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.