Mandatory Reading

In conversing with Sarah T. about literature and education, I realized I strongly oppose mandatory reading for high school students.

I went through the public education system and endured summers of reading lists and English classes full of literature. Of the vast multitude of books populating the curriculum, here’s what I remember:

I enjoyed reading Old Man and the Sea and Sons and Lovers.

I struggled painfully through Pride and Prejudice, The Scarlet Letter, Of Mice and Men, most Shakespeare, and The Invisible Man (spoiler: not about a superhero who can turn invisible – I know right?!? WHAT THE HECK.)

There’s nothing else. I might recall a storyline here or there if you gave me hints, but otherwise it’s all gone. Furthermore, many of the books I was suppose to read, I didn’t read. There was a fair fraction of us who skimmed and skipped our way through the bulk of books. I think my class read Beloved in high school too. I’m pretty sure I didn’t read it.

With this in mind, it’s hard for me to see value in mandatory reading. Sarah T. pointed out that becoming educated on culturally significant storylines of quintessential works is only half of the purpose. The other half is learning to unearth and appreciate the symbolism and themes that lie between the lines. And while I may have called shenanigans on these themes in high school because they seemed convoluted and contrived, I now appreciate that many written works are carefully crafted to share something deeper than 300 pages of Times New Roman.

Right now I’m reading some poetry. Specifically, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Coleridge. This is a perfect example of a work that I would have no interest in if it was forced upon me, but now that I’ve picked it up on my own volition, I find it deeply powerful. Is the best way to educate to try and push value upon someone who may not be ready to embrace it? The clever child might make this argument regarding those last stems of lukewarm broccoli sitting on his dinner plate, but I submit to you that these are different situations.

It could very well be that it just wasn’t for me and that most lives are enriched by what I saw as cultural water-boarding. Even if the sampling might have a disproportionate amount of engineers who, like me, chose a college based entirely on the fact that they didn’t have to take English courses, I’m curious to hear your opinions on mandatory reading in high school.

Literature really is an art. I didn’t see it as such until I started walking down the literary path alone.

32 comments on “Mandatory Reading”

  1. Aaron Reply

    You “struggled” through Of Mice and Men? It’s like 100 pages. HTFU, Mike D in highschool.

    I was lucky in that my senior english teacher allowed us to choose our own novels to read. I read Catch-22, Brave New World, The Alienist (terrible), and Watership Down. All were fun to read, and once I finished college, I was able to read for fun again.

  2. mike d. Reply

    100 pages of pure unadulterated loathing my friend. I started every forced book with a preconceived notion that I’d hate it. Unfortunate, but true.

    As for your teacher’s style: YES! I think pulling students into the process is a great idea to help encourage enthusiasm. Way to go teach!

  3. Caitlin Marie Reply

    You’d better believe I remember jack-and-shazbot about any of those HS books. I could hardly read a-one of them! I can tell you nothing at all about Catch-22, The Grapes of Wrath, Pride and Prejudice, Last of the Mohicans…. The list goes on. I went into engineering, of course… and then doubled back into Philosophy. So suffice it to say, I whole-heartedly agree.

  4. Ryan Schenk Reply

    Oh yeah man, Beloved. The only thing I remember about that book is how much it suuuucked

  5. sarah t Reply

    I think this says less about literature and more about the general fact that you don’t like being told what to do. Not everyone’s as self-motivated as you, Mike D, so I think a majority of people would never read the classics without being forced. I’d argue that reading the classics is just as important as learning higher level math (unless you want to be, say, an engineer…), so of course we should make people do it.

    I lucked out and was in really great English classes where people enjoyed working together on the same books. It can be done– good teachers help a lot.

    So spake someone who went to a liberal arts college, teaches at a liberal arts college, and started out as an English major.

  6. Mykal Reply

    I’m always sad when I hear from people who hated their high school english courses. I loved my high school english program. Sure I had to suffer through some books (I’m looking at you Wuthering Heights!) but overall the classes I took enhanced my reading comprehension which has subsequently enhanced my enjoyment of literature as a whole. I was very lucky to get this from High School.

    We didn’t have summer reading, but we got a list of say 20 books a year and each quarter you read one for your outside reading book. After reading the book you sat down with the teacher to discuss for 15-20 minutes or so. The book lists were pretty good with classics scattered through, short books(you were only allowd one short a year, such as Waiting for Godot, long books counted for two) along with books that weren’t just “classics.” I read Dune for one of my books and Clan of the Cave Bear, but I read some classics like Jane Austen too.

    It did take me a while to get over the idea that I don’t have to spend all my time reading only Important Literary Works. I tried to get through Crime and Punishment like 3 times before I realized, I didnt’ enjoy the book, I was never going to finish, and that is OK. I should be reading books that I find enjoyable not just books that are “important literary works.”

  7. Mykal Reply

    Uhhhh turns out I have a lot to say about High School English classes!

    On another note I just finished reading a Young Adult novel, Hunger Games, highly recommended!

  8. Patrick Reply

    Similarly, aren’t algebra and geometry “mandatory” math-ing? You don’t get to pick and choose which math theorems to learn when you’re in high school.

  9. mike d. Reply

    Thanks for your contribution! I’m glad that the system worked for you. It sounds like you got a lot of quality time with quality books.

    Dune! I’m impressed. I like the 15-20 minutes discussion with a teacher. I think this could be really valuable if organized properly.

  10. mike d. Reply

    A strong point indeed! I wonder though, is there a difference between art and science? I look at art as needing an open mind for interpretation, math less so because it’s far more cut and dry.

    Still though, a great point.

  11. mike d. Reply

    Perhaps the challenge is that there are people like me who screw up the system. ha ha! You’re right. And I’m not sure if I would have done better in any different system, a lot of it could also be addressed as my personal lack of maturity too.

    If I were entering high school with my current mind-set I probably would have been ready to read the books placed on my desk.

  12. sarah t Reply

    Hmm, I don’t think you get to pick which art you look at in art history, do you? Unless maybe it’s for an essay topic. (I haven’t taken art history myself.)

  13. Jesse Reply

    I’m 1000% on the other side of the fence from you Mike. I will admit that perhaps your teacher, and many, have a poor style of “forcing” kids to read stuff they find mind numbingly monotonous or uninteresting, but there are a LOT of kids who feel the same way about math, about history, science, social studies… the list goes on. Should we not, as you put it, “force” them to take any of these classes?

    I contend that high school really isn’t about the subject matter anyway. It’s where you demonstrate your ability to function on a variety of levels, expose you to different subjects, and see what sticks. College is where you get to decide what to focus on, high school shows them you can learn. And if you don’t go to college, it sure would be nice for people to know by the fact that you graduated high school that you can read and understand something, function in basic mathematics, know your rights as a citizen of your country, etc.

    That being said, I’m an engineer who loves reading, and loved my English classes. Of course, my English classes/teachers for the most part were awesome. For summer reading, we were given HUGE lists of authors and allowed to choose any books by them. Asimov, Heinlein, Orwell, Bradbury, Vonnegut… they all made the list. Sure, I also had to read some books during the year that made me want to poke my eyes out, but sadly, a teacher at that level of education, with probably 20-30 students per class, can’t teach a different book or poem to everyone, so they settle on the ones people have studied and scrutinized over decades. And as a testament to how well it works, the fact that most people CAN name one thing in high school they read and enjoyed (even one), demonstrates that there is decent variety in what we’re exposed to since I imagine kids’ tastes vary wildly. How else could teachers do it? We also had writing assignments called “journals” that had different topics every week. Some people hated this too, but I thought it was great to do some creative writing. I think I would have been missing out if they didn’t “force” us to do those assignments.

    Anyway, just because you did not appreciate it then, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a purpose or isn’t valuable.

  14. mike d. Reply

    I have taken art history and you’re right – there’s little room for personal choice in the offering. Especially in specific history classes like “American Art of the 1900’s.” That said, physical art requires far less personal investment to examine. While a book requires hours to consume, a painting requires minutes. (EDIT: I am aware that this is a broad generalization)

    Education is a challenging topic with many facets. Of this I’m certain.

  15. mike d. Reply

    Strongly said! I enjoyed your argument detailing the real purpose of high school.

    I am jealous of your schools extensive reading lists. I don’t believe Asimov or Heinlein was ever on one of my reading lists.

  16. Jesse Reply

    turns out while i was writing this novel, people made all the good points already. good job, readership.

  17. Jesse Reply

    would love to get an English teacher commenting on here… anybody know one?

  18. Shaun L. Reply

    I think the real question here is whether or not being forced to read “Pride and Prejudice” is going to benefit the individual or society as a whole. Reading is a form of entertainment as well as a learning device. If you aren’t being entertained or lack interest in the book then why continue reading it? At the end of the day are you going to be able to perform a task any better upon completion other than being able to discuss which man is most agreeable? A better path may be to force kids to READ in general and then recommend the “classics.” They are only “classics” because of someone’s opinion on the matter and would be no different than forcing someone to watch Twilight or Titanic because somebody felt it was the best thing since sliced bread. What really bugged me is that you are almost forced to come up with the same conclusion’s as everyone else in regards to theme and symbolism instead of coming up with your own. Even worse is when people tend to dig deeper below the surface scratching with the bone of their fingers for any type of symbolism that they can find. I had a teacher who would relate things to God and Jesus all the time. It was ridiculous. Sometimes a story is just a story. If the goal is to just force kid’s to read something and be able to quiz them all on the same material then ask context question’s. “How many dude’s did Elizabeth Bennet want to get it on with?” is a better question than “What is the major theme of the book?” as it’s more fact than opinion.

  19. tony e Reply

    Let me put it to you this way, mike d. Without the learning you got from all them forced books you would never be able to understand the lyrics to your rage against the machine records.

  20. mike d. Reply

    This is extremely true. Especially since I didn’t read Grapes of Wrath and I have no idea what their song Ghost of Tom Joad is about.

  21. Mykal Reply

    But by hearing from more than one person who liked their High School english program we can see some general similarities between them. Offering student choice and wide ranging selections for outside reading, huge plus. Having a great based curiculum with good teachers to teach it, also key components of the equation.

  22. Ted Reply

    I read Beloved last year, on my own volition, and thought it was pretty damn good. It does start a little slow, but it’s a pretty dark and twisted book. Really strong stuff.

  23. mike d. Reply

    Were we suppose to read that in 12th grade Ted? for some reason I thought our teacher was all about that book.

  24. mike d. Reply

    quote from Ted’s Instant Message answer:

    Ted: yeah, i didn’t read a page
    Mike D: me either

  25. Sander Reply

    DUDE The Scarlet Letter. What kind of universe makes that book mandatory reading? Certainly not a kind or fair one.
    I would read 11 Jane Austen books before picking that one up again.

  26. Aaron Reply

    I think there is some value in reading Pride and Prejudice (full disclosure: I’ve never even glanced at its wikipedia entry), The Scarlet Letter, Beowulf, and all the other super-old, now-boring books: culture. Reading books that are very much a product of their time and culture gives you an insight that you don’t get from reading that “puritans had strict moral codes” in your history book.

    In my junior year of highschool, our American Lit and American History classes were taught in a combined class, where we read Of Mice and Men during the depression, Night during WW2, and All Quiet on the Western Front during WW1. It was pretty awesome.

  27. Paul N Reply

    I tried to read it in 12 grade, but just couldn’t get past page 12 or something. Ended up with a 32 on the test (worse grade ever), and was somehow able to work my butt off and pull my grade for the quarter up to a C+. I think that was one of my greatest accomplishments ever in high school. I have forever hated the thought of Beloved, Toni Morrison and Oprah’s book club.

  28. Tom Reply

    So one day in high school, as I came into english class, someone asked “what did you pick for your book report?” “Crap,” I replied, “we needed that today!?” I quickly went to the local bookshelf, scanning quickly for a book to pick, until I came upon Invisible Man. I picked it up, thinking, “Sweet, how can this go wrong.” Oh how wrong I was. Curse you Ralph Ellison!!! (protip The Invisible Man, by HG Wells, is actually about an invisible man. The “The” is critical. )

    I too hated high school english, and saw never having to take another english class as one of the greatest things about WPI. I think high school english has a real negative effect on me, as I used to read a lot as a kid, but had pretty much stopped by high school, at least partially because school had made reading into work, instead of something fun.

  29. Jocelyn Reply

    I loved high school English and I even minored in literature at WPI. Maybe I had really good teachers in high school but I read lots of classics and poetry in class and my teachers were able to make me appreciate them. Heck, I liked A Tale of Two Cities and Moby Dick. In fact, I even took a whole class on Moby Dick at WPI. But I also think that the class is what made me appreciate the books; the discussion about the themes, symbolism, and writing styles that I may have missed on my own. I might be exactly the opposite as you Mike, because nowadays I don’t really get into the classics because they are thick and heavy and if I don’t have a schedule to keep to (ex. Read Ch 1-3 for Monday) then I just go for the lighter books to read. Books like Eating the Dinosaur by Chuck Klosterman get read before the dusty ones on the shelf like the Count of Monte Cristo and Great Expectations. Maybe I should join a bookclub…

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