Opinion | How to Get Kids to Hate English

Imagine a world without English majors. In the last decade, the study of English and history in college has fallen by a third. At Columbia University, the share of English majors fell from 10 percent to 5 percent between 2002 and 2020. According to a recent story in The New Yorker, “The End of the English Major,” this decline is largely a result of economic factors — which departments get funded, what students earn after graduation, etc. Fields once wide open to English majors — teaching, academia, publishing, the arts, nonprofits, the media — have collapsed or become less desirable. Facing astronomical debt and an uncertain job market, students may find majors like communication arts and digital storytelling more pragmatic.

That’s definitely a big part of the story. Yet many would-be humanities majors have turned toward, not more pragmatic degrees, but more esoteric, interdisciplinary majors, filled with courses that encourage use of words like “hegemony,” “intersectional” and “paradigm.” These educational tracks don’t exactly lead to gainful employment, either.

Another part of the story is how demanding English literature is, full of daunting passages through Middle English. Chaucer. The multivolume “Norton Anthology,” its thousands of wafery pages promising long hours of dense verse, verse, verse, but also, stories that have endured for over a thousand years. (I still cherish my copy.)

And yet another important and dispiriting part of the story is that the study of English itself may have lost its allure, even among kids who enjoy reading. They are learning to hate the subject well before college. Both in terms of what kids are assigned and how they are instructed to read it, English class in middle and high school — now reconceived as language arts, E.L.A. or language and literature — is often a misery. It’s as if once schools teach kids how to read, they devote the remainder of their education to making them dread doing so.

This began largely with the Common Core, instituted in 2010 during the Obama administration. While glorifying STEM, these nationwide standards, intended to develop a 21st-century work force, also took care to de-emphasize literature. By high school, 70 percent of assigned texts are meant to be nonfiction. Educators can maximize the remaining fiction by emphasizing excerpts, essays and digital material over full-length novels. Immersing children in the full arc of storytelling has largely gone out that window as novels have increasingly been replaced by short stories — or shorter yet, by “texts.”

“The Common Core killed classic literature,” as Diane Ravitch noted in 2018.

So what do kids read instead? To even be considered, a work must first pass through the gantlet of book bans and the excising of those books containing passages that might be deemed antiquated or lie outside the median of student body experiences. Add to that the urge to squelch any content that might be deemed “triggering” or controversial, the current despair over smartphoned attention spans and the desire to “reach students where they are.” Toni Morrison’s short first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” a coming-of-age story, tends to be assigned over her longer, more intricate, more provocative — and to this reader, anyway, richer — novel “Beloved.”

The assumption is that kids aren’t discerning or tough enough to handle complexity or darkness, whether it’s the nastiness of Roald Dahl or the racism and sexism in 19th-century fiction, and that they can’t read within context or grasp the concept of history. But kids adopt the blinkered veil of presentism — the tendency to judge past events according to contemporary standards and attitudes — only when adults show them how.

Citing the need to appeal to fickle tastes with relevant and engaging content, teachers often lowball student competence. Too often, this means commercial middle grade and young adult novels such as “The Lightning Thief” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” or popular fiction like “The Outsiders,” or on the more ambitious end, accessible works of 20th-century fiction like “To Kill a Mockingbird” — all engaging novels that kids might read on their own — in lieu of knottier works that benefit from instruction and classroom discussion. The palpable desperation to just get students to read a book doesn’t come across as the kind of enticement that makes literature soar.

Those books that remain are read in a manner seemingly intended to leech all pleasure from the process. Even apart from the aims of the Common Core, the presiding goal is no longer instilling a love of literature but rather teaching to the test and ensuring students reach certain mandated benchmarks. In recent years in New York State, for example, skills like “information literacy” appear to be given priority over discussions of literature.

A typical high school assignment now involves painstakingly marking up text with colored pencils in search of “literary devices” — red for imagery and diction, yellow for tone or mood, etc. Students are instructed to read even popular fiction at an excruciatingly slow pace in the service of close reading in unison. They’re warned not to skip ahead. You wouldn’t want anyone to get excited!

When I was in public high school in the olden ’80s, we read “The Red Badge of Courage” and “The Scarlet Letter,” with multiple forays into Shakespeare. We were assigned Faulkner, Joyce, Conrad and Henry James, authors whose work opened my mind and tested my abilities of comprehension and interpretation.

But if anyone had suggested that I be offended by a nearly all-male curriculum, I would have been insulted. Couldn’t girls read books by men just as well as boys could? And if it was true, as we also learned, that much of the world of letters had long been largely closed to women (and minorities), naturally there would be fewer books by them. At the same time, my teacher’s expectation that I could make sense of “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” despite having no knowledge of Irish culture or the Modernist movement, felt like a vote of confidence. Students were encouraged not to avoid or attack these books but to learn from them.

By asking so little of students, schools today show how little they expect of them. In underestimating kids, the curriculum undermines them.

What teenager wouldn’t do well to witness the pain of Hester Prynne’s punishment and see her push through from her guilt and suffering to newfound strength and independence? Or to grapple with the themes of fate, adversity and the human condition explored in Faulkner’s novels? Or to know how 19th-century writers like Twain used satire to galvanize a nation against the injustice of racism and toward freedom for all? To experience how the pleasures, beauty and brilliance of great literature can shine a powerful light.

Reading these kinds of novels in school was what drove me to register for a yearlong survey in English literature my freshman year of college. I arrived on campus sorely aware, even though I didn’t major in English, that “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” was just the first bit of scenery in a huge and varied landscape — and this drove me to explore the work of other cultures, traditions and populations as well. These days, many students may not even know what they’re missing.

Nobody wants to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a useless college degree. But let’s return to the question of whether English majors are essentially unemployable. I would argue that English majors could be exactly the kind of employees who are prepared for a challenging and rapidly changing work force: intellectually curious, truth-seeking, undaunted by unfamiliar ideas, able to read complex works and distill their meaning in clear prose.

Outside specialized professions like engineering, medicine and software design, most areas of academic study have little bearing on paid jobs in the real world anyway. Students who’ve read a fair share of English literature might offer some interesting reasons as to why.

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