I recently had an unsatisfyingly brief conversation with a woman who's purchasing new textbooks and online resources to implement the Common Core Curriculum in our school district. I'm rather neutral in the whole Common Core debate. Having taught freshman composition at five different colleges and universities, each with a different philosophical approach to the subject, I developed a pretty flexible understanding of the "right" way to teach. Basically, there are lots of right ways to teach, and lots of wrong ways. The Common Core, at least in its general approach as I understand it, doesn't seem exactly wrong to me.
Whether it turns out to be right, only time will tell.
But as a result of that brief conversation, I started wondering how Great Literature will fare in the Common Core. From my cursory research on the matter, the answer is far from clear, if only because states and individual school districts have enormous freedom to customize the Common Core. No one really knows what will end up being taught from Great Literature and what will end up being deleted from reading lists...and thus, potentially, eventually, from our culture.
In some ways, my using the phrase Great Literature with initial capitalization is a betrayal of my moderate stand in the politics of literary criticism. Oh, yes. Literary criticism is highly political, as is most of academia. In literary criticism, we have the conservatives who claim that there is truly such a thing as Great Literature and it needs to be vigorously protected from contamination by the plebian affection for commercial trash. The conservative critic Harold Bloom, for instance, classifies Hamlet as Great Literature and Harry Potter as trash.
Of course, he hadn't actually read Harry Potter when he offered up his condemnation of it, but he won't let a little thing like total ignorance stop him from expressing his expert opinion. He has, however, written some lovely, intelligent, and insightful essays on Hamlet that I have happily quoted in academic papers. Bloom comes across as an insufferable literary snob, but he's not stupid.
On the other end of the political spectrum we find the anything-goes liberal critics. For them, all the classics are generally referred to as literature with a lower-case "l." In truth, however, the liberals are suspicious of even lower-case literature and instead prefer the term text to refer to whatever writing they analyze. The adorable marketing blurb on the back of a bottle of Newman's Own salad dressing, for example, is a text, as is the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf. These two examples of writing are equal in value and interchangeable as legitimate subjects for literary study.
Obviously, liberal textual egalitarianism gives conservatives apoplectic fits. I confess to a certain delight in the red-faced sputterings of the snobs, but I also recognize that Beowulf probably deserves a bit more attention than marketing blurbs on bottles of Newman's Own...unless you're studying marketing, in which case Beowulf is pretty much useless.
Hmmm...I suppose you could shoot a commercial in which Grendel leaves a bloody mess for the queen's laundry women to clean with Oxi-Clean.
If anyone makes that commercial, I want royalties.
Anyway. Back to Great Literature.
I'm a moderate in the literature war. Great Literature is distinctively awesome, but when it comes to school reading lists, I honestly don't mind students reading popular fluff on occasion. Nick had to read The Hunger Games in 8th grade. I've not read it and am uniquely unqualified to pass judgment on its quality (ahem, Mr. Bloom, take note), but it's new and popular and only time will tell if it survives long enough to become Great Literature. Nevertheless, it sparked in Nick a desire to read that has hitherto been smothered by his love of screens and things that go bang through the Xbox.
I don't care what gateway books schools use to get kids hooked on reading, as long as they also teach those undeniably influential great books that have shaped our culture for good. Get the reading monkey on their backs, and the great stuff is easier to push.
And thus we come back to my concern: how much Great Literature will survive the Common Core? According to my source in our district, English teachers are going to have to start teaching at least some informational texts, which seems utterly wrong to me. Social studies and science teachers can and should cover how to read informational texts (this is a vitally important skill virtually ignored in my own classics-based education), but English classes are where we read literature, where the cultural creativity of our past meets young minds of the present and lays the groundwork for the cultural creativity of the future.
The language of literature isn't literal or merely informative. Its density of meaning vastly exceeds the sum of its words. Literature layers meaning, explores ambiguity and depth, reveals the complexity of life and death and what it means to love and live and breathe and change. Reading literature right can only happen when one reads literature broadly and deeply...because as soon as a poet writes a poem or a novelist writes a story, s/he joins an ongoing conversation with all the poems and stories that have come before, just as we join the ongoing conversation of humanity when we are born.
English classes are where our cultural conversation reaches back to the Bible and Sophocles and Chaucer and Dante and Cervantes and Shakespeare and Donne and Austen and Dickens and Joyce and Eliot and Hemingway and Angelou. English classes are where we start participating in that cultural conversation in active, meaningful ways.
It means something that the story of Superman repeats the story of Moses. It means something that Oedipus was destroyed by pride and unintended consequences...and so are modern politicians. It means something that JK Rowling modeled her "Tale of the Three Brothers" on Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale. It means something that so many people saw in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings an allegory of World War I...an allegory Tolkien himself vigorously denied. It means something that James Joyce modeled arguably the greatest novel ever written on Homer's ancient epic The Odyssey.
All of literature engages in a conversation. And that's literature with a lower-case "l." The good, the bad...it's all connected. Those blurbs on the backs of Newman's Own dressing bottles? They cleverly riff on classic stories and history. The more you read of both Great Literature and lower-case literature, the more you understand the conversation. The more you read, the easier the conversation is to follow.
I recently sparked a bit of a kerfuffle on my stamping blog when I quoted the first line of TS Eliot's The Waste Land. I encouraged people to think of a loved one going through a tough time and to send them a card this month. I closed the post by saying that, after all, "April is the cruelest month." Several people took offense, and one went so far as to accuse me of promoting negativity.
That's why we need to keep reading Great Literature. If we strip all texts down to their literal meaning (April sucks, for instance), we get information devoid of context. Nuance, creativity, individuality, and spirit are lost in the literal. The conversation gets derailed when we're not speaking the same cultural language, a language rich in history and imagery and words with more than one meaning and expressed in contexts that matter. The more deeply we understand the connectedness of words and images and thoughts, the more deeply we understand our world and each other. Reading our cultural masterworks teaches that connectedness in profound and vital ways, ways that informational texts (for all their undeniable value in some areas of thought) simply can't teach.
At least, that's what I think.
And now it's your turn. What do you think? Should school reading lists for English classes include Great Literature, or is Great Literature ceasing to be relevant in our fast-paced, high-tech world? Are English classes the proper place to teach students how to read informational texts? Should we replace To Kill a Mockingbird with Time Magazine or cnn.com? Has Great Literature had an effect on how you think, what you think, what you feel about life?
Today, I am grateful for this card which was left on my doorstep by my girlfriend Angela last week. It came with cookies. Just because. I have amazing friends.
Today, I am grateful for another card which appeared in my mailbox on a very gray and rainy and cold day late last week. It's from another friend named Angela whom I've never met in real life but have known online for years through the card-making community. The card, handmade by Angela, is signed by her and her students who read my blog post on Authenticity. Apparently they liked it. A gray, cold day turned warm and sunny through their expression of gratitude!
Today, I am grateful for our high school's musical performance of Hairspray. There are some amazingly talented teens in our town, and Nick and I so enjoyed our evening Saturday night together. He's looking forward to auditioning for whatever musical they put on next year since he'll be in the high school. You can't stop the beat!
Today, I am grateful for our church, our pastor, and the opportunities I have to serve God in a wonderful Christian community.
Today, I am grateful that George was able to ride his bike on Saturday and Sunday. Sunny spring days make him happy to be spinning on the open road after a long winter of indoor training rides. Only 154 days until Ironman Wisconsin. Moooooooo!
When I participated in the Word of the Year project, by April I would have forgotten my word. My new plan to choose a new word each month seems much more successful. Not a month has gone by that I've forgotten my word. Yay!
Here's a review of my first-quarter words for 2014.
January - Wonderful
February - Coffee
March - Process
And now for April, we explore Delete. A friend sparked this idea when she posted on Facebook asking how to close her Twitter account that had been hacked...an action I took last fall after my third hacking. I deleted the whole account.
Take that, hackers.
Delete is a powerful word, useful for good or evil, a word that must be used with discretion and discernment. It's one thing to delete old emails or (in old-fashioned deleting) to throw away old, ratty clothes, but it's quite another to delete a person from your Christmas list or from your life.
We've all had things deleted from our lives through no fault of our own. Friends move away, we lose files or photos on our computers, things get stolen, we get laid off, someone doesn't return a borrowed book, or worst of all, loved ones die. Rarely, we're relieved about our loss, but mostly, we're sad or angry or upset.
Deleting, in other words, is like rhetoric. It is neither good nor bad in itself, but how you use it and how it uses you definitely can have moral or emotional implications.
April is the month of spring cleaning (at least in the northern hemisphere), and that prompted me to pick Delete as its word. Good deleting. Clearing out the trash in life, the over-abundance that distracts us and clutters our homes and minds in unpleasant ways. In April, I want to delete the dross, the dregs, the dust, the dirt, the dung, the detritus from as much of my house as possible. I've already begun and am happy to report that one full leaf bag of trash has been cleared.
It's a start.
Do you need to delete stuff? Perhaps it's simple and your email in-box needs clearing out, or perhaps it's complicated and your heart needs clearing of anger or resentment. How can you use the power of Delete for good in your life this month?
Today, I am grateful for the series Cosmos. It makes me think, teaches me interesting things, and makes my brain hurt...but in a good way.
Today, I am grateful for Moms and Doughnuts and so very grateful it's no longer Moms and Muffins. Doughnuts are so much tastier. I'm also grateful to Susan Fort for taking this picture of me and my Jack.
Today, I am grateful for warmer weather, shades of green on lawns, and birds flitting everywhere.
Today, I am grateful for healing. Several people I know and care for were recently hospitalized and they are now home and doing better. Yay!
Today, I am grateful that Jack received a speaking part in the 5th-grade musical Pirates. Way to go, Jack! I am also trying to be grateful that he has decided to play the trumpet in the 6th-grade band.
Today, I am grateful that George is gainfully employed and appreciated by his employer because he's one heck of a great guy. I am grateful that several friends who were recently unemployed are now working. I am hopeful that several more friends who are still searching for employment will find it soon.
Organization is a process. Not a destination. Same goes for cleaning.
How I wish this were not so!
I want to organize and clean up my life and have it stay organized and cleaned up forever. I don't want to have to keep organizing and cleaning. It's tedious. Boring. Overwhelming. Frustrating.
Why can't we just organize and clean up, and be finished? Move on to more interesting things, like reading mystery novels and stamping pretty cards.
There are certain battles we fight over and over and never, ever win. The battle to be permanently organized and clean is one such battle. How stupidly some of us tilt at these windmills. When our frustration peaks, we feel like giving up. Perhaps we do give up. And let all around us devolve into chaos.
You have one guess as to the current state of my house.
So since my March word is Process, I'm going to try to accept that the process of organizing and cleaning up my life will last my whole life long, no matter how sad this fact makes me. Because a definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, and I'm done with the crazy tilting at this windmill.
Organization is a process. I will never be finished. Cleaning is a process. I will never be finished.
What windmills do you tilt at? How can you accept the natural, unavoidable processes of life (aging, parenting, edging your sidewalks, plucking your brows) with grace and perhaps a glass of wine? How can you fall in love with the process?