When I was a high school student 40 years ago, back in the 20th century, we were asked to analyze “Macbeth,” Silas Marner, A Tale of Two Cities, and “The Merchant of Venice.” Why had our teachers chosen those books and plays, and not, for example, I, Robot, The Jungle, The Grapes of Wrath, or Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave? Did our teachers actually love the books they made us read? Did those particular books hold some special knowledge?
Not until many years later did I learn that the four works I analyzed in high school had appeared on the entrance examination for Harvard University in 1885. The first SAT was not given until 1926. Colleges gave their own admissions tests, and some announced in advance the books that applicants would be asked to analyze. Entrance requirements varied widely from college to college, just as they do today. Some colleges had no exams, other colleges had lists of different books, and the Harvard test had influence.
But no educator was under the illusion that writing a literary analysis of a book that Harvard required on its exam was a pedagogical method to improve reading ability. On the contrary, it was a way to exclude those not deemed worthy of a college education, just as 200 years earlier, Harvard had considered for admission only those who could “speake true Latin in verse and prose … and decline perfectly the paradigms of nounes and verbs in ye Greek tongue.”
As colleges gradually changed their requirements during the 19th century, literary analysis of books in English replaced literary analysis of works in Latin and Greek. High school teachers taught it only to those classes that they, or their principals, deemed to be college-bound, because it was crucial for gaining admission. In other words, they taught it to those students, not because it would help them become better readers, but because they could already read at a high level. Yet early in the 20th century, it became more and more common to require teachers to “do” Shakespeare, Chaucer, Hawthorne, and Dickens even with students who could read only on a 5th or 6th grade level, or lower.
High school teachers today still are given an impossible task based on the false premise that teaching literary analysis promotes literacy. English teachers who do not have hand-picked honors students privately lament that most of their classes are incapable of doing the kind of literary analysis that the state education department requires, because the reading level of the students is much too low. Some teachers confide that they have to read the books to their students. Others confess that they must show them the video of the book. Many turn a blind eye when students hand in analyses that have been copied from Monarch Notes and Cliffs Notes. And with the miracle of the Internet, dozens of Web sites have made the downloading of literary analyses as easy as point and click.
High school teachers today still are given an impossible task based on the false premise that teaching literary analysis promotes literacy.
But the worst of it is not that students aren’t up to the task. After all, how many jobs are there for literary critics? The worst of it is that if literacy were really a primary goal of compulsory schooling, then our high school students would be made to do lots of sustained silent reading of books that they can actually understand, with the support of an adult who will answer their questions and help them with new words and concepts—just like those wonderful, patient, literate parents that we educators are fond of holding up as exemplary. But few of our students have that kind of parent at home.
Fifty years of careful research has confirmed the truism that the single best way to get better at reading is by reading. In 1985, the report “Becoming a Nation of Readers” recommended that 4th graders should read independently a minimum of two hours a week. Yet how many high school students do that much independent reading in 2005? By force of law we compel students to stay in school at least till the age of 16. It is unfortunate that we continue to make literary analysis the centerpiece of our high school language arts curriculum instead of fostering real literacy.
In 1929, Lector Heckworth wrote in the Peabody Journal, “To establish a love for and permanent interest in reading is a rather generally accepted aim today.” Would that it were so!
A version of this article appeared in the November 09, 2005 edition of Education Week as Analyze This