Friday, February 20, 2009

AP English and literary knowledge

The other day a Texas A&M graduate wrote to the English department, soliciting help from the “literature people” in fighting the efforts of parents’ group in the north Texas town of Cleburne who seek to remove Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth from the reading list in Advanced Placement English.

Apparently the AP teacher gives incoming students the choice over the summer to read either Follett (an Oprah’s Book Club selection) or Edward Rutherfurd’s London. Both books come in at more than eight hundred pages, though Follett’s extra hundred and forty may tip the balance for most students in his rival’s favor. The parents complain that The Pillars of the Earth, a historical novel of twelfth-century England, contains two graphic rape scenes and more explicit sex and violence, making it inappropriate for seventeen-year-olds. Perhaps sensing the difficulty of defending it on substantive grounds, the novel’s champions take a procedural tack. Students have a “constitutional right” to read the novel, and a public school teacher has the “academic freedom” to assign it. “You can only ban a book if you find it is pervasively vulgar,” one supporter told the school board in an open meeting. But no one has proposed banning the book—that is a bloody shirt. The parents group wants to strike it from the AP reading list, acknowledging they have no ambition to see it removed from the shelves of the district’s libraries.

No one has raised the obvious question. Why do high-school seniors need to know the book? By his own frank admission, Follett writes “entertainment fiction.” The style of his novel about the building of a medieval cathedral is annoying in the extreme. As the Wall Street Journal’s reviewer observed, “A problem in writing about times long ago is a novelist’s uncertainty about his voice. How did people talk way back then? How did they express affection, anger, lust? The writer must invent his diction and create his tone. Mr. Follett seems to have decided that 12th-century Englishmen favored 20th-century cliches (‘mindless brute,’ ‘hot and bothered’). . . .” The reviewer then supplied some examples of the novel’s typical prose: “But William was a real servant of the devil. Aliena thought: When will we be rid of this monster?” Or: “Oh, Richard, you're caught in a terrible web, and it's all because you saved me.” And: “Torturing a man without killing him was like stripping a girl naked without raping her.” Or: “William had lost count of the alehouses they had wrecked, the Jews they had tormented and the virgins they had deflowered.” After becoming frustrated with Follett’s compulsive resort to a particularly cold-fleshed cliché (“his heart was in his mouth”), one reader toted the number of its occurrences and found seventeen in all. Despite the limp writing, The Pillars of the Earth was listed among the one hundred books most often “challenged” by the patrons of public libraries during the nineties, according to the American Library Association, and for some that will be reason enough to tackle it.

Given world enough and time there might be a place in the high-school English curriculum for Follett’s potboiler. The notion, though, that there are certain works of literature which, as Hugh Kenner once wrote, “every civilized American should be familiar with, seems not to be commonly advanced.” And no one in Cleburne, Texas, seems to have advanced the argument that, regardless of explicit sex and violence, The Pillars of the Earth offers nothing of any value whatever for students of English literature. According to the College Board, the purpose of Advanced Placement is to help high-school seniors “develop the content mastery and critical thinking skills expected of college students.” Over the last three decades, nearly three hundred different literary works have been featured in questions on the AP exam. You might wonder at the clear prejudice for the second half of the twentieth-century, and the relatively high number of mediocre books by “minority writers” (Bless Me, Ultima, Ceremony, Monkey Bridge, My Name is Asher Lev), but the list of works that AP teachers have been asked to teach is a serious one. The author most frequently cited was Shakespeare; sixty some questions were about him. The single work referred to most frequently was Invisible Man with Wuthering Heights close behind. Neither Follett nor Rutherfurd are to be found, because reading neither will assist students in developing content mastery and critical thinking.

Why then does an AP teacher ask her students to read either? My own experience of AP, four decades ago, makes me suspicious of her motives. I had the sort of English teacher who believed that literature was the study of noble sentiments and overflowing feelings. “Every year she would read A Child's Christmas in Wales, by Dylan Thomas,” recalled the romance novelist Kathryn Lynn Davis, another of her students, “and every time she would weep at the same parts, just as though she’d never read it before.” I wanted to throw up. She would describe to her class how she watched soldiers returning home from war and thinking to herself, “Somewhere out there is he whose heart is destined for mine, and I may never find him.” I winced, even though I pitied her spinsterhood. (Davis is more discreet: “She would tell really bizarre stories in class.”) If she ever wrote a novel, she confessed, she would call it Blue Remembered Hills, a line from Housman (“Into my heart an air that kills”). Even though I had dogeared and heavily underlined my copy of Housman, her cloying enthusiasm for him nearly caused me to abandon him for good. Instead, I kept my Housman secret. I memorized Howl for a class assignment, and derived much adolescent pleasure from her open disgust at my performance. I trace my lifelong dislike for the Romantics to her influence. And my critical contrarianism was set deeply in concrete by rebelling against her book choices. She assigned Tess of the D’Urbervilles; I stubbornly wrote a paper on V. She praised beauty and softly undulating phrases; I developed a white passion for direct statement and elbow-throwing truth. She gave me a D for the class.

Then the AP test rolled around. Two “open-ended” questions were posed:

(1.) Choose a character from a novel or play of recognized literary merit and write an essay in which you (a) briefly describe the standards of the fictional society in which the character exists and (b) show how the character is affected by and responds to those standards. In your essay do not merely summarize the plot.

(2.) Choose a work of recognized literary merit in which a specific inanimate object (e.g., a seashell, a handkerchief, a painting) is important, and write an essay in which you show how two or three of the purposes the object serves are related to one another.
For the first I chose Artur Sammler and described his “screwy visions” of a society in which “dark romanticism” had taken hold. For the second I chose Rubashov’s pince-nez in Darkness at Noon and tried to show how his handling of them diagrammed his progress toward a public confession of treason. And now I must brag. I received the highest possible score on my exam, the first student from my high school in several years to receive a 5. In those days your AP teacher called to tell you your score. “I can’t believe you got a 5,” my teacher kept repeating, perhaps a little unprofessionally; “I can’t believe you got a 5.” Her incredulity served to confirm my decision to pursue a career in literature. If she could be so wrong, and my decision to write about Bellow and Koestler instead of her weepy favorites so right, then perhaps I was on to something.

The ersatz elitism of AP English is a lousy preparation for college-level work in literary study, and I suspect that The Pillars of the Earth and London, impractically long historical novels about long-ago England, appeal to that flowery-scented superiority which some AP teachers seek to cultivate in their students. Can it be admitted at long last, though, that English literature is a discipline of knowledge rather than a fine sensibility; that some works of English literature must be known before others; that there are even some works every civilized American should be familiar with, although there will be much disagreement over what they are; and that an AP English teacher who assigns “entertainment fiction” instead is not doing her job?


Buce said...

I suspect that what these novels test for, and are intended to test for, is sitzfleisch. Well they might: good prep for law school.

D. G. Myers said...

He shoots! He scores! The former student from A&M and Cleburne High, for whom The Pillars of the Earth is her “all-time favorite,” is enrolled in law school.

KathyR said...

It is on the AP list at my son's school, too. Color me nauseated. And I went to law school.

Teresa said...

I had an AP English teacher much like yours. She would cry while reading Romeo & Juliet. She also once told me in her upper class southern drawl, "You will never be a lady." (Mostly because I found Romeo & Juliet kind of drippy in high school.)

I will say for this good lady who made us memorize Chaucer, that it would never cross her mind to assign either Follet or Rutherfordton or even The Invisible Man. Hawthorne, Hemingway, Twain, and the Great Books made up her reading list.

(And she was really pissed when I made a 5 on my AP exam.)

Trevor said...

Loved your post here. I'm concerned all of this help people read by giving them candy so they love the act of reading is causing us to neglect lessons of higher value. Candy never prepares anyone for anything better.

Incidentally, my own sitzfleisch builder for law school was Mailer's The Executioner's Song.

Becca the Promo Mami said...

Not much has changed in AP Testing, I see. I took the test 4 years ago and had similar open-ended questions - but I went the easy route and used Elizabeth Bennet (and The Yellow Wallpaper) - only because on a practice test my teacher had it out with me for writing about Larry from Maugham's The Razor's Edge.

& Trend Literature has a special place in hell - imo - if only because I've wasted time reading (some of) it.

Anonymous said...

The opening of Sammler's Plant puts it nicely. The world is polluted with explanations. There are explanations of every sort for everything; there are scientific explanations, historical explanations, personal explanations, legal explanations, and they explain everything from the profound to the perverse at such length and to such exhaustion that their only effect is to confound everything. What is lacking, and what Sammler comes to appreciate, is the ability to draw distinctions.

So, in the case of literature, there is an explanation for including just about anything on the reading list. What there is precious little of is the ability to distinguish between trendy baubles and lasting greatness.

Where is one-eyed Arthur Sammler when you need him?

elberry said...

My schooling was very different, as my teachers were usually tired and jaded; most classes they just had us reading set texts (eg Wuthering Heights) aloud, otherwise most of us would have gone into the exams without having read a word. However, at university i had the experience of handing in good papers that got bad marks, just because the markers didn't like the way i wrote or thought (or read). i thought that was really unprofessional, to mark someone down because they come from a different place, temperamentally.

Lauren Claymon Burden said...

Dr. Myers,
I am a former student of yours (I took a senior seminar in Holocaust Literature and an Honors Survey of American Lit from you in 2000-2001) and I am also a former AP English teacher. My best guess at the motivation behind a teacher assigning a "popular" novel like Follet's would be that he/she was trying to get the students to actually READ something instead of just looking up a summary of it on the Internet. So many students take AP English merely as a resume padder for their college applications, not because of any great love of literature or desire to engage in meaningful conversations about writing or the power of the written word. They want a grade--preferably an A. If they pass the AP exam, well, that's a nice bonus. Most AP teachers I knew made every attempt to expose their students to "books that one should know"...the problem was that the kids wouldn't read them. It was like pulling teeth without anesthetic to get them to read "Wuthering Heights" and "Invisible Man"--two books I fervently believed my students needed to culturally, if not intellectually literate. I'm not defending the teacher's decision (I made my kids read "Brave New World" and "1984" for summer reading--nothing enlivens your summer like a little dystopian fiction...); I'm just providing a glimpse into the current state of public school AP students. By the way, my senior AP teacher hated me and always thought I wasn't working up to my potential...I still got a 5 on the exam. :)