What Is the Content of English Classes? Do They Only Teach Critical Thinking?

Discussion Post

I have written before about how English classes should be valued for their content and not only for the skills they provide.  After all, literacy, composition, and even higher-level skills like creativity and critical thinking can be taught in a number of disciplines including history, philosophy, religion, math, and science.  (We read, write, and think in all these disciplines!  There is no need to relegate the teaching of reading, writing, and analysis to English classes alone.)  What literature classes offer that is different is, of course, literature.

However, in the U.S.’s high-stakes testing culture, literature itself seems hard to justify.  Its outcomes can’t be measured by numbers. So English departments and English classes try to fight for funding and for relevancy by arguing that they teach things like how to communicate and how to think.  This is true.  English classes tend to do this and they tend to do it effectively. And yet, by focusing only on these arguments, proponents of English are forgetting to argue for what sets English apart–the texts that comprise the discipline, the works that are what we read, write about, and think about.

Interestingly, the GRE (an exam taken for graduate school admittance in the U.S.) attempts to give a numerical value to what goes on in English classes.  And looking at what the GRE tests can give us a general idea of what the content of an English class is.   It is not just the critical thinking–critical thinking is what we do with the content.  It is the texts themselves.  English–or literary studies as I like to call it, to distinguish it from composition–is comprised of texts that are considered important and influential.  These are the books, short stories, poems, etc. that inspired genres, historical movements, and other authors.  English is the study of what these texts are, how they adhere to or break away from generic forms, how they intersect with history or with social movements, and how people have thought, written, and taught about them.  Generally we call these works the canon, though the GRE also tests students on other classic works, fiction and nonfiction.

The canon, of course, is ever-changing and there are (valid) arguments that the canon unfairly emphasizes white male authors.  Still, the canon is the current yardstick by which experts in literary studies tend measure their expertise.  The idea is that you can’t understand later works and later movements if you don’t understand their roots–what they are alluding to, imitating, satirizing, or breaking away from.  Not knowing classical authors like Virgil, never having read the Bible, and not being familiar with Shakespeare will all hinder the aspiring student of literary studies.  Not having read Dante or Virginia Woolf or Toni Morrison will make an aspiring English student a source of bewilderment to their peers.  It would be like an art student never having seen Picasso or a math student admitting they are trying to learn calculus but do not know algebra.  You cannot be considered an expert in your field if you do not know the content.

If you search for lists of works to study for the English GRE (including novels, short stories, drama, poetry, and literary fiction), you will find some that easily have 200 or 300 suggested works.  Of course, the average test taker is not likely to have read all of them.  However, they will want to have read as many as possible.  Not only because some of the test questions will ask them to identify the title and author of a literary work but also because increased reading will give them a better basis at recognizing trends.  That is, even if they have not read a specific Romantic poet, they should be able to recognize a Romantic poem when they see one.  Even if they have not read every Dickens novel, they should be able to distinguish his work from another author’s.  Even if they have no idea who they are reading, they should be able to date it to a general time period and to name its genre.

There are plenty of calls to do away with the canon and the classics (here’s the difference) in favor of classes that allow students to pick what they read.  I support a classroom model in which students can pick some of their own books (even if they are from a list of recommendations).  However, allowing students to choose all the content of an English class could very well be doing them a disservice.  When you are expected (in theory) to have read 200-300 books in your discipline in order to be admitted to grad school, you need all the help you can from your teachers in order to prepare.  Spending years with popular YA books instead of the classics means that you will have to play catch-up while others are merely trying to fill in their gaps.

I am not a fan of the GRE or of high-stakes testing in general.  I am not convinced that the test actually tells us who is adept at literary studies, rather than who is adept at taking the GRE.  However, because the U.S. places such importance on test scores and what they supposedly tell us, I think it is worth looking at what a test like the GRE supposes competency in the discipline of English is–and thus by extension what the experts in grad school departments think competency is.  That competency assumes not only that students can think critically and do literary analysis, but also they they have read specific texts.  Not any text that got them reading or that inspired them or that they enjoyed.  Texts that are widely considered influential or important.  English classes do have real content.  And we should be teaching it.

12 thoughts on “What Is the Content of English Classes? Do They Only Teach Critical Thinking?

  1. Briana says:

    I find the English subject GRE a tad bit weird, too, but it’s true that at a certain level of English, you are expected to be familiar with certain texts. It would be downright bizarre for someone to get a bachelor’s degree in English and not have read Shakespeare, for instance.

    And, yeah, grad school is as much about knowing the texts as it is about “critical thinking.” My school has a preliminary test you have to pass where you prove you are familiar with a core set of books in your field, an adjacent time period, and a branch of critical theory that you pick. You simply have to have read specific books in the field and be able to talk about and analyze them on the fly. This is part of what is considered to be expertise in English.

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    • Briana says:

      I guess I should add that knowing content is actually pretty integral to “interpretation” and “critical thinking” as well. As you say, even being able to pinpoint a text to a specific time period tells you something about the text that can help you interpret it. I’ve seen very weird interpretations of some texts because people didn’t understand allusions, didn’t understand the book was from the 18th century and not the 20th century, etc. You need a baseline of knowledge in all subjects to be able to know what you’re talking about and interpret what you’re seeing, and English is included in that.

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      • Krysta says:

        Exactly! This is why arguments that writing classes ” have no content” always annoy me. If you are supposed to be providing evidence for your argument, your evidence is only going to be strong if it’s true. And it’s only going to be true if you know what you are talking about (i.e. the content)! In the end, critical thinking and content aren’t separable.

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      • Carrie @ Cat on the Bookshelf says:

        I have argued enough with instructors that there are some things you completely miss in literature without a proper background for it. Shakespeare is a good example. The Shakespeare course I’m taking now had us spend two modules researching contextual materials, and that has opened up some surprising sources (to me) of Shakespeare’s material for his historical plays. Foundation for analyzing and discussing texts is necessary.

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        • Krysta says:

          Precisely! It’s hard to analyze literature without the appropriate background knowledge. And I know many people feel that you really shouldn’t get an English degree without taking at least one class on Shakespeare. That’s quite the testament to his perceived important and influence on English literature!

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    • Krysta says:

      Precisely. To get an advanced degree, you are typically expected to have read key texts in your field as well as key literary criticism. Otherwise, no matter how well you can think critically, you are going to be behind the conversation and/or making arguments that aren’t true, and that you would know aren’t true, if you had more content knowledge of the area you were discussing.

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  2. Carrie @ Cat on the Bookshelf says:

    This is why I am glad that most of the English departments I was interested in applying to (before deciding law school was for me) had stopped requiring the subject test. I was worried for a while about how I was going to learn these texts when I had not read most of what was on a list. At some point, there is only so much time in the world to read enough to feel confident on that subject test. What do you think about reading a selection of excerpts instead of reading the whole book? For example, The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu is over 1,000 pages in English, so a class may stick to a Norton Anthology that includes a select number of chapters.

    On the subject of Shakespeare, I read an article recently that we are reaching the point where you can get away with majoring in English and not ever take a Shakespeare class. For example, it is not required of English Studies majors (I’m not sure about the other English major types) at my university to take it. It’s strange to me too because I feel like an English major should have some knowledge of Shakespeare.

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    • Krysta says:

      Honestly, I’m pretty sure some schools just require the GRE because their boards demand some “objective” standard for admittance, but most educators don’t seem to believe that passing a standardized test demonstrates competency in the subject. I know very intelligent people who just didn’t do well on the test! Part of the reason is, I think, that the test limits you to what the creators see as the “right” answer. Your own analytical skills are pushed aside in favor of your ability to guess what someone else saw in THEIR analysis.

      Yeah, I must be a traditionalist or something because I think that English majors ought to have at least one class in Shakespeare. I know there’s so much literature out there and it’s impossible to read it all or even demand on author be read over another. And yet…Shakespeare is so prevalent in our culture that it does seem weird when you can major in English without having studied him.

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  3. Kait McGuire says:

    I am an English Literature and Criticisms major but I’m taking a variety of courses that help me analyze and literature and the English language. At my school, there’s a bunch of different English concentrations like creative writing or grammar and rhetoric. English courses are broader than many people think.

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