this fun article about a young man sent a questionnaire to a bunch of authors asking them about the (intentional) use of symbols in fiction. The post has been circulated and commented on by a number of folks, including my nerd crushes John Green and Wil Wheaton. There are a lot of good points in all the articles, from the authors commenting about symbolism to Wheaton's recollections of high school lit classes.
You may or may not know this, but I taught high school English for a couple years. The main reason I'm not teaching now is because when I moved from my hometown to the Big City, I couldn't find a job. But that's another story. Anyway, I posted a link to Green's response on my Facebook page because many of my friends are teachers and lit nerds. So far, only one of my friends has commented, but she said that, along the lines with the authors, that it is what we make of the symbols, the conversation we have with the book and author (as Green writes) that is important. I agree with all parties that literary analysis should not be some version of Duck Hunt, where we aim to take down as many tropes and devices as possible, and I'm reasonably sure I avoided this (most of the time) when I taught.
I will say this, though. The authors who have responded thus far are, as near as I can tell, adults whose critical thinking skills are probably better developed than your average high school student's skills, especially in the current climate of US education. This is NOT to say that teenagers aren't capable of nuanced critical thinking. They TOTALLY are and should be treated as such, and that means teachers really need to carefully examine their methods in order to avoid turning analysis into a check list, because as teachers, the only thing we can really control is our actions in the classroom. I do think pointing out things like symbols can be useful places to start a discussion. But we HAVE to move beyond that and we have to do it quickly. NOTHING enraged me more as a teacher than to get to the state tests and see that high school freshmen are asked to find gerunds and conjunctions. Find, mind you, not use properly. It's a FUCKING disgrace. Who the FUCK cares if you can define a gerund? Can you write a clear, cogent, interesting sentence?
Given the constraints placed on teachers, vis a vis testing, it's easy to understand why teachers fall into the Duck Hunt model of literary analysis, but that doesn't make it right. If you're gonna sit around with your multiple choice tests and shoot-to-kill lesson plans, kindly retire or quit and open up the jobs for those of us who give a damn about literature, who have the passion and the energy to share not only 1984 but Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, who will take 9th graders though Romeo and Juliet and help students open up to the connections that exist between their lives and Renaissance Italy, and going beyond English, to history teachers who are more than coaches* and who do more than rattle of dates that students memorize for the test and then promptly forget, etc. etc.
This has gotten a little off track from the original point. Mainly, it makes me sad to see that the same frustrations that drove the young student in 1963 to write to authors (although what a cool thing to do and how cool is it that so many wrote back??) are still shared by students (and teachers) today. I re-read The Great Gatsby last summer, which I did love as a high school junior, but as I read it as an adult, an adult the same age as the characters, I did get more out of the story than I had before. I don't think that is the fault of my English teacher but rather shows that I've grown. And think about it. Do you have the same sorts of conversations and ideas now that you did as a teenager? as a middle schooler? as an elementary student? Of course not. You grow. And also also, can I just say how incredibly GORGEOUS the prose in this book is? I don't think I've ever read a more beautiful book in my life.
So what's to be done? Certainly teachers need to take the plunge and rethink the way we work with literary analysis. It would most definitely behoove teachers to bring modern YA lit into the classroom, because let's face it. We're never going to be able to read EVERYTHING. Hell, I have an MA in lit and the gaps in my reading are big enough to fly a rocket through. I picked up a copy of Eliot's poetry last week because it dawned on me that I'd never read The Wasteland.
It's a hard call to make -- how could I ever consider dropping To Kill a Mockingbird? I think the key there is to let teachers use the books they're passionate about because passion can help stave off the temptation to use a checklist. After 20 years, or even 5 years, the most wonderful book can become stale. Trust students to be capable of nuanced thought and let them show you how thoughtful they can be. NO MORE MULTIPLE CHOICE TESTS EVER! At least not after elementary school. It's demeaning, even if it is easier to grade. Let them write, let them explore their ideas. Stop focusing on grammar and mechanics so telescopically. Of course these are important skills, but they are not the MOST important.
So yeah. [descends from soap box]
*No disrespect to coaches in general, but at least in Idaho, coaches jobs are bundled with history teachers jobs, so many history teachers are really lousy teachers, even if they're great coaches. It's colossally unfair to those amazing, passionate, bright folk who adore history, understand the importance that a solid grasp of history has for humans to be really great people that they are denied jobs because they don't also coach. And it unfairly stigmatizes people like Coach Lewis, my AP US History teacher, who was excellent at both teaching and coaching.