinations to determine how well the students understand the subject material. Some colleges and universities will allow students who do well in these tests to receive course credit, or to skip basic courses in the tested subject areas. Common subjects for AP classes include Calculus, Physics, Chemistry, and English.)
Towards the end of the year, when the examination was drawing near, the teacher spent a day of class time giving us some examples of what we might expect on the test. For the most part, everyone in class did well, and we moved quickly. We pulled apart poems, explained symbols, traced references… and then we hit a blank wall.
The teacher had given us a brief work, dating from (as I recall) sometime around 1900, or at least written in a style which could pass for the work of that time. I have long since forgotten the precise authorship and title, but the topic was the (disgraceful) history and behavior of an aristocratic family. Nobody in the class could make anything of it. The teacher gave us an embarrassingly long time to offer an explanation of the purpose of the essay, and then began the time-honored process of asking leading questions.
Finally, someone in the class stuttered out that the piece didn’t seem to make sense, and suggested that it was perhaps intended to be humorous. Upon confirmation from the teacher, the dam broke. Suddenly, everyone in the class was falling all over themselves to list the jokes.
Our teacher was somewhat disappointed that we did not immediately see the humor in the piece, but, he admitted, humor was something with which AP English students always have trouble.
It seemed obvious to me — and still seems so now — why this should be the case. Examine the reading list of any English class at your local high school (or junior high school for that matter, or whatever your local school system calls grades 6 and up if you’re in the U.S.) and you will find effectively no humor.
If the students are very lucky, then at some point they will be given a dry-as-dust tedious story by Mark Twain. The brightest people in the class may perhaps be able to derive some enjoyment from it, but for the rest it might as well be an exercise in translating Latin. More commonly, the humor in the curriculum will be limited to a humorous scene in a play by Shakespeare (which will be incomprehensible to nearly all of them because of language barriers), a single humorous work written no later than 1940 which will be discussed in class for half as long as anything else (including 4-line poems), and possibly the comic relief in a Dickens novel, which will be largely based in Victorian British social mores and thus as alien to modern American students as Maori custom.
The remainder of the curriculum will be a selection of Very Serious Works. The selection rule for works to be read in English classes in American high schools appears to be: it isn’t Quality Literature unless it hurts to read. If it requires footnotes for a modern reader to follow the language, then it is of the highest quality, and obviously superior to anything which might be understood on the first pass. If it does not require footnotes, then at least it should be heavily tied in to a historical milieu or philosophical school with which the student will not be familiar. That guarantees that the student will be unable to understand the motivations of the characters, and will thus approach the work with the proper reverence. (Books may also be selected if they feature a tortured adolescent who behaves stupidly, on the theory that students will identify with such a character and thus become inclined to continue reading. This never works, and is of questionable utility anyway. The purpose of education is to stop students from behaving stupidly, not give them a fictional support group.)
In addition to choosing only the worthiest, dullest books, American English classes take an approach to literature almost guaranteed to kill any honest appreciation. James Thurber wrote a perfect description of the general philosophy of such a system in Here Lies Miss Groby:
It is hard for me to believe that Miss Groby ever saw any famous work of literature from far enough away to know what it meant. She was forever climbing up the margins of books and crawling between their lines, hunting for the little gold of phrase, making marks with a pencil.
This approach is particularly good at ruining any appreciation the student may have for poetry, but it is highly effective at ruining a play or novel as well. There is nothing to kill the reader’s ability to follow the plot of a story like telling them to write every metaphor they encounter on a numbered index card.
(As a result of this process, by the way, I can’t remember a single book which I was assigned to read in English class which I enjoyed enough to want to reread later, with the single exception — for no very good reason — of Jane Eyre. I can remember hating many, many books. In fact, there is at least one book which I was forced to read for English class — The Red Badge of Courage — about which I remember nothing at all except that I hated every single word. I have since come to love Charles Dickens — except for The Pickwick Papers, which held the record for smug drawing out of a single joke until Alexander McCall Smith wrote his German professors books — but even now I cannot read Great Expectations because it was permanently ruined for me by having to analyze it to death in 9th grade. I am grateful that the school system didn’t have a chance to ruin Bleak House or Our Mutual Friend or Martin Chuzzlewit for me. I’m surprised they didn’t go after Barnaby Rudge, though — after all, it has a half-witted adolescent as its title character, and so the people who create reading lists obviously must think students would recognize themselves in it.)
English classes in the U.S. are designed to make students believe that literature is entirely a Serious Subject, and that Quality Literature is a received list of sacred texts, uniformly boring, which are primarily recognizable by an incredible density of literary device. A further goal is to ensure that students will have read as many of these sacred texts as early as possible, comprehension be damned.* It is therefore entirely unsurprising that at the end of high school, students simply cannot conceive of the notion of a humorous essay. Humor, after all, is never sacred, and if you can see the humor in a work you probably won’t find it boring.
Americans (and, I think, the British and Germans) take the same approach to Opera. Opera is supposed to be a Great Art Form, and if you are not Serious and Quiet while you watch it, then you are no true lover of opera. The fact that the Italians and French, who the English- and German-speakers regard as the originators of the form, often treat opera as drama and routinely react to the plot more than the quality of the singing or the music (and have done so for centuries) is irrelevant. Opera is Serious Art, and Should Hurt.
Now: all of this has been said before, probably more eloquently and with better proofreading. (And by people who weren’t writing at 4 AM because of an accidental late-night dose of caffeine.) I doubt the whole concept is original to me, and I know I’ve thought things along these lines before. So why, you might ask, am I writing this now?
The whole thing was brought back to my attention by a comment thread on Salon, in an article about cheating and educational reform. The commenter, using the handle “cj”, was criticizing No Child Left Behind, and mentioned something they called “Pineapplegate”.
Something with such an odd name seemed worth following up, so I went to the URL given. Lo and behold: a company writing tests for No Child Left Behind made the mistake of using a humorous story, The Pineapple and the Hare.
Those who have read Daniel Pinkwater’s works will find it unsurprising that the story is either written by him or freely adapted from a similar (shorter) story-within-a-story, called The Eggplant And The Hare if I remember correctly, in one of his books.
The story in question is not just a random piece of humor, it is an obvious parody of the Aesop fable The Tortoise And The Hare. It is “meta”: the animals are obviously aware of the original story, and think that anyone challenging a hare to a race must have some trick which will rig the race, and the more outrageous the disparity between the racers the more overwhelming the trick must be. But they’re wrong; the vegetable (or fruit, depending on the version) is just a vegetable (or fruit), and it loses as spectacularly as any realist would expect. The animals then eat it. The story has a real moral, if you think carefully, but the explicitly stated moral (as a further joke) is pointless. It is an exercise in sustained silliness so blatant that the test-writers assumed that anyone would realize what was going on.
Of course the test writers were wrong. As you would guess from what I have already written, the students Didn’t Get It, and were merely puzzled by the (multiple choice) questions. One of the quoted students called it a “rip off” of The Tortoise And The Hare — what a shame; he almost figured it out! A few more neurons firing — whether in that student’s head or that of one of the teachers who couldn’t be bothered to mention the existence of a whole type of humor — and he would have been able to answer the questions correctly.
What is surprising, and even appalling, is that apparently the adults Don’t Get It either. The teachers apparently couldn’t figure out what was going on. At least some of the kids’ parents couldn’t either, and are making the usual sort of fuss you hear in this type of situation.
It would be uncharitable, and probably false, to simply assume that these adults are stupid. (Although the famous quotation about nobody ever going bankrupt by underestimating the intelligence of the American public remains a truism.) Rather, I think that these adults are victims of the Great Literature system of teaching English. Deep in their hearts, these people know that Real Literature is Deeply Serious. Therefore parody and silliness have no legitimate role in English, and it is unthinkable that they might appear on a test.
Clearly, something needs to be done.
Just as clearly, the thing which should be done will not be done.
What is going to happen is a witch hunt — if they have not been thoroughly anonymized at all levels, the people who composed that test will never work in the industry again, and the test-designing company is going to lose a lot of business if they have any competitors — followed by a ratcheting-up of Seriousness. If teachers aren’t teaching English correctly, the parents will say, then obviously the proper reaction is to take Literature even more Seriously. The few works which have snuck into the curriculum which are fun and engaging to read (or at least relatively painless) will be removed, and some additional stinkers will be shoehorned into the gaps. Probably some extra Nathaniel Hawthorne — not only is as boring as ten miles of asphalt and archaic enough to be inaccessible, he’s also legitimately American and thus a natural inclusion in American classes. We’ll show those Brits that our home-grown Murkin authors can be just as mind-numbing as anything they can produce!
What ought to happen is a culling. The junior high school curriculum (and the first part of the high school curriculum) ought to be filled with engaging reading. And that means no Shakespeare (people who think Shakespeare is engaging and easy to read have forgotten what it was like to be an adolescent), no early novelists who are part of the canon primarily because it would be an embarrassment to scholars to admit that early novels aren’t worth reading, and a definite upper limit on the literary qualities of any included poetry. Yank out any works of “humor” selected by 60-year-old administrators whose senses of humor ossified decades ago, and put in newer pieces. The reading list should be vastly expanded, filled in with second-rate 20th-century work.
“But” I hear you cry “what will happen to the children, if they are exposed to so much which is second-rate?”
The obvious response is, of course, “what is happening to the children now, when they are exposed only to the greatest?” We are systematically teaching our population that reading is painful, that literature is incomprehensible, and that the written word has no reason to exist outside of academia.
What would happen if we deliberately hooked our children on Agatha Christie novels? What if, instead of forcing kids to read Shakespeare, we got them to look at P. G. Wodehouse? What if, instead of representing “humor” with the incredibly tedious story of the Jumping Frog Of Calavaras County, people read some Robert Benchley? Kids have a whole lifetime ahead of them in which they can read Great Literature and learn from it — but they will only do so if they decide they want to read, and they will only want to read if they know there are works which can be enjoyed. Our current system forces them to read Great Literature with academic coercion but without comprehension or enjoyment, and as a result many of them make a spirited effort never to read anything ever again. It would be more useful to hook our kids on reading by giving them entertaining but intellectually sparse material than what we do now.
*I know two people of approximately my age who agreed with this principle and acted on it, reading as many Great Works of Literature in high school as they could manage to fit into their schedules. Both are very intelligent — in fact, one of them is the only person I know, er, personally who I would be willing to admit is probably more intelligent than I am in every measurable way. But both of them were definitely harmed by trying to read too much too soon. Neither one can remember anything but the barest outline of a plot of any of the books, and vast portions of the works passed right over their heads. Both of them dismiss as being incomprehensible and out of touch authors who, from their comments, they have quite certainly misunderstood. Furthermore, neither one seems to be willing to reread any of these works, now that they have reached adulthood.