Academic habits

January 6, 2009 at 6:32 pm Leave a comment

All the “…since the Great Depression”s that I’ve read in the news lately have put me in a Steinbeck mood. Before leaving for Spain again, I decided to pull my old copy of The Grapes of Wrath off the shelf and see if it was as good as I remembered it.

In 8th grade, my English class tackled GoW, a book that at 619 pages was by far the longest book we’d ever attempted. Rhetorically and literally, it dwarfed previous middle-school selections like The Hobbit, Brave New World, or Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (I’m still bitter about having to read that one for school).

Steinbeck’s work was my first real introduction to literary analysis, and I threw myself into it–partly because I loved the book, and partly because of a feud with the teacher. I was convinced that she’d interpreted everything wrong, and I read the book with a critical eye just to prove her faults in understanding in front of the whole class. The result of this scholarship?



This may not be ideal Metro-riding book condition. I was perhaps a bit over-zealous in my reading. But Mrs. EnglishTeacher did concede, after a 20-minute long argument, that my conclusions about the title were valid (don’t ask me to recall what those conclusions were — all I remember is the victory).

Remembrances like this make me wonder how I ever entered college thinking I’d be a math or history major.


Quick (edit: not-so-quick) note about Roll of Thunder, which I know has some advocates out there: I didn’t hate the book, just the fact that it was part of the curriculum. Its a very well-written, insightful, and challenging YA book, but one which can be handled on a summer reading list. While I’m a well-known advocate of the literary value of YA fiction, I actually think that for YA (10-15 year-old) readers, the classroom should be devoted to books in the canon, for a few reasons. One reason being that reading and understanding the canonical books provides very necessary literary, cultural, and social currency. They help you understand references and culture simply because they are canonical.

My second reason for encouraging middle and high-school curricula to steer clear of YA is because I think that in order to gain in-depth critical value from YA, you have to have a complex understanding of the fundamentals of literary analysis, which you get from reading canonical books. YA books like Roll of Thunder do not require challenging critical thinking to form a basic understanding of the books’ plot, characters, and themes. Books like To Kill a Mockingbird, which we also read in seventh grade and which deals with many of the same racial themes as Roll of Thunder, do require challenging critical work.

There’s an argument to be made that some students are not ready for texts like To Kill a Mockingbird and starting them on the YA canon is a stepping-stone to other books. True and valid. But this work’s place is not the classroom, at least not while books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Grapes of Wrath are also on the reading list. Even a struggling student can gain from truly complex and challenging books, but advanced students languish without them. (this leads into a whole other argument I have set up about the failure of grading systems, but that can be left for another time).


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