English for the Dazed and Confused

Mark Bauerlein
February 21, 2024
Reproduced with Permission
Public Discourse

When I was in high school in the mid-1970s, first in Rockville outside Washington, DC, then in north San Diego County, a year of classic American literature was a standard thing. These weren't private schools--I never attended one of those--just ordinary public schools with the usual good and bad students. Still, everyone assumed English class included Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, Dickinson, and Twain in the nineteenth century and Frost, Millay, Eliot, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner in the twentieth century. Choices after that varied, but always were serious. My teachers picked Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America, John Updike's Rabbit, Run, and John Barth's The Floating Opera.

That general requirement is over. Only in Honors or AP courses can a teacher assign those novels today and get a satisfying response. In 1977, everyone in school was asked to read them. Now, only accelerated ones are expected to handle Faulkner's stream of consciousness, Melville's oddball characters, and Dickinson's oblique metaphors. What we took as normal and necessary, as the English equivalent of basic geometry and the periodic table, Gen Zers see as exotic and burdensome. The public school system pretty much agrees. English isn't classic American literature anymore. Our average sixteen-year-olds have no conception of an American literary heritage, or any cultural heritage, for that matter, and public school teachers have largely given up on remedying that lack--either because of the diversity demand (which casts most traditions from before 1960 as fatally Dead White Male) or because of their despair over getting kids to put in the time to finish a 200-page novel when those kids can't leave their phones alone for ten minutes.

It is easy to underestimate the impact of this disappearance. Ideologues of multiculturalism don't make that mistake, as we can see by their attacks on Western Civilization starting in the 1960s. They understand the conservative effect of tradition, and it has to go. In my experience in secondary education, however, the ideological thrust of downplaying the traditional canon has usually come in second. Coming in first has been an apolitical attitude. If you're not a reader of short stories, if lines from Whitman's "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" don't touch you ("From under that yellow half-moon late-risen and swollen as if with tears"), if the despair of Quentin Compson bores you, why worry? You don't care. You haven't enough of a personal relationship with classic literature to stand firm. If when you were young you did identify with renowned heroes and heroines, you don't ask the kids to repeat the act any longer. It's too old-fashioned, not enough critical thinking. And with "rote memorization" a dirty word in ed school theory, you don't require students to stand in front of the class and recite Shakespeare. It sounds too mechanical, a blank regurgitation of another's words, not one's own. Apart from that, upper administrators don't back you on old-school literary matters. They think about STEM and workforce readiness. Poems and stories are fluff in their eyes, not the real stuff students need, that is, aptitude with numbers and skill with words (which a kid can learn by reading any "complex texts," no literary tradition needed). Studying Modernist poetry won't supply competent workers for large employers in the region.

Of course, people in charge of the English curriculum don't speak so crassly. Literature often gets lip service, but it usually takes the form of "diverse and inclusive" readings that will, supposedly, reflect the many identities in the twenty-first-century classroom. In truth, educators don't really mean it when they raise the primacy of the tender high school psyche. The diversification process doesn't do much for that delicate thing. The inclusion approach doesn't give youths what they really need, namely, a coherent whole, a meaningful past, a lofty universe that will make them proud to join. Instead, inclusivity provides but a bit of this and a little of that, a haphazard syllabus with no monumental endpoint. Students leave those courses with no sense of a literary history that relates to them, no canon of greatness raises their sensibilities above the puerile chatter of the hallways.

Once in a freshman survey course at Emory University, a girl came to my office to discuss The Awakening, a novel from 1899 about a woman coping with the demands of marriage and motherhood, and failing. As we conversed and turned to the final scene in which the main character commits suicide by wandering naked into the sea, I noticed tears on the student's cheeks. The story got to her, deeply. I don't know what lay behind her reaction, what private grief may have been activated, but it was clear that she felt implicated in the fate of the character. For a few days, the course had become an emotional experience. Reading the novel was a lot more than an assignment. The novel itself was a pretext by which she could re-experience powerful events transpiring in her life. As we talked, it was the novel that remained the focus, too, not her. She didn't disclose anything to me, but spoke only of the action in the book. I gave her a kindly smile and tried to stay with the plot and the character without seeming unsympathetic to her feelings. When we concluded, she thanked me for assigning Kate Chopin's work.

That was twenty-five years ago. I would say that it was an occurrence that was not uncommon before multiculturalism politicized the fun and inspiration out of literature and the iPhone shortened attention spans. I recall many kids in the 1980s (when I was a teaching assistant at UCLA) and the 1990s who had the extra motivation, who didn't finish assignments only for a grade on the way to achievement and success, but took the literature as a means of discovery, clarity, formation, and truth. Each one of them, I presume, had an English class in high school that had turned into a special encounter at some point. They were lucky to have a teacher and a curriculum that reinforced it. With the decay of literary tradition in English classrooms, American adolescents have been robbed of precisely this opportunity.

This loss is not unrelated to the disappearance of faith among Millennials and Gen Z. As has been amply reported, most of them have grown up with no concrete habits of worship, no transcendent orientation at all, though they may have some feeling for a therapeutic deity that tells everyone to make nice. To believe in a God that is wholly other, eternal and infinite, surpassing all our projections of him, as superior to us as we are to a caterpillar, doesn't suit the twenty-first-century Me. This world, this time and place and all the creatures within it, are all that count. Young Americans have no "above and beyond" to which they can send their sorrows.

We should interpret the loss of literature in the same way, though at a lower temperature. The universe of fiction is an imaginary realm, not a transcendent one but certainly a meaningful one to an avid reader. It may not be above and beyond, but it does present an alternative creation open to their attachments and ready to be judged. Lines of verse capture experiences that we all have but can't express so well, as in Dickinson's "After great pain, a formal feeling comes-- / The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs--." People memorize the lines because of the emotional satisfaction they produce. The phrases are like magic. They have a psychological benefit that adolescents need and crave as they mature. In an important little essay from 1908 entitled "Creative Writers and Daydreaming," Freud lays the value of literature on a particular psychic mechanism: "a liberation of tension in our minds." We read and find our desires embodied in characters, actions, and evocative descriptions, he says, and it feels thrilling, even if those desires are complex or guilty. Through the mediation of the good story, we are able "to enjoy our own day-dreams without self-reproach or shame."

The universe of fiction is an imaginary realm, not a transcendent one but certainly a meaningful one to an avid reader.

Freud speaks here of popular literature, the equivalent in his time of romance novels and Westerns, which appeal to adolescent fantasies of love and power. Classic literature does something more. It improves those desires, educates them through and in another cosmos. It's like a trial run for the ego's consideration. Anna and Vronsky are a beautiful pair, immersed in a love that outshines the prosaic feelings of the rest. But a careful reading of the two reveals subtle signs of emotional defect in both early on. The Red Badge of Courage is a Civil War novel that tracks the battlefield learning of a fresh Union volunteer. What happens to him may be seen as a moral instruction that the young male reader of today should grasp: aggressive boasting is empty; genuine courage is a quieter trait. Students are drawn in by the compelling plots and striking language of such works--that's where meaningful engagement happens. Once that's established, skillful authors lead readers toward a keener experience, a tragic wisdom, perhaps, that may be read in "Success is counted sweetest / By those who ne'er succeed"; or a corrected ambition, as in Gatsby's doomed effort to repeat the past and make it work out differently this time; or a refined passion, as with Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. Or great literature may simply voice a feeling that the youth need to hear voiced, such as the bold encouragement of Emerson ("Build, therefore, your own world") and the sad passivity of Prufrock (I have had a half-dozen male students over the years declare their ardor for that poem).

If those works are assembled into a whole, gathered and presented as a lineage, a patrimony, the very thing that postmodernists mocked and dismissed in the 1980s as a "Grand Narrative" that a properly ironic attitude toward history dismisses, those works acquire even more significance. The youth about to enter the world draw upon them as a scion does an inheritance.

Kids reason the moral out unconsciously: the work I am reading is important; I identify with it (in some fashion); I, therefore, am tied to something important, something bigger than my immediate surroundings. This is an elevation they need to experience, especially when they've grown up without God and with an iPhone. The stupidity of social media and the chaos of entertainment media wrap them in a consumerist, presentist, transient habitat of shallow foundations. One hour on TikTok convinces you of that. An hour with Edith Wharton, on the other hand, teaches them more about the dynamics of male-female relations than does 100 hours of Netflix.

Give young Americans, then, the story of literature from the Puritans to the Modernists. Make it a tradition and hand it down as an ingredient in their formation as citizens and tell them that they stand in the shadow of American greatness. This is not only a matter of knowledge and skill. It's for their health.


Top