April 25th, 2007

Educationally speaking

I did it, I graded 81 final examinations on CanLit! That 60ish hours of careful consideration of undergraduate views on many major Canadian authors has made me question the value of the general liberal arts education. I don’t (think I) mean that facetiously. When I first started marking, when students would started spouting made-up information on books they clearly hadn’t read, I would think to myself, slashing angrily with my orange pen, “Why take the course if you refuse to learn anything? University is, if nothing else, expensive! Take credits you care about.”

Then, about 10 papers in, I got it–they don’t have a choice. I don’t think this class per se is a requirement, but I believe some sort of low level arts class is, and this one foots the bill. I actually witnessed an attractive, reasonably organized-looking couple at the exam high-five each other while exclaiming, “Last English class ever!”

Indeed. Much as I loved my liberal arts education, and much as it has benefited me in my chosen career path as a marginally employed daydreamer, I question the value of making future engineers and media designers and office managers read short stories and poems. It only makes them angry, or worse, horribly formulaic in their reading. These are the people who grow up to read The Lovely Bones because it teaches so much about the grieving process. End-result focused reading (what’s the value-add? what’s the lesson learned?) is scary to me as a writer, because I’m not sure my work *has* a educational component, except in that airy, literary, experiental sort of way. That’s the sort of thing I like best to read…no, wait, what I *really* like to read is entertainment, for the joy of it. If it looks boring, I don’t wanna read it.

That being said, in high school, undergrad and even now, I read some things that I don’t exactly “enjoy” but that broaden my context, expose me to new ideas or challenge me to think in new ways. I like that part of it, even if I don’t like the book itself. That is what keeps me taking recommendations from all sorts of people with tastes completely unlike mine–I want to get smarter, better at this reading thing.

But that’s kinda my job, you know? As a writery person (someday I’ll make it a noun…) Besides, if anybody tries to *insist* on me reading something, I’ll balk. My spare time is too limited, and my poor brain, too. Are these balky undergrads really learning anything other than how to regurgitate reading guides and, more depressingly, how to hate literature and all its “lessons”? I worry. If requirements are punitive and boring, will they make students elect to never read again? Lots of smart people don’t read. Even fewer people read fiction–lots of super-intelligent academics don’t read outside their own fields, and they aren’t boring, stultified or trivial. I enjoy talking to these non-readers at parties; often, you’d never even *know* (we should make them wear funny hats!)

Why should books be some sort cod-liver oil of the mind? Believe me, if you were reading these exams, you’d know that enforced reading isn’t joyful. But on the other hand… I took a bunch of elective maths when I was an undergrad, which nearly killed me, and I studied music for fourteen years despite showing zero aptitude for it. Why? Because I liked the way those things made me think, what they did for my brain. And then I stopped, because I’m not young enough to just absorb new things at random, or to have the free time to do it in. I’m sure even my best theorem proofs and sonatas seemed like rote drudgery to anyone who had a gift for those disciplines, but it wasn’t the end product that was important to me; it was the way my thoughts spun on after that ending. I can’t remember for the life of me how to calculate the area under a curve, but I think I’m smarter still for having learnt it once.

So what is the answer? To read or not to read? Have there been studies done, what percentage of the population over 22 reads for pleasure, and if there is an intelligence quotient correspondence? And what about those of us who took one little course in chaos theory? Did that add brain cells or stress them to death?

Just curious.

From the 100 years war to the Crimea

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