11 March 2010

The Curriculum (May G-d Have Mercy on Our Souls)

A few years ago, a friend of mine asked me what percentage of teachers, in my opinion, actually liked the literature that they were teaching--Shakespeare, poetry, etc.

I said--and I continue to say--that the percentage of English teachers who actually work with or enjoy Shakespeare or poetry on their own time is very low. The kicker is--at least at the high school and community college level--is that it's very difficult to fit in what one does enjoy and is interested in because of The Curriculum. (Although I must admit that I'm very up front with my 102 students about my distaste for Romantic poets and the fact that I'm teaching Blake under protest. And don't get me started on Thomas Mallory. That hack.)

I'm lucky. I'm a medieval nerd, with a sub-dork in Chaucer. But if you really love, say Hemingway, it can be tough to fit Poppa into your lesson plans because you've got so much else to get through. And if you're into Auden or Ezra Pound, you may be sunk all together. Heck, if you love James Joyce, you may find that your material has been banned in your school district. And it's not just the 20th century guys. I adore Alexander Pope, both for his poetry and as the father of modern literary criticism, but he's becoming more obscure, and we have to find room for Toni Morrison and Chinua Achebe and Amy Tan and Richard Wright and there's just no time.

On the other hand, I think Terry Pratchett could be invaluable in a Shakespeare class. Teach Wyrd Sisters along side of Macbeth, or Lords and Ladies alongside Midsummer. Hell, I'd love to have the time and freedom to teach Witches Abroad in an intro to criticism class (hell, I'd love to teach an intro to criticism class, period, but PGCC has trouble enough filling its intro to literature classes) to examine the momentum of stories and plot and the unending cycle of the influence of narrative on reality and reality on narrative.

The root of the problem? The current trend for "practical" education. More and more schools are phasing out or otherwise generally de-emphasizing the importance of humanities classes in the core curriculum. Universities are far more interested in giving the customers students what they want (i.e., more "useful" classes and less time "wasted" on classes not directly related to their majors), as opposed to what they need to be well-rounded, adequately educated members of society. And it's a bleeding shame. I have students who haven't heard of any plays by Shakespeare that haven't been made into movies at one point or another. And while this fact itself pains me, it's their lack of loss--they don't care that they don't know--that truly disturbs me.