why learning literature is silly

This is the first college semester that I have felt challenged and educated. Truly. And it’s the first semester that I’ve really thoroughly enjoyed. It’s not that every class I’ve taken has been awful, but a lot of them have, and even the ones that were awful were not really challenging. Honors classes are generally shitty, except for my intro to ethnomusicology class and the honors contract I did in my literary analysis class. And there is a difference between a class being hard and a class being challenging, which is why I’m not counting music theory or neuroscience. Theory started out challenging and quickly turned into a place where I was completely lost and just maintained a B every semester by luck, and neuroscience was horrible, because everything we learned in this supposedly general education course was prefaced with “But you already know all this other stuff, so we’re just going to build on that,” when nutrition and weather gen eds in no way taught me anything about actual science.

Anyway. This semester I’m taking Spanish lit, which challenges me because my reading skills and my formal writing skills in Spanish are really poor. It drives me crazy that I don’t know conventions or rules about the tone to take, whether to say “we,” “I,” or “the reader,” etc. And even though many of the people in my class are terrible at Spanish and have no idea what’s going on, it challenges me to have to work out my ideas about literature in another language. I was finally getting to the point that I really felt like I had an aptitude for literary analysis and conversation in English, and now I have to find a way to do close reading in my second language and to find the vocabulary to discuss things. So that is good.

Then I’m taking three English classes: non-fiction prose, Victorian literature, and British literature through 1660. They are all going well, and it’s giving me the opportunity to finally read those things that everyone has read, like the Canterbury Tales and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I have a lot of homework, but not so much that I can’t handle it, and it’s keeping me on my toes.

But it’s also pretty sad that I’m 22 and have never read most of this stuff, even though I’m pretty well-read. There is a problem when you’re reading Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” for the first time and you think that one stanza is making the point that “it’s better to have loved and lost than to never have loved before,” and that’s when you learn that this poem is where that freaking line is from. And it’s also sad that we read books and watch movies inspired by classic literature, or using things that are now cliche that originated in classic literature, before we read the actual works. I was disappointed when reading Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, because I didn’t know if I would actually be surprised at the twist at the end, because the whole effing world knows that they’re the same guy. It’s not a difficult book to read, and there’s no reason that you couldn’t study it in 6th grade instead of 16th.

Reading more classic works at a younger age would a) make you smarter and probably more apt to be a good reader on your own, b) make you less stupid when you enter college, c) leave you to discover more obscure works from historical periods once you’re in college, and d) give you a chance to also study contemporary literature in high school and college, because it’s just as valid to know what’s getting written now and what was written recently as it is to know literature’s foundations. I really hate that I know next to nothing about the 20th century post-WWII, because neither my history courses nor my literature courses, in high school and college, found them valid to teach. That, or they had no time to teach them, because my teachers were busy catching me up on Christopher Columbus.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t also read contemporary literature when you’re younger. I think it’s great that in elementary school and middle school I studied Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 and Stargirl. But let’s be honest. Most of middle school is a waste of time, because it’s the worst time of adolescence, and you don’t even get to escape by actually learning things, because somehow administrators think that they shouldn’t make puberty harder on you by providing you with an education while you’re going through it. Honestly, you’d probably be better off being truant for three years than going to middle school, at least in Tucson. So I propose that middle school become the time when you start learning real things, so that other people don’t have to go to college and feel positively behind and stupid because they never got around to teaching themselves Middle English when they were 14.

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