A few nights ago I met the husband of one of my mother’s friends from work. He is, in my mother’s words, something of a “Renaissance man.” He has a doctoral degree, but has previously worked as (among other things) a cop and a public school teacher. He also apparently knows a bit about literature, because our conversation began something as follows:
Him: How’s the job search going?
Me (jocular, with undercurrents of manic desperation): Oh, not especially well.
Him: I understand. You have a master’s in English literature, right?
Me (vaguely apologetic): Yeah.
Him: What was your subfield?
Me (picking my jaw up off the floor): Victorian.
So, yes, my first reaction to being asked about my specialty was absolute shock. My second reaction was to fight back (figurative) tears: tears of relief, that someone actually knew to ask that question, and tears of sadness that that surprised me. Meanwhile, the snob in me rejoiced and thought, “A kindred spirit!”
I cannot even begin to explain how much it upsets me when I come across things like this. I understand that this is in fact many students’ experience of high school English, and that’s unfortunate—in fact, it’s terrible. I went to a private school myself, but I’m currently working on teaching certification, and I could go on for days about the problems with the way English is taught in a lot of public schools; at some point, I probably will. But that doesn’t change the fact that the study of English can be a lot more than a paint-by-numbers “decoding” of texts. So it kills me that, for so many people, the words “English teacher” mean someone who likes grammar a lot and is incredibly preoccupied with “hidden meanings.” What’s missing, of course, is any sense of literature as a way of engaging with the complexity of our emotions, experiences, beliefs, practices, etc.
And, yes, part of my frustration can be chalked up to snobbishness; I’ve put in the time and effort needed to study a difficult subject at an advanced level, and I’d prefer that people recognize that. But less selfishly, and in all seriousness, I think we would be better off if we had a more balanced idea of what the study of literature could be. If you treat a text like it’s a Rubik’s Cube, that’s going to be pretty alienating to anyone who doesn’t like puzzles; frankly, I doubt that most people will see anything inherently interesting in (for example) the notion that the color white can symbolize sexual purity. And it doesn’t matter how much you try to “create relevance” by asking students to “remember a time someone betrayed them” before they read Julius Caesar (I kid you not, an actual suggestion I came across); that alone is not substantive enough to override the feeling that they are being asked to translate something from one language to another using a set of rules that seem completely arbitrary—and all for no particular reason. (As a corollary, I also strongly suspect that treating texts this way makes students think of writers primarily as people who play sadistic mind games: “If x really means y, why didn’t he just say y?”).
But remember my whiteness/virginity example? In isolation, it’s not especially interesting to me either. But what if we pushed students (yes, even at the high school level) just a little more, and asked them to think about why that symbolism matters? How does it function in the story, and why is that important? What’s the historical context behind the work, and does that make a difference in how you read it? Does the work deal with race? If so, that whiteness should start to look doubly significant. Does its usage imply bias? Does it somehow subvert racial stereotypes? Does it subvert racial stereotypes while still working within a biased framework? There are, after all, probably tensions in the work that are worth exploring. What if the color white is associated with a woman who is emphatically not a virgin? Is this broadmindedness, or just a reiteration of the idea that a women’s value is tied to her purity (“No, it’s okay, because deep down she’s actually virginal”). These are the kinds of questions that make literature truly relevant, because they force you to think about the world around you in a way that avoids platitudes and easy answers.
I understand that this kind of cultural criticism isn’t to everyone’s taste. But the point is to engage with what you’re reading on a deeper level, and you can do that in so many different ways once you’ve learned to ask not just what something means, but what it does and why it matters. I happen to like Victorian literature. I like it (in part) because it tackles social issues head on, in a deliberately accessible, emotionally engaging way. So it’s important that I chose to study that rather than medieval literature, or Modernism, or anything else; it says something about what I think can be important in a book in a way that it wouldn’t if all works were just messes of symbols to decode. And regardless of whether my mom’s friend’s husband would put it in exactly those words, I do think he knew that literature is more than a puzzle—that what you read, and the way you read, has a huge effect on how you view the world. I just wish more people felt the same.