I'm starting to get some mail to respond to (so thank you all for that), but today I wanted to take some time to follow up with some amazing comments I got from my entry a few days ago about that What the Author Meant
meme. This is because the few people who do read Writing About Writing
are not just made of Carbon and Hydrogen, but are also comprised of Pure Awesome. They are just one commercial break in the drama of our life away from evolving into beings of pure energy that travel beyond the galactic rim to do whatever it is evolved energy beings do out there. (Stare at the black or have energy orgies or something.)
At the time I wrote the entry, I was just sort of having myself a good rant. I flashed back to all the times I've seen this meme and (with the exception of one that was intended explicitly to irritate ME) how the replies have been a horrifying indictment of U.S. attitudes toward education. In much the same way you see stories about politicians refusing to honor veterans, eggs balancing lengthwise on the equinox, or Obamacare requiring subdermal microchips that can track everyone from satellites go viral apparently without a single person thinking that the internet might be a decent place to check on the veracity of something like that, I watched social media explode with the jubilant validation that this meme apparently substantiated their feeling that they were wasting their time in high school.
As you can see from the comments
, I have amazing and wicked smart friends who won't hesitate to point out if they think I'm missing a piece of the puzzle, and they gave me plenty to think about and reconsider. I'm not going to repost everything they said here--you're welcome to follow that link back and check out their unadulterated amaziballs. The comments ended up being better (far better) than the entry itself. I'm also not going to reiterate everything I said in the comments on that page, nor am I going to reply to each response point by point since that tends to get too hair-splittingly defensive.
Instead I'll just encourage you to read those comments and mention that both Amy and Jess brought up ideas I hadn't really thought of in my original rant. (The idea of teaching Creative Writing and the privileged voices in the canon respectively.) If you ever get the opportunity to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you and won't agree with everything you say, I highly recommend you take it. They are gold. The only people you want to think you are an infallible genius should be your groupies.
So let me make a couple of points by way of explanation that I wouldn't normally put in a fire-and-forget rant, but that seem to be more appropriate here since that fire-and-forget rant got me more responses than most posts ever.
1- Our education system is overloaded and fallible
In a class of 20-30 (or more), there are going to be people who are reading higher than the level of the class, and most of my friends are exactly
the sort of intelligent-as-fuck readers who would end up in that position. They're going to be a little unimpressed by the lesson. In high school I read at a higher level than my honors counterparts, but when given the choice between Sword of Vermillion or homework, I was pretty consistent about being a slacker student. So I regularly sat in "college prep" (not honors because I didn't do my homework in middle school) classes bored out of my skull. I didn't exactly think it was a great use of time to spend a whole hour on the chapter about the turtle crossing the road in Grapes of Wrath or "memorizing" the symbolism of the Loman family's shoes. A good teacher will challenge their advanced students to do something a little extra, but no teacher can cater to the bored student who is determined to take the path of least resistance when most of the class is still wrapping their heads around a concept like metaphor.
And the teacher's situation is utterly untenable. With some people struggling, and some bored, they have
to get through the lesson on metaphor and move on. So they don't have time to do the kind of metacognition teaching about authorial intent vs. reader response that English majors see in college, and the students end up not realizing how their lesson fits in a broader mosaic of possible
answers and the journey beats the destination
pedagogy when it comes to critical thinking.
If you were that person who didn't need to be spoon fed what the reading meant, more power to you. But I bet that not everyone in that class was as good at reading as you were, and needed a little help. (or maybe a lot) during the blue curtains lesson. Don't forget that there's a bit of self selection in who is going to be within audience of a blog about writing. We are not an accurate cross-section of Americana.
And by the way, the turtle isn't just
a turtle. And you can draw a nasty anti-education Venn diagram all day about it, but it won't make you any more wrong if you think it is.
2- We tend to remember high school through a specific lens
I know I do. I was obviously the nicest guy in the whole fucking universe, but I could not
get a date with Heather Thompson (until I got a car). All my friends were also amazingly awesome people, and strangely only adults ever seemed to think that might not be true. If I knew 25 aspiring writers in high school (and I swear that's low balling it), I can guarantee you that 24 of them were convinced they knew vastly more than their English teacher about...whatever we were reading. Especially English. People regularly insisted every member of the faculty faculty was "utterly stupid." I even remember one of my classmates promising to mail a copy of her first book to Mrs. Hassle to prove that the C- she'd gotten on her paper wasn't warranted.
I Google her name every year or two just to check. I think ol' Hassle is still safe.
Now I'm not saying there aren't any bad teachers in the world (there are), and I'm surely not saying there aren't any slacker ones (oh yes), but at least here in the US, they do have four year degrees and teaching credentials, and most of the probably mostly care about teaching. An English teacher with "just a BA" probably had to write about thirty papers in literary analysis to get their degree and then turn around and get credentialed in how to teach roomfuls of unwieldy children, so whatever they were presenting to the class probably wasn't their literature A game. Whatever else you want to say about them, a teacher probably
knows more than their teen-age student about the subject they're teaching.
Also, if you've ever actually met
a teen-ager and heard them talk about adults you may be aware that from time to time teen-agers don't completely respect their elders.
And.....(and I can't stress this enough), a lot of times things kids kvetch about never learning or being told, they quite simply were. They WERE. They were
taught that. They just don't remember. It wasn't a day they were paying attention or a class they thought was important. They were tuning out. They've forgotten. That was the day they were late because of an orthodontist appointment. They were sick. It was mentioned, but wasn't a whole day's lesson complete with scaffolding, so it didn't stick. Most humans can't remember what was on our tests a few days after we take them. How are we supposed to know for sure we never heard some throw away line about authorial intent?
Remembering that we all THOUGHT
we knew more than our teachers is probably a bit different than what we actually knew. Eye witness accounts are some of the worst evidence in law. Psychology has proven time and again that memory is demonstrably fallible. And that is a period of time where people's biases and filters are turned up to eleven.
So even when people tell me today that they knew more than their teachers, my first thought is to wonder if they didn't really just know more than that day's lesson
, and that their attempts to communicate their grasp of one concept and readiness to move on to the next concept probably looked a lot more like a skull examining eye roll and, "This is stupid. When are we ever going to use this?" and a lot less like, "I believe I've got a handle on this metaphor. Is there a lens of greater complexity through which I could examine this story in order to challenge myself, Mr. Andre?"
Though it is also true that a lot of teachers need to treat their students like humans instead of little heathens. And it is also true that they would probably do a better job of that if they weren't being paid peanuts and given bigger class sizes with no budgets. I'm not blaming anyone. And I certainly would never suggest that a few burnt out, washed up horrors coasting toward retirement haven't slid under the radar and provided almost every one of us with at least ONE foundational experience that proves we were way beyond the effort they had any intention of expending. I just don't think "English teachers are full of shit" quite grasps the nuance of the U.S. educational system–and that's basically what this meme is saying.
3- This joke is funny. But it's also kind of mean.
The Venn diagram proposes that what the author meant and what your English teacher thinks
they meant have no little overlap. Memes aren't known for their nuanced portrayal of situations, but this one is pretty clear that your English teacher has no idea what the author really meant. There is only a small area of overlap. Most of what your English teacher said is not in the mind of the author. My five part response to that idea focused on four reasons your teacher might actually know EXACTLY
what the author meant (they probably do understand more about metaphor, it is a very vetted symbol, it comes from an author who considered their words carefully, the author actually TOLD people what it meant [which is sort of what this meme is demanding if you're keeping score]) and one reason that what the author meant absolutely doesn't matter to literary analysis or to teaching critical thinking (reader response–impact matters over intent).
When teachers teach symbolism they're trying to get students to think about the world in terms of figurative language and higher conceptual ideas. It's an invaluable critical thinking skill, and in the US, most English curriculums still do it through literature (so that you can be exposed to a few classics along the way).
It's kind of how if you post a meme about how you never used algebra and can't balance a checkbook, you'll probably make some math teacher's heads itch, and they'll point out that A) if you DID learn algebra, you shouldn't have any trouble balancing a checkbook, and B) you learned some very valuable skills about how to figure out variables. This meme joins "the powerhouse of a cell" in being sort of a flip cheap shot at teachers without understanding the complexity of state standards or how a curriculum is built, and there's a reason almost every teacher is annoyed by it.
Different people responded to different parts of that post. My roommate Uberdude
took great umbrage with any literary interpretation that wasn't at least unconsciously in the mind of the author at the time of the writing. A friend thought the whitewashed canon was not necessarily always the best writing a student could be reading. Another friend said that often it was her writing being dissected for symbols that she hadn't intended. And while I am the last person to defend the highest reaches of the ivory tower, seeing shapes in the clouds is one of the most human skills we can learn (even if that was never the cloud's intention), and then being able to communicate how and why we see those shapes to someone else
is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of communication itself. That ability ("This is what I see, and now I will convey it to you.") is precisely why liberal arts majors so often go on to management position in fields that aren't directly related to their majors.
But sure. Okay. When are we going to use this?
4- I should probably mention that I don't think English teachers have THE right answer
I think they have one
possible interpretation. (Which is why I brought up point 5 on the original page.) It's a good
interpretation–if simplistic enough to teach high schoolers about reading and writing and critical thinking. It's been vetted by many educators set as a standard at the state level, made into curriculum by the districts and turned into lesson plans by the teacher. It's possibly even been run by the author themselves. (Steinbeck, for example, talked at length about his symbols, so we know
that he intended them.) It isn't based on nothing. And our meme-creator and its legion of followers seem more content to insist that the English teacher is just making things up than to discover why the English teacher thinks what they do.
Should an English teacher tell students that interpreting literature is limited mostly only by their own ability to draw connections? Maybe. There are tough choices and a lot of triage when you're overloaded in class sizes, have to get through a state mandated curriculum, have students who would rather be getting root canals, and the parents are angry at you because A) "My darling is failing" and B) "How could you not teach Milton at his clearly advanced level?" I'm not sure I want to complicate a freshman's experience with Roland Barthes or post-structuralism when they are still acting like it's uncool to know the difference between a simile and a metaphor. I'm big on metacognition when I teach; however, I also recognize when I'm teaching grammar to 78 students, I will be more likely to say "this is right and this is wrong" than I will in 98A when I teach them that there are different style guides that might make exceptions to the acceptability of a comma splice. High school students might do worse without some guidance and a couple of examples they KNOW they can use in a paper when they're first doing literary analysis. The question is more about pedagogy than it is about an English teacher just making up random shit to teach their lesson.
One is a problem with the cookie cutter, assembly line approach to education. The other is just assholery.
5- I do have my own bias in this situation.
I must admit it and own it. This meme causes me to flashback to a young Chris in my junior year American Literature class who (after class) listened to an honor roll classmate insist that the teacher was a "complete worthless idiot" because of a discussion of a Frost poem. This student went off for like five minutes on how she was way
smarter than the teacher, and the whole "is it about suicide or not" thing was completely vapid. And the whole time I was thinking about I've actually seen
the interview where Robert Frost says 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening' had metaphorical connections to endings, just like we talked about in the lesson. But she was sure it was about a horse and some snow and had no deeper meaning and was absolutely ragingly indignant about the figurative language. This would turn out to be a formative experience for me and tint, for the rest of my life, my perception of people utterly dismissing those with more expertise.
But also, I went to a pretty decent public school in California suburbs and I liked
English even when I hated school. So I have to own that part too.
The reaction of a high school student who just switched from book reports to analysis is a very predictable rebellion to the idea of reading any deeper (it's so predictable that you learn about how to handle it in teacher school), but at that point their skill at simply reading (anything) is developed and it's time to learn to go deeper than the surface meaning.
I have met WAY more people who don't want to deal with subtext, metaphor, symbolism, or anything beyond the literal meaning than I ever have who wanted to challenge the way in which literature is presented within a high school curriculum. Their cries of "can't you just enjoy the story" echo in my ears even twenty years later. Enjoying the story is fine. Appreciating some of its deeper meaning is also fine.
Saying that there is no deeper meaning is less fine.
There's a lot to be said about education, creative process, authorial intent, symbols on the page that were not consciously
in the mind of the author, for teachers being fallible, and even the US education system. My rant didn't address these things because the meme didn't address these things. The meme says simply "Your English teacher is totally full of shit."
And that just isn't true.
6- There is so much more meaning in life for people who can interpret subtext, metaphor, allegory, symbolism, and other figurative language
In many ways it is analogous to learning to read or understanding when a person is being sarcastic. It opens up doors to deeper appreciation, but even actual meaning and understanding. A person will get so much more out of many experience, especially reading. They will be better at interpreting events. They'll pick up on little things in everything from books to movies to people's behavior.
We learn symbolism in high school to teach us how to better think critically about how language doesn't always mean only what it literally means. This is invaluable to being human when we come into contact with people who use words differently or can layer meaning.
To instead insist that education in understanding literature at this level is a fool's errand with no more utility than tilting at windmills is an embrace of willful ignorance. It's like saying there's no merit to eating anything but nutritional paste because that's got all you need to survive. Good food is good because of its texture, subtlety, flavor, and such. These people who just want to read without analysis may miss the delight of a well done metaphor, the comprehension of social criticism in a hidden symbol, and even "what the author meant" when they insist that the author meant nothing but the denotative, literal text. In a very real way, people who have a skill at reading are capable of reading more.
To mock that seems less than petty. It seems to celebrate the snub of expertise. It seems to delight in remaining ignorant as preferable to taking the time to understand why an English teacher might be teaching something. And in a world where we scratch our heads and can't figure out how Russian psyops get people to believe fake news, maybe we ought not to mock the people who are trying to teach us how to read with a little more intellectual rigor.
I mean I know English teachers make huge paychecks, enjoy a totally supportive community, are the idols of their appreciative students, and have near superhero status in the greater society for the job they do, but honestly some of them actually like to teach English.