Note: This post discusses English as literary studies, not composition studies. It is not considering how English “teaches people how to write” because composition studies is a distinct field that has been absorbed by some English departments primarily so that they can claim they pass on skills for future jobs. My argument is for the value of English as literary studies, without any need to justify it as a utilitarian subject.
When people suggest that teachers remove required reading from schools and instead let students read whatever they want, they are typically thinking of English, not as a field, but as a means to gain literacy or perhaps a love of reading. In other words, they see English as a way to gain skills or content knowledge not necessarily related to literary studies: increased vocabulary, an ability to use context to deduce the meaning of a word, the ability to read long or difficult texts for extended periods of time, etc. In this understanding, English class is simply a class being used to support other, “more important” classes. Students who read more for pleasure are, after all, statistically more likely to succeed in school in all subjects. So parents and teachers push for students to gain a love of reading, perhaps by replacing To Kill a Mockingbird with Dog Man or Wimpy Kid. They assume that English classes do not actually have their own content and so children can read whatever they want and it makes no difference, as long as they are reading something.
In lower grades when children are indeed still learning basic literacy, this argument may hold some merit. However, the reality is that English, or literary studies, is its own field and has its own content. Students who have achieved basic literacy are not being asked to read books in class just so they can expand their vocabulary or learn grammar. When instructors choose books for their classes to read, they have (or should have, if they are knowledgeable about their field) real goals in mind, goals related to the specific field of literary studies. This may mean giving students a general background in American literature from colonial days through the Civil War. It may mean introducing them to major figures or movements such as Hawthorne or transcendentalism. It may mean introducing them to and teaching them to recognize various genres or various forms of poetry. It may mean focusing on a very specific theme, such as the depiction of love in a series of texts or the cultural impact of Shakespeare. Whatever it means, required reading books are always chosen for a reason. They are not (or should not be) arbitrary books chosen merely because a teacher personally likes them, because they have always been taught, or because a teacher has a vague idea that the youth these days “like this sort of thing.”
This may sound snobbish to some, but English is, in fact, a real field and it is a field that requires hard work and study for anyone to gain expertise in it. And this precisely why it is so important for schools to continue to assign required reading. Required reading gives students the general background they need both to start thinking about whether they would like to go on to work towards expertise in English and it gives them the general background to succeed if they do go on to study English in college or after. The reality is that schools are still very much invested in the Western canon and a student who has no familiarity with major authors or classic works is at a major disadvantage while pursuing any type of English degree. Embarking on an English degree never having read Emerson, Shakespeare, or Whitman would be a little like starting a chemistry degree never having seen the periodic table and having only a fuzzy idea that people think it’s important.
A background in literary studies becomes even more important for those who will go on to pursue a post-graduate degree. To apply to grad school, most students will have to take the English GRE, a test requiring individuals to read a passage, identify the work it is from along with the author and the time period, and then answer a series of questions analyzing said passage. These are the types of skills literary studies values. The ability to recognize texts, recognize styles, recognize time periods, recognize influences, recognize literary movements–and then the ability to use that content knowledge to analyze a work. And the test ostensibly covers the entire Western canon–hundreds of books a person is supposed to have read already. But an individual can’t identify a passage from Milton or Dickens or Austen, much less analyze it effectively, if their school careers have not introduced them to classics.
Because students with a background in the canon and in other major works have a distinct advantage over students who do not, required reading can perhaps be seen as an issue of equity. Students who are not introduced to classic works are not given even the opportunity to consider whether they want to enter the field of literary studies. How could they? They don’t know what literary studies looks like. Students who somehow end up studying English anyway will find themselves lost and scrambling to read all the books everyone else in their major has already read. They are starting the race miles behind.
But students “don’t like” the classics, you say? Arguments that English classes should drop required reading because students may not like the books are as silly as arguing that students who do not like algebra should be able to skip it or students who do not relate to the American Revolution should not have to learn about it. But no one argues that students should get to pick and choose which math or science concepts they should learn. No one argues that students should get to choose their own social studies curriculum and only learn about the periods of history that they like best. Partially this is because people tend to recognize STEM teachers as experts while everyone assumes that, since they can read, they are equally as knowledgeable about literary studies as anyone holding an English degree. Partially this is because other subjects are seen as useful and English is not–unless we can make it seem useful by conflating it with vocabulary or spelling or writing. (I’m sure every person with an English degree has met that person who asks if they are “learning grammar” in college.)
But the bizarre aspect of these arguments is that they are primarily made by people who love reading–and who do somehow see it as valuable. Yet the average adult is certainly not reading at night to learn to spell! They are not reading so that they can perform their jobs more effectively. They recognize some other intrinsic value to stories and to words. Perhaps it’s that subtle magic that they want to pass on to children by letting children ignore the curriculum and read whatever they want. But, again, we must consider how we treat English in relation to other classes. Other classes are assumed to have content that is good for students to be familiar with, even if they do not always enjoy it. English is the same. Not everyone will fall in love with Shakespeare (and not everyone will hate him!). But it’s profitable for people to know who he is.
Acknowledging that English has real content is a sign of respect. It is an acknowledgment that English does not exist simply to teach basics skills to be used in other, more “useful” subjects. English is an actual subject and students should be introduced to that subject in school, just as they are introduced to any other subject.
I have been asked to clarify that this post is focused on why grade schools and high schools should require reading, rather than simply ask students to read a certain number of books each month or to read for a certain amount of time each day. Although I do maintain that a number of colleges still prioritize classic works and the Western canon and expect students to have a basic background knowledge in it, the post was not written as a defense of the Western canon, but rather to argue that English classes do have content and should be taught that way. So what does that mean?
This means that schools can have classes that teach graphic novels. They can teach YA books. They can do book and film comparisons. It doesn’t matter, as long as there is some sort of pedagogical goal. To prepare students for college courses, however, teachers can integrate classic works into the curriculum. Simple solutions might be doing something like reading To Kill a Mockingbird with a modern day YA and comparing how race is addressed. Or reading a Shakespeare play and looking at a YA adaption in conjunction. Instructors get some classics in there along with other works and students can even interrogate those classics in light of how the story might be written today. Strategies like these give direction to students’ reading and help them to experience works they might not choose on their own.
Tomorrow I discuss why “English teaches critical thinking” is not a good defense for the English degree.