Why is Lit Taught like English is Dead?

by Harry Leeds

Does science prove that reading is good? A slew of recent articles tout the benefits of reading using scientific studies. Nowhere do these articles suggest that reading is inherently enjoyable. Instead books are treated like health food.

The recent infographic I found via Electric Literature is chock-full of everyone’s favorite: statistics. Reading is 60% more calming than listening to music, and 300% more calming than taking a walk. A University of Minnesota article mentions, “….a 2009 study at the University of Sussex found that reading can reduce stress by up to 68%. It works better than […] drinking a hot cup of tea.” Rot in hell, tea! Hello Great Expectations.

This all seems a bit asinine. What do these experiments look like, anyway? A group reading Tess d’Urbervilles vs. a control group walking around Central Park — I know in which group I’d be weeping from boredom.

And a person who is relaxed by Blood Meridian has bigger problems.

The logic goes like this: We need reading because… Science! Science proves health benefits! But you begin to wonder, if science were so great at solving whatever it is we need solved, then why would we need reading in the first place?

EL’s sleek infographic encourages getting comfortable behind a novel — that readers have 60% more… cartoons of a human heart and a dude meditating. Readers are 17% more likely to volunteer for charities — maybe because readers are unemployed and have time to volunteer.

And you know what else reduces stress? Xanax. And Xanax you can do while watching TV.

Streaming television, for its part, is practically free and showcases sexy people with middle class problems like you banging and the writing on a lot of these shows is excellent. For better or for worse, I relate more to the Soprano kids and President Underwood than Pip.

Other articles like this one espouse the concept that scientists should be more well-rounded and study humanities. So much money goes towards science and is taken away from humanities that I tend to agree, but the idea that scientists cannot think “critically” or “creatively” is as absurd as saying that people with creative jobs can’t be analytical because they didn’t study physics. This The Diane Rehm Show episode suggests fiction makes people more empathetic. Maybe empathetic, intelligent people simply value reading in the first place.

And just to suck the last bits of fun out of it, studies show that readers make better workers. Please, keep labor out of my reading time.

While I admire the goals of these articles, the focus of reading campaigns should be what pedagogy has been saying for decades — make the subject interesting for the students, and they’ll learn on their own.

A recent article I read about the way Russian is taught in Russian schools got me thinking. Russian is taught with a severe focus on theoretical grammar, as though the schoolchildren are all little linguistics majors. It is taught like Latin, like a dead language: cases and participles and clauses. And still after 12 years of school, people fluent in their native language don’t know rules or terms and they are ashamed.

That they don’t remember the biochemical processes of cellular respiration by heart bothers no-one.

In America, we teach students to read old literature often from Britain — another culture across a pretty big pond and 150 years of changing values. Or we read classical books like The Odyssey without context. And we say, “I don’t get Shakespeare, I must not be smart!” Like Russian language, English Literature can be taught as though it ended in 1917. And after 12 years of school, how many children graduate as life-long readers? (Less than half.) My college students proudly proclaim, “I don’t read books.” When they read fiction from the past 50 years for the first time in a creative writing class they say, “I didn’t know people still wrote stories.” And into adulthood, if they do read, they read mostly YA books and don’t graduate to so-called literary fiction.

What’s ailing in this system is:

1) Schools having us read from a different epoch and culture way above the actual reading level of the students. We go right from YA books in middle school to King Lear in a year. (Nothing against the Bard, but American teenagers shouldn’t understand what 16th century British people did. Any untrained reader who does read Shakespeare with full understanding is insane or lying. The meanings of the words have changed over hundreds of years and the works are filled with Briticisms anyway). Pamela, Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennet all end their class struggles by marrying a rich man who turns out to be a lot nicer than they had originally supposed when he was trying to thrust himself upon her. This is not the most relevant issue for teenage American girls.

As for American Literature, why give a book like Moby Dick so complex that devoted scholars cannot come to a consensus about it… to teenagers? And then ask them to write an original essay on it?

To Kill A Mockingbird remains popular probably because it’s easy, reinforces values people think they are supposed to have and for girls is the only book they read in school with a girl protagonist. In other words, a girl has basically no other choice but to like it. The next closest character she might relate to in the school program is Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter. And if she’s not white, forget about it.

School boards also don’t think English departments need money for new books to diversify the reading list. Books, the argument goes, can be reused. Chemicals for big blue explosions in the science department cost money, but are made of fire.

School children learn through class that reading is boring, that English class is for the white dead people, of the white dead people and by the white dead people (except Zora Neale Hurston, if you’re lucky, and she is an advanced author for someone coming off Harry Potter). They learn to cram about plots with Sparknotes and that reading has no use in their actual lives. Chemistry teachers can wow with explosions, history teachers with stranger-than-fiction histories and war stories and connect it to current events. Lifelong readers, I would guess, read a book that really emotionally guides them at some point in their youth. Could Henry IV do that? Absolutely, if a 14-year-old could understand what the hell was going on. Even the best English teachers will find it hard to meet this challenge, especially when they are forced to follow a state curriculum.

2) People think everything has to be scientifically backed when a) we shouldn’t be questioning if reading is important anyway and by questioning it we are admitting we don’t necessarily believe it. Scientific studies don’t convince our masses to read, and only pat the literary twittersphere on the back for reading about books without actually reading books, 140 characters at a time.

and b) Scientific studies aren’t even scientifically reliable. There is an uproar in the hard sciences now about how some insanely large number of fancy sounding experiments were flukes and cannot be proven by repeated outcomes. That means, someone makes a hypothesis, it works one time, they publish their paper in Nature, the media picks up on it and exaggerates the potential significance, then a year later the result is not reproduced but the media cycle has shifted. Getting an article published in a peer reviewed journal does not translate into truth, and scientifically sound studies can be made to say just about anything according to this guy who gonzoed his way into proving that chocolate causes weight loss. This is why we need art and books in the first place, because science is relative and unreliable. Art has the ability to transcend changing values. Statistics don’t.

If we are going to take all this science for granted, then there’s another side. It’s not really clear whether, counting blogs and online magazines, people are actually reading less.

And what of adults? A person coming home from a hard day at work wants a cheeseburger or ice cream. Not Wuthering Heights, Richard II or Rabbit Run. They’re like boiled, unseasoned broccoli. Maybe the fact that YA books are still popular says more about contemporary literary fiction than those reading it. YA is a vitamin-enriched cereal that we eat from childhood, during college and maybe into adulthood because it is enjoyable, satisfying, and familiar. It is not a cleanse diet. And if you want something more refined there are always cable TV dramas.

The potential with a scientist approach is that one day you’ll be able to pop a pill that will chemically alter you into a form where you feel as though you just read a good book. If it can be replaced with a pill, it’s not art. I don’t need a pill, I need Edward P. Jones.

I don’t see why appreciation and interest in reading or art should be backed up by science. Reading was doing fine before there were armies of psychology professors trying to make a name. People read more in the past because it was relevant, fun and affordable. If we want people to read, we should give them interesting books from contemporary, diverse authors and wrap it candy instead of barbed wire.


Harry Leeds is a translator of Russian poetry, a prose writer of food and culture (Lucky Peach, The Journal, Roads and Kingdoms, Black Warrior Review), and a general lover of things unreasonably priced and far away. He has an MFA from the University Florida. You can find more about him at harryleeds.com. Tweets @mumbermag.

1 thought on “Why is Lit Taught like English is Dead?

  • Excellent read, Harry. Thank you for turning me on to your writing. I was especially drawn to this sentiment:

    “If it can be replaced with a pill, it’s not art.”

    I think you’ve touched on something essential here: experience is not equal to results. If your systemic goal is to feel happy, science has given us the chemical means to get there ASAP. But if your goal is more nuanced, if it’s creating a self-actuating frame of reference, living a life in which you are encouraged to regularly feel happy in a way that is genuine and justified and validating (which is likely what those who say they want to “feel happy” are actually attempting to say via a ubiquitous shorthand), that’s not a prescription so easily filled.

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