How high school English fails whereas university succeeds

A linguistics course in a country’s official language is an integral part in compulsory education almost everywhere. So, given Canada’s importance as a Commonwealth nation, it’s not at all surprising that English is a core component of the Canadian curriculum. However, English as it is taught in high school is fundamentally different from the English taught to university students, stemming from a divergence in purpose.

In high school, English as a course aims to cultivate an appreciation for the language, as well as exhibit a selection of literary and philosophical works. As a math student in university, English courses have a completely different goal – making sure communication skills of students are up to par, either for future academia or the workplace. This is understandable; math students aren’t also known for their strength in English, and the multitude of international students only exacerbates the situation.

The disconnect between the two is fairly jarring.


As a self-described arts student at heart with a variety of interests, I’ve had a love of literature since a very young age. Thus, I’d like to pen some thoughts on the subject – an opinion piece, if you will.

High school: a scattered approach

The first thing to remark about high school English is probably its lack of direct focus. The works studied each year were drastically different, and in particular there was a lot of reading from a certain Will Shaxspur, but the criteria for choosing what was to be studied seemed to vary from year to year. Several novels were examined, among them Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and a smattering of other works such as The Laughing Sutra, The Jade Peony, and The Cellist of Sarajevo.


The standout commonality between all these works is their examination of circumstance, culture, and the human condition. Some of the works are only notable because they illustrate a single salient point, like the difficulty of reconciliation between two cultures. Others are influential compositions serving as portrayals of humanity, and cautionary tales against the capabilities of its extrema. A smattering of poetry exists as well, serving as a more aesthetically pleasant cross-section alongside the Shakespeare.

Okay, everything sounds good so far, but there are a couple criticisms as well.


          1. Too much emphasis is placed on analytical value.

Orwell’s novels are compelling political commentaries, but harshly modern and pessimistic; the same is true for Kafka and Golding on the topic of human psychology. Much of the material follows in a similar vein, being moderately thought-provoking but hardly enjoyable to digest. I certainly didn’t have much fun reading them, despite my deep respect for Orwell’s work.


          2. Lack of perspective, historical and cultural.

Many prominent authors, penning beautiful and enriching works, are left by the wayside in a typical high school curriculum. Milton, Tennyson, Dickens – just to name a few masters of the craft. I respect the curriculum’s desire to teach on the topics they deem to be the most relevant and interesting, but little mind is given to studying English’s literary history, which I see as a cultural tragedy.


          3. The encouragement to make things up.

This mostly happens during literary analysis. While identifying literary techniques is an objective endeavour, finding meaning is more subjective. Students may be penalized for views on the text that radically differ from the teacher’s. Additionally, students are also pushed to find convolution where the author may have intended none.

All three factors, I think, are caused by the expedition and institutionalization of education. The Graeco-Roman classics and a study of antiquity were, in the past, basic hallmarks of scholarship. Sixty percent of English words have Latinate roots, and an additional twenty-five, ancient Greek. It’s no wonder that classical influence is just as commonplace in the writings of the literate from even one or two hundred years ago. Alas, learning Latin and ancient Greek would be a daunting task for many students in the modern day, and furthermore such an effort is oft perceived as bootless. The attempt to introduce students to a full, um, course of English is therefore too ambitious an undertaking, in my humble opinion, and falls rather short of the mark.


Thankfully, university takes a different stance.

University-level: a precise procedure

Although it wasn’t so in the more distant past, a contemporary university is where learning becomes more specialized. This course, for example, concentrates its energy upon a single direction, and I quote: “to help [students] develop [their] abilities as a communicator in a variety of contexts”. This is a relatively simple and one-dimensional goal, with little ambiguity in its principle.


Simplicity is powerful. It allows teacher and student to meet at a mutually agreeable place. Effective communication dictates that your readers should arrive at mostly the same conclusion, eliminating much of the complexity that can arise during critical analysis of a literary work. On a more personal level, I’m pleased to have an opportunity to practice concision and clarity in writing.

Many portions of modern academia would likely strongly disagree with my opinions on English literature, but that’s an entirely different topic altogether, beyond the scope of this blog post.

2 thoughts on “How high school English fails whereas university succeeds

  1. I am so glad you wrote this post! Actually, English at the university level is not what you describe here. It`s really about learning all the ways in which English operates. So, sure, linguistics is part of that and so it literature (a term I actually do not like very much for many reasons), but it`s not really about appreciation. Like I say to many of my student.s English is not your Saturday night book club.

    The goal of English studies when it first started in the 19th century was largely to participate in a colonial project, placing British literary works at the apex (Because…British Empire etc…). of course, now things are different. What you describe here is English studies circa 1950. Sorry that has been your experience, but that`s not how it is anymore.

    Also, if you really feel that a teacher is giving you low grades because they disagree with you, that`s highly unethical­. I strongly suggest that if this happens in the future that you appeal your grade.

    I hope I`ve cleared things up for you!


    1. Hello! Thank you for the reply. I think there may have been a misunderstanding.

      The majority of my post is a description of my English experience in high school — only the last paragraph or so concerns university. University courses, as I remarked in the blog post, seem to be largely directed and singular in their approach, in that they focus on one topic of study. So I think it’s easy to understand your clarification re: university English being “about learning all the ways in which English operates”, even inferentially. (Presumably, every course is about -one or a few- ways that English operates, or a person might be an expert in a limited number of ways that English operates, just like mathematics has six-plus broad fields that are then split into numerous specializations, with each scholar having their own field of expertise. However, I could be wrong.)

      I actually have little experience with university English, and noted my lack of expertise as such. Given the faculty that I am in, the only university English courses I’ve taken have been required communication courses, so I haven’t had the misfortune of having differing opinions be a relevant factor in my academic career. (I did, however, have an interesting English teacher during one of my high school years who obviously let his politics spill over into his marking. Talking about certain topics would earn you an automatic A+, but he wasn’t a terrible person or anything, just a little biased.)

      I, er, appreciate that university in general is not about appreciation, and reasonably so. Much of the motivation behind my penning the blog post is simply an expression of trite sentimentality. I come from a culture with very high regard for the wisdom of its forebears, so much so that a significant portion of modern departments of the language — at least in the countries that speak it! — is devoted to studying historically significant works. Because of this, I have a great amount of respect for historical brilliance and the scholarship required to attain a mastery of the classics. (It was, as I understand it, a requisite in the past, but has since been discarded much like traditional grammar schools, and so my post is replete with romanticism and what-could-have-beens.)

      I hope that clears things up. For what it’s worth, I just like old things in general (for example, my favourite composer is Bach, who was considered old-fashioned even for his time); the necessary erudition for authorship from, say, even 200 years ago is absolutely marvelous and worthy of admiration.


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