Reading the tea leaves, 9

Sunday, July 31st, 2005

I referred to the 24 hr classroom in this post, but I think this notion of “learning time” needs further explaining because I don’t want to imply that I want people to be “in school” for 24 hrs. Far from it. Thus the title of this post gets archived under the “on reading” series.

The explanation is relevant to “schooling” and time. In an older essay, I put out some ideas on computer conferencing as an aid in “extending” the classroom beyond its traditional scope, playing with the idea that the square classroom limits rather than enhances intellectual pursuit. I find it absurd that we expect students to learn what can be learned about a subject in 15 weeks, four to six hours per week, especially when the “ethic” of learning is really about the grade and the credit, which amounts to equating a grade with a commodity. Most of the students in my classes–not all, mind you, and not always to an absolute degree–really only want to get through the course with a B or better and then move on to the next credit, regardless of the subject. Students do the best they can to “get” the grade they want not to “learn” the material which is the best way perhaps of making the grade. In graduate school I never worried about a grade because I was so involved in showing my teachers that I knew what I was talking about.

In all of this, I blame no one, and maybe I’m being presumptuous. But I talk to too many teachers who lament “how” their students navigate higher education, and I lament it myself. Blame isn’t the point. Typically, we’re thrilled with the “personhood” of students–that is, as people they’re just as interesting, smart, and likeable as any I’ve known.

First, I read the environment and the history students bring with them. Did anyone like school as a child? Maybe the early grades, when recently everything is colors, playtime, and nice posters (note that I’ve followed my daughter’s education fairly closely and know pretty well what’s going on now in her high school. It was never this way for me, posters, play, and fun: I always hated school and would never want to be “young” again). For the yunguns, though, “school” will “happen.”

Attitudes aside, the very presence of “school” in one’s history is an incredible influence on basic human experience of the world. Not to beat this to death, but I remember driving home from a college course just after graduating high school and having this realization: “It’s 10 AM, September, and I’m driving home. What the hell am I supposed to be doing with myself?” (I had been trained that from 8 to 3 I should be in school, the prime destination of youth in our culture.)

More importantly, early school experience “shapes” how we think about a “learning space” in general, “learning space” defined as a “place” where one is supposed to learn, and any place “beyond” or “outside” that “room” or “hall” is preferrable, typically taking the shape of “summer” time when no “teacher” could force me to work on vocabulary. “Summertime” however always came with reminders that “school” was just around the corner.

In this context, what I’d like to see is “school” blurred away as a shaper of human experience with more of a trend toward intensified learning. Practically speaking, this can be incorporated into college because college is and has been still a “matter of choice.” Compulsory education calls for a rigidity to its structure which forms a burden on learning. The more colleges act “compulsory,” the more they will take on the shape of secondary education, impeding education, in the sense that Blake judged hindrances–as in

I went to the Garden of Love
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

As I build my reading list, I’m thinking about the effect of ancillary texts; how do I create a list that will lead to the building of another list by the reader. We come away from “school” with a body of knowledge and attitudes. But does this body suggest a hypertextual tree of life? Do we leave high school ready to add to what we know, to seek out “more” or to change it? Or do we leave relieved, ready for something different, wanting to forget the past? An excellent read should be like an excellent fajita, an “experience” you want to pursue and refashion and consider on your own. Personally, one of the interesting things about my memory is the smell of roasting chiles (chee-less: the pronounciation has a lot to do with the smell and the taste in my memory). Some readers think that there may be some knowledge out there that they need to “get,” some fruit that they have yet to experience, that will help them understanding things better. It may be that, as Plato would say, it’s the pursuit of one thing to the next, a building on the first “discrete/non-discrete” element due to the second that adds a little color to the fruit.

You read a poem. Then a second. The first unfolds a little more. The first adds to the second. Then comes the third and the first and second are dashed against the rocks.

One response to “Reading the tea leaves, 9”

  1. JRadke says:

    Today’s current form of “compulsory education” is a joke. Early education through grammar school should be rigid, as that’s where much of the foundation for learning is. But once a student enters high school, I believe that students should have a direct impact on the courses they want to take. High school is supposed to prepare kids for college right? Then format high school to give kids more choices that will fit their interests.

    There are choices, right? Wrong. To use science as an example: I couldn’t take biology first. It had to be earth science. Heck I couldn’t NOT take biology. I failed biology. Why? Because I could’t give a rat’s ass about the circulatory system AND I told the teacher that I thought the theory of evolution was full of crap (although I did enjoy learning about it since it was relevant to my rabid interest of history). I had a basic knowledge of bio from my early grades and seventh grade. I was happy with that general knowledge. I would have much rathered screwed bio and filled that class spot with a philosophy class or Latin.

    And where “compulsory education” really falls off the train is literature. The high school system has got the lit courses so full of biased racial, feminist, pacifist, socialist bullsh that it really is a miracle that President Bush is serving his second term.

    Kas and I went out today and bought about $70 worth of classics–Ivanhoe, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Great Expectations, The Three Musketeers, and Sherlock Holmes.

    It’s sad that it’s taken us (or me at least) over seven years for me to have the serious compulsion to read classic literature. After being subjected to The Color Purple, Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, Catch-22, Hemingway Hemingway Hemingway et al., it’s TAKEN seven years for me to get my head out of that fog. The only good year of my high school career was when I had Mr. Letizia–and that year we read Great Expectations, Catcher in the Rye, Romeo and Juliet, To Kill a Mocking Bird, The Old Man and the Sea, and The Pearl. All (save maybe Catcher–which was still interesting as I remember) are excellent books that provide the growing reader with something real and even positive (*GASP*) to take out of these stories. So one out of four lit teachers I had knew how to choose a good reading list for the year.

    *breath* If you’ve followed me this far, I thank you! I really had that weight sitting on my back from some time. But I do have a point to all this :-)

    The point is this: Literature is SO important to developing the mind of a human being. The government knows this, and thus much of the slop they fill reading lists up with. But you want to get students actually reading AND enjoying it–especially in high school? School boards have GOT to ditch these narrow, static required reading lists. You know why so many kids really REALLY don’t give a damn about honor or chivalry or true love anymore? Well one reason is the books we had/they have to read–and they were the same every year for that grade so you learned to dread Junior lit when you were still a Freshman.

    Instead of a teacher saying “For the next couple of weeks, we’re going to be discussing The Scarlet Letter.” Teachers should be saying “The next reading project we’re going to focus on is Love and Passion, and how those two mixed can breed either disaster or happiness. The books you have to CHOOSE from will be The Scarlet Letter, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera, The Great Gatsby, and You Only Live Twice.” Now there’s a reading list! Students can now choose a book from a period of time that interests them AND either something adventurous (if your the Indiana Jones type) or more saucy (if your the controversial type). I even threw a James Bond book in there, even though I know it would never make the cut because they tend to be rather sexual and racist. But the Bond character is amazingly complex and relevant AND (in the end) honourable.

    Man, I could go on about this issue forever. Literture is so freakin’ important, and so many good novels are left out of the mix. Books like The OCunt of Monte Cristo, The Red Badge of Courage, Zorro, Sharpe’s Rifles, even The Lord of the Rings(!) and Star Wars are left off the high school reading lists…and now more than ever that 20/20 hindsight is so incredibly frustrating. The Color Purple and Mice and Men have their place…in a college classroom studied by students who are interested in that subject matter. But when you’re 15 and 16, you want high adventure and sweeping romance. So why are teachers surprised that sudents hate lit class so much? Give them the adventure and romance! Because mixed in those stories are characters of, well, character. Clear lines of right and wrong…and guidance for when those clear lines seem more blurry. Students will have fuun reading again, they’ll want to learn more, be more positive in society and have more drive to achieve their goals thanks to their favorite heroes! And then watch as students go to the bookstore and select more stories to their liking to build on those Platonian discretions!

    It’s a travesty that these classic works are substituted for relevant political muck. Yeah, the classics are taught in many college setting…much too late for so many wh can’t afford higher education, but might have put more effort towards scholarships had they been inspired instead of preached to.