rant on public school english class

2021-06-07 • writing education

a response to an email from T, who said her english teacher once told her 'similes make writing weak'

The American English curriculum is full of bad memes.

Similes make writing weak.

Don't start sentences with 'and' or 'but'.

Start each paragraph with a transition word.

Essays are five paragraphs, no more, no less.

Whoever comes up with these would give Tao Lin a D+ for too many run-on sentences. Kerouac and James Joyce would be thrown in remedial.

Have you ever seen an "all in all" in the New York Times?

Have you ever seen a New Yorker article that had a conclusion that clearly restated the thesis? And (gotem) then summarized each of the preceding paragraphs? 

I took a class at UT where we analyzed the rhetoric of different New Yorker articles. My only conclusion was that there is no uniform structure. There is rarely one central thesis. Our indoctrinated English professor would try and cope by saying that there IS a thesis! Everything has a thesis! It's just hidden! Even book reviews have a thesis!

Why would you even want ONE thesis for a book review? Why does all writing need an argument?

In the 9th grade I had a business teacher who assigned us an essay. The prompt: "Is greed good or bad?". It was the first assignment, so most people took it seriously, writing careful arguments exploring the issue.

Here's how he graded it. If you wrote "greed is good" somewhere in the essay, you got a 100. If you wrote "greed is bad" somewhere in the essay, you got a 100. If you were "pretentious" and said "greed can be beneficial", or worse, a level-headed pussy, and said "greed is good in some cases, bad in others", you got a 60.

(Tip to high schooler: pick your battles friends. Judge your teachers and then tell them what they want to hear. High school business teachers are most likely Ayn Rand libertarians. If they coach football after-school, they probably want "straightforward". Scheming ninth grade Karthik silenced the cries of his inner reason, busted out the transition words, dropped an "All in all, greed is good.", and was rewarded with a 100/100. )

What is this doing to future generations? We're teaching kids that 'seeing both sides' is somehow a con. That all writing must sell something.

I wonder how the New Yorker staff writers faired in high school english. The teacher waves a fat red marker and yells, "WHAT IS THE POINT? WHAT IS YOUR THESIS? WHAT IS THE CALL TO ACTION?".

The future journalist to replies softly, through tears, "I.. just wanted to explore the issue... to give the reader a new lens on the world that they might find useful in forming their own convict--"

"C-" the teacher declares and draws a big red X on across the students face.

One might argue that the New Yorker is just pretentious. One might argue that it'd actually be better for society if we all wrote in five paragraph essays with no passive verbs, transition words out the ass, and punchy theses. Maybe the purpose of the writing is mechanical communication, and 'creative' or 'highbrow' writing is ineffecient decadence. We must train our children for effecient work.

Even if English class was purely preparing children for 'careers in communication', and not about art, expression, or creativity, the five paragraph essay is still useless. NO ONE WRITES LIKE THAT. Teach kids how to tweet, that's where the money is. Teach them to how to renegade and put their "thesis" in a little tiktok text box on the top corner. Study BuzzFeed listicles. Write how you talk. No "punchy thesis" can compete with YouTube thumbnail cleavage. Teach them this.

Even the more "formal" corporate communication sounds nothing like a five paragraph essay. Teach kids how to write over-polite emails, to their boss's boss. Hope you are doing well! Thanks! Please let me know if you have any questions! Thanks!

Another point (rate my transition): the purpose of the classics we study lost both on English teachers and the kids they teach. I'm 24 years old and I just learned that Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein as a Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment era. It's about the limits of human logic and the potential dangers of scientism. It's about how Nature is the highest good and we must cautious to not stray too far.

I read Frankenstein in a 11th grade English class. We mostly discussed questions such as: "how it would feel to be Frankenstein?", "how can it hurt to be different?". Did Mary Shelly really set out to write a book about bullying and acceptance? Or do teachers just co-opt classics to talk about whatever they want to talk about ("it's all up to interpretation!")?

To be fair, if someone told 15-year-old-Karthik about how Nature is better than Science, I would've called them backwards or 'superstitious'. But what productive study of such a topic can be done by the average fifteen year old in an American public school?

Just give kids something fun to read. Don't spoil classics with random interpretations. Because then, twenty years later when ex-high schoolers are old enough to start posing the Big Questions themselves, they've already learned to dismiss the classics. 

One of my daydreams is to teach English in a way where we just spend class time writing stories. The homework, pick any three books you want. Go to the library and pick up whatever looks interesting. Read them by the end of the year and keep a diary of your favorite quotes. They just need to develop some joy of reading to counter-balance the miles of 7 second TikToks your scrolling through every day. 

There's nothing to lose really. Has any poet, any author, ever said, "I owe all that I know to the Common Core English Curriculum"?