Modern high school English is bad

First, I want to begin this blog post with a key detail. I am a Ph.D. student - I am not an expert in writing nor literature nor teaching (as evidenced by my lack of grammatical precision in my many blog posts). So, for me to discuss such a topic certainly falls under the cognitive bias that expertise in one area, namely my Ph.D. topic, does not imply I am an expert in other areas - namely designing English curriculums for high school. As a reader, you have been forewarned of this bias and therefore my analysis should be considered with a skeptical eye considering both the incentives and unimplied consequences of my proposal. (Note, skepticism, I emphasize, should be applied to any essay or result - especially one bearing a great deal of “hype”. It is one of the great tools in the human arsenal and one I have fought first hand in the language of mathematics through counterexamples and invalid proofs.)

What modern English should accomplish:
High school English - at least at the highest level for high school students - should accomplish two things:
  1. (1) Teach people to communicate their ideas via coherent writing after high school.
  2. (2) Encourage people to read after high school.
Before I discuss the current methodology for literature in high school, I aim to justify the rationale behind both these goals. First, it is imperative to understand that high school English must cater to students across a vast range of careers. Inherently, high school is an early stage in a person’s life, and it is unclear to almost every student which direction their career will turn. As such, top level English should teach quality writing as almost every modern career necessitates the ability to write ideas effectively.

I hope I do not need to argue this point further, but for completeness provide a series of examples. For any scientific discipline, detailed and concise language is needed to effectively design scopes, document hypotheses and of course, share results. For modern day business, one needs to articulate business plans, shareholder letters, non-disclosure agreements, etc. For doctors, effectively documenting a patient's symptoms and treatment plan is not only needed for future diagnosis, but also for insurance claims.

Thus, I think it is obvious1 that high school English needs to emphasize quality writing in order to setup its students for success across a wide variety of disciplines.

The second goal is merely a reasonable strategy for long term accomplishment of the first goal. That is, by ensuring folks enjoy reading and continue to read, they will expand their vocabulary, explore new sentence structure and of course maintain their proficiency in reading. Thus, reading improves writing. Not only is this logical - namely a result that intuition would inherently accept - but scientifically validated. In fact, a quick google scholar search of “Does writing improve with increased reading” corroborates this point with a series of scientific studies attempting to quantify a correlation between volume of reading and an objective standard of what is good writing. Thus, these are the only two goals a modern English class should aim to attain.

Perhaps, some may argue a third goal - namely that one wants to develop strong comprehension of complex arguments aimed for by an author. But, personally I would argue that, in most modern careers, good writing is not complex with hidden symbolism or motifs throughout. It is specific, logical, detailed, but simple. Simple by design, as it needs to be objective - that is universally agreed upon without implicit ideas or hidden themes obstructing that main purpose of any specified statement. Thus, advanced comprehension is really not necessary for most people even if they move toward advanced disciples. Lastly, if one really wants to consider a complex theme or idea, they can go watch the movie Inception and struggle with the scope of reality - not spend 10 hours reading “Pride and Prejudice”.

1 It is generally frowned upon in the scientific community (of which I reside) to use phrases such as “obvious”, or “it is clear”, but despite recognizing this poor choice, I kept the language with justification that if we - meaning the reader and I - cannot agree that high school English needs to teach good writing skills, then there is no point in continuing with the rest of this article.

What modern English actually teaches
So, with the above goals outlined, we turn the discussion into what modern English actually accomplishes. First, I want to mention that the incentives are inherently bad - that is, we require the highest levels of AP English to mimic literature courses in college. These courses encourage discussion of themes, motifs, symbolism, biblical allusions, and generally discuss archaic books that are considered the “classics”. To me, this is uninteresting and ruins the desire to think creatively.

Why? Well, considering the “classics” have been studied for centuries and beyond - it is really hard to say anything original about these stories. If millions of Americans have been writing essays on “The Catcher and the Rye” for the past 20 years along with the fact that every high school teacher in America is analyzing the story themselves, at some point it becomes impossible to say anything truly new. Thus, the internet is riddled with a series of articles on themes, ideas, characterization, and all the other nonsense emphasized in a literature analysis about such a book. That is, it is very easy to consult the internet and almost impossible to come up with something new. I ask the reader, is that a good environment for fostering the enjoyment of reading? Further, I want to emphasize that the analysis of many of these books fall under patterns - that is things to look for that can be regurgitated and spun as interesting ideas such as repetitive symbolism. For example, names are easy choices to build essay paragraphs: consider the “East of Eden”, Caleb and Aaron mimic Cain and Abel - a classic reference for biblical allusions. In fact, there is a book “How to Read Literature like a Professor” that explicitly writes out what these patterns are.The root cause for studying this type of analysis in 11th and 12th grade English is due to the fact that these courses are supposed to mimic college literature courses. However, this does not aid whatsoever in the two main goals we began with. It teaches, in essence, that English is about these “literature patterns” which, to me, are both repetitive and unexciting. This is not how to foster a lifelong reader.

An alternative approach to English
I would argue, modern English should ask students to build their own ideas in writing. For example, imagine one aims to explore dystopian novels. Well, first have students read something modern like a recent Hugo Award Winner (The Broken Earth trilogy is a good example, Dune is another one) of which they can see the movie built on this novel in a few years. They will appreciate this as the novel will certainly be an entertaining read with the target of a 21st century audience rather than something like Charles Dickens' broken English. That is, choosing modern novels that are designed for enjoyment for modern readers will effectively encourage lifelong reading.

Second, instead of making them explain why the dystopian is interesting, take a month for students to write their own dystopian novel. Here is where development of expressing clear and coherent ideas really takes place. For example, the students will need to learn to be consistent with their arguments - namely if the laws are designed in a certain way, the rules of that dystopian society must be maintained throughout. Furthermore, they will need to consider the effects and consequences of their ideas on important factors such as the economy, societal norms, consumption of food, etc. This inherently builds connections between English class and modern policy design as they will be voting in a few years. Beyond this, they must learn to effectively communicate their creative and completely new ideas. This is not easy to do - almost like going from “Zero to One”2 in business. That is, take something that does not exist to an effectively communicated story about something that is solely generated from the mind. I argue this forces students not only to convey their ideas clearly, but additionally implores their creative side and fosters complex thinking. Thus, such a challenge is infinitely more interesting than writing an analysis on Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”.

However, in my experience, such an assignment did not exist in a high school curriculum. Instead we discussed, “How to write an introduction and conclusion”, “How to analyze motifs” and what did the author mean by “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood”. In my opinion, such topics inhibit the autonomy required for folks to come up with their own ideas. Thus, it's not a good way to teach folks to write well3 and certainly does not encourage lifelong readers.

In conclusion, this essay raises two key ideas. Teaching students to write about “motifs” and “themes” for analyzing classical novels is repetitive, uninspiring, and flat-out harmful for encouraging life-long readers. Determining the theme of a book or novel is relatively useless in the long term for most folks' careers and such should not be the topic of modern English. Instead we should ask students to (1) create a new idea and (2) communicate the idea with words. In other words, we should stop asking, “Can you interpret and write about someone else’s subtle idea?”, but ask, “Can you effectively design and tell me about your own?”.

2 See Peter Theil’s book titled “Zero to One”.

3 Pun intended for readers familiar with the book "On Writing Well" by Zinsser.