Does English seem wildly different than it was in your school days? For me, high school English class in the 90s (at least for the good years) was presided over by a teacher who seemed like a wise guide who could help us walk through mental exercises that would lead us toward being thoughtful, competent, wise adults ourselves. I’m sure that the actual state standards were more detailed than this, but I imagine that our English teachers operated from a few major objectives: read good books with the students, talk about the big ideas in those books, and teach the students to write.
Then the standardized testing movement roared through our country and, along with pressure from the well-intentioned notion that every child should shoot for college admission, consequently English class became reduced more and more to a means to an end. Now, instead of pondering the choices that led T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock to have those overwhelming feelings of hollowness and regret, teachers are expected to spend more time checking that everyone can answer a question on the end of course test about an inference that could be made in line 40, which literary device is used in lines 23 and 24, or how context clues could be used to ascertain the definition of a word in line 32.
And it’s not just a thing that’s happened in public schools. Standardized test culture has influenced the homeschooling community as well, whether it’s because many of us are required by state guidelines to submit our children to periodic standardized testing, because we want to steer our college-bound kids toward ACT and SAT scores that will open up as many scholarship and admission opportunities as possible, because we know that we might need to place our children into the public school system and don’t want them to be completely unacclimated, or because of the pressure we feel from a culture that increasingly wants everything quantified.
But… have you read the online comments section lately on… well, just about anything? Whatever your politics, I think we can agree that people these days seem meaner and less empathetic.
Our culture needs the lessons of great literature like never before. In 2018, let’s resolve to elevate literature back to its position in the humanities. Let’s resolve to look to the big ideas in literature as a balm that will insulate our children from a world of keyboard bullies. Let’s resolve to look to books to help us remember those common denominators that unite us.