March 06, 2015

Horse 1853 - We Killed The Mockingbird

As I was heading off to work this morning* (reading Honore De Balzac's "Old Man Goriot") I noticed a high school kid in his blazer and straw hat, reading Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird". Presumably he was doing this because it is a prescribed text for HSC English. Certainly when I read the book in my 30s, I thought that my 17 year old self wouldn't have enjoyed it at all. I thought back to my own days of high school English and realised that I can't remember any of the books we'd been set.

English was not a strong subject of mine in high school. I don't doubt that if I attempted the HSC now, I could probably do really well in English. Almost certainly the main reason why I did so badly (and because hindsight is always viewed with better than 20/20 vision), was that I found what we were reading in class, either duller than dishwater or as acutely annoying as being pricked with a needle.
Subjects to do with maths like Physics and Economics (and obviously Mathematics), I found fascinating but the texts that they gave us in English obviously left so little impression on me, that I don't even remember their names.
When it came to actually sitting down and doing the final exams in English, I found that on the prescribed list of texts that could have been available to us, were books like George  Orwell's "1984",  Joseph Heller's "Catch 22" and the works of the Bard, which I had read and knew very well, and so I answered the essay questions on those despite never discussing them in class.

I can safely say as someone who now reads a fair amount for pleasure, that once the curse of work had been taken out of reading, it ceased to be so hateful. The problem with high school English generally is that either you have people on committees who set curricular, who have lived in the rarefied air of academia for so long that they either do not or will not think about the boredom that they are about to inflict upon a generation of students, or you have teachers who are trying to be cool and hip (or whatever it is that the kids say these days) and they'll set books which although popular, are the literary equivalent of eating a can of whip cream and a packet of marshmallows for dinner. Part of the blame for that though, lies in the fact that the books that high school students tend to enjoy, end up being really poorly written.

I don't know what is actually on the current English curricular but I hope that there's a unit in Year 11 at very least, which looks at tropes, clichés, themes and basic narrative structure. The only thing which stayed with me in this respect from my days in school was the two word "theme" for want of a better word but I honestly can not recall being anything like the necessary toolkit to be to make any use of that. It wasn't until I read about literary theory much later and started looking at the mechanics of how stories are constructed, that I think I would have even stood a chance at doing well in high school English.
In that respect, setting a work like Star Wars, or The Lion King, where there is obviously a hero's journey, a series of tasks, a bildungsroman, and a rising series of complications, climaxes and resolution, makes analysis really easy. Set the easy stuff first, before jumping into something with more nuance. Yes in Star Wars, the baddies are bad and the goodies are good, and there are definite issues concerning having a pretty princess as a prize, but those are the sorts of things which high school students can understand. Then you can move them on to something like Tolstoy's "War And Peace" and ask questions about the sorts of agency which the various characters posses.

Take the Bard. I quite like Shakespeare now. I positively hated Shakespeare in high school. I think I spent more time daydreaming about that chap with the puffy shoulders and the harlequin pantaloons; whose picture was printed on the front cover, fighting off people with his rapier than engaged in who this actually was in the play we were reading. Cap'n Morgan it might have been - you and the Cap'n can make it happen.
Probably the comedies have lost something as the English language has moved on but Henry The Fourth which is extremely tribal in nature, is still readily understood by a modern audience... on the stage... provided its been staged properly. I saw a production once where everyone was in modern football kits: the French people in blue, the English in white, and with names and numbers on the back so that you knew who was who. Take the same script and give it to students to read in class, some of whom are bored senseless, and not only is it impossible to follow who is who but because you're not performing a stage plate on the stage, it gets sucked dry of any life it had.

Somehow I imagined that English teachers were all horrid people, who were trying to get back at their students as some sort of great payback to square off the cosmic ledger, for the horrible things that were done to them, but now I realise that its probably got more to do with publishing companies wanting to sell mass quantities of books. If you were some publishing house and you wanted to make a stack of money from some dud seller, why not lobby the Department of Education to put in on the list of prescribed texts. If one school has 90 students and you multiply that by a couple of hundred schools, then if a book was set down, you could sell a hundred thousand in a couple of years. English teachers almost certainly have little to no choice about what books they're going to use. If the storeroom already has 150 copies of a book, they're likely to use that. That right there might explain why "To Kill A Mockingbird" has sold more than 30 million copies. Is it good? Maybe. Is it 30 million good? I don't know.

I do know that high school English might in its own way, kill off the joy of reading for students that they otherwise might have had. You can shoot off all the the exam questions you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.

*This morning being the 5th of March. 

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