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Monday, December 9, 2013

Smug educators the cause of modern-day illiteracy, IMO

"Learn or not, it's none of my affair." These words might as well be emblazoned in indelible gold-leaf at the top of every teacher's blackboard across the land. I lived through Dick and Jane, and subsequently survived ever more tedious and difficult to read onslaughts of teacher-promoted drudgery. A veritable blizzard of archaic and obscure terms, expressions, and colloquialisms were to be pounded by blunt force into my brain while I waited, confined interminably in the mind-numbing classrooms of each of a series of these publicly funded phrontisteries.

You'll have to forgive me. I've just trail-blazed my way through several very dense chapters of The Scarlet Letter, an almost impenetrable jungle of verbose logoreah by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I started to wade through the 15,000 word introduction called The Custom House—which as far as I can tell has absolutely nothing to do with the story at all—but ineluctably began skimming through line after line of pointless maundering—hunting for the substance known as plot in vain—as though I might be a Little Rascal named Stymie peeling an artichoke looking for something that vaguely resembles food.

The protagonist of the story is named Hester Prynne. Her husband had sent her to this town to wait while he attended to some business or another, but unfortunately he had been absent—perhaps presumed lost?—for a couple of years when she mysteriously became pregnant. The Puritans evidently had some sort of trial or proceeding in which Hester presumably might have been executed or had her forehead branded with an "A", but they mercifully decided that Mrs Prynne would forever after be forced to wear a prominent scarlet letter 'A' for adultress on her blouse or bodice or whatever they call a woman's garment with sleeves. Meanwhile, her long lost husband returns just in time to see her in all her ignominious glory while she's standing up there on her scaffold of shame.
In fact, this scaffold constituted a portion of a penal machine, which now, for two or three generations past, has been merely historical and traditionary among us, but was held, in the old time, to be as effectual an agent, in the promotion of good citizenship, as ever was the guillotine among the terrorists of France. It was, in short, the platform of the pillory; and above it rose the framework of that instrument of discipline, so fashioned as to confine the human head in its tight grasp, and thus hold it up to the public gaze. The very ideal of ignominy was embodied and made manifest in this contrivance of wood and iron. There can be no outrage, methinks, against our common nature—whatever be the delinquencies of the individual—no outrage more flagrant than to forbid the culprit to hide his face for shame; as it was the essence of this punishment to do. In Hester Prynne's instance, however, as not unfrequently in other cases, her sentence bore that she should stand a certain time upon the platform, but without undergoing that gripe about the neck and confinement of the head, the proneness to which was the most devilish characteristic of this ugly engine. Knowing well her part, she ascended a flight of wooden steps, and was thus displayed to the surrounding multitude, at about the height of a man's shoulders above the street.
I remember the assignment to read this book when I was in high school, but as I recall, I neglected to do so. I was somewhat the rebel and contrarian in those days and stubbornly held to my theory that language should inform and fiction should entertain. Thus books like Moby Dick and The Scarlet Letter, were best left to slowly molder away on some dusty library shelf. And doubly boring as far as I'm concerned—they shall each go down to the vile dust from whence they sprung, unwept, unhonored, and unsung.

I can only imagine what it must be like to the vast majority of young men and women whose only literary experience at all is found by stoically working their way through these archaic turgid tomes, chock-a-block with seldom- and even never-used words. Yes, I contumaciously inhaled the works of Robert Heinlein, R.A. Salvatore, Robert Jordan, Gordon R. Dickson, Terry Goodkind, Orson Scott Card, to name only a few, while conscientiously dissenting from each teacher-picked obstrocity—(a portmanteau I happen to like which means both an obstruction and an atrocity.)

Why—you might well ask—are impressionable young students whacked over the head with these opposites of entertainment? In my opinion, and having given it much thought, this notion of teaching so-called "great" literature is nothing more than sheerest vanity. A smug and supercilious professor who'd rather use the word explicate than explain or explore, loves nothing more in this world that feeling like he's a member of a class set apart. He's one of the few the proud the educated, a dweller in that educational ivory tower for which very few indeed hold a key. Perhaps—as he lovingly turns the pages of The Scarlet Letter—he imagines the legions of frustrated students screaming in outrage as they are forced again—for the ten-thousandth time—to flip through the pages of some great leviathan of an unabridged dictionary to find out what in the hell the word: "contumacious," means. Perhaps this professor imagines himself as some kind of immaculate grain sorter, separating the wheat from the chaff so to speak.

I believe that if you give people something that's actually fun to read, then most of them will actually read it. Instead students across the nation are given something tedious, sadly lacking in plot, overly verbose and given to wild flights of fictional histories, fictional biographies, fictional scenery, even—if you can imagine it—fictional daydreams of further fictional nonevents that our fictional protagonist merely wishes he had fictionally performed!

Somewhere along the way between the covers of Dick and Jane and The Scarlet Letter most kids flip on the boob-tube and never look back. Most teachers would just nod their heads patronizingly, explaining that some students just can't cut the mustard. Maybe, but why on earth do these educators keep trying to force-feed students all those jars of inedible 200 year-old petrified mustard?

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