The Elimination of Literature
E. John Winner
Every now and then, I’ll be walking down a street and come upon a box of books being set out for trash, and if they’re in good condition, I’ll look through them for anything of interest. Some time ago, I found a massive High School English text-book, which I took to be an anthology of literature, and since I thought I might find something in it I may have overlooked in the past, I brought it home. Gave it a quick browse and set it aside for future consideration.
Recently wrestling with a writer’s block, I dug it out, thinking I might find some inspiration. Little did I know I would instead confront the devil’s spawn.
Elements of Literature was published in 2007 . It was put together by “Program Authors” Kylene Beers (literacy specialist) and composition theorist Lee Odell. The edition I have at hand was specifically designed as student preparation for the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment test (PSSA). It’s 1500 7″x10″ glossy pages long. It’s also a mess.
Given its title and subtitle (“Essentials of British and World literature”), one would assume that the main function of the book would be to introduce students to literature, It’s not. In place of an introduction extolling the delights one can find reading interesting or difficult texts that have through history contributed to our culture (what we commonly mean by ‘literature’), the book opens with instructions to the student on how to meet Pennsylvania’s “Language Arts Standards” and how to succeed at taking the PSSA. Two of its 32 pages relate to the reading of literature.
The anthology itself is structured chronologically: 449 CE to “the Present.” This would seem to suggest that the civilizations BCE had little to contribute to literature, but, classicists take heart! This announced periodization is repeatedly violated throughout the book. So, in the first part, after readings from Beowulf, Gilgamesh and then the Iliad (selections, of course) appear, with the Iliad supported by an essay about Schliemann’s 19th century excavations in search of Priam’s gold. Throughout these presentations, the text is interspersed with sidebars and whole pages explaining the background of the selections, vocabulary, critical commonplaces, attempts to make the material of contemporary interest (apparently the spirit of the epic lives on … in comic books), as well as writing suggestions. One such suggestion includes a sample student essay basically re-writing Hector’s experience of battle so he can overcome his fears and be “again the awesome, heroic ‘noble Hector’.” (I mean, a totally awesome dude! ) After a small selection of shorter texts of the given period, a sample test completes the section.
A lot of this seems to make sense (students certainly need help with difficult vocabulary), but the presentation is just wretched. None of the material is allowed to speak for itself. The decision to use selections rather than whole texts robs the originals of their immediacy. I think John Gardner’s Grendel is a wonderful book, but does the student need Beowulf interrupted by selections from it? or by an essay on “Life in 999?”
This is basically the strategy for presentation throughout the book, except that it gets worse the closer we get to the present era, since of course feminism and multicultural concerns must be accounted for. Fair enough, there are some wonderful texts written by all genders and every ethnicity. But the bias in selection is primarily academic — texts from writers who sell best in university towns. And the presentation strategy becomes ever more confused, as justification for considering recent writing as somehow of equivalent value with long-enduring texts has never been strong since the practice started a hundred or so years ago . By the time we get to a selection of recent speeches by international political leaders, it’s hard to see what “elements of literature” we actually are dealing with here.
It must be said that the very size of the book, its large glossy pages, its visual design (a weird hybrid of old style double-column print and Internet flavored graphics), all mitigate against a student’s taking interest in it. One could easily get the impression that the “elements of literature” are comprised of everything ever written or said, heard or seen. The student is recurrently encouraged to see movie versions of the texts or just movies; although, blessedly, there’s nothing about television here. (I wonder how the ”program authors” missed that?) Research emphasis is on the Internet, of course.
The last literary texts to appear in the book (actually presented as part of a practice test, calling for a comparison between the two), are the poems The Lorelei by Heinrich Heine and Margaret Atwood’s Siren Song. Not bad selections for a practice test. Yet a strange way to say farewell to literature, to bemoan the dangers of song leading listeners to destruction.
Let’s talk about the specific moment, when I realized that what I held in my hands was a petty educational system bureaucrat’s parody of what an introduction to literature ought to look like. Page 316 presents Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30.  It begins with an Introduction stressing that the student is expected to look for metaphors — “comparisons of two unlike things” (which is not a very good definition of metaphor) — and closes with a series of questions emphasizing what metaphors the student was expected to look for. One of the more amusing questions: “What thoughts cheer (the speaker) up?” So, to be clear, this is now a poem about the speaker’s efforts to lighten up and quit that gloomy “fore bemoaned moan” — look on the bright side of life!
The side-bar really catches one’s eye, although it’s easy to miss at first glance. I don’t mean the vocabulary clarifications. (Although clarifying “my dear time’s waste” as “the damages that time has done to things dear to me” is a reductive paraphrase that damages a student’s possible interpretations of connotations of the word ‘waste,’ all of which were known to Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s line is thus stripped of the potential power of its ambiguous phrasing.)
But disappointment with oversimplification aside, the real problem with the side bar is an accompanying photograph, meant as some sort of illustration, but of what I am not sure.
It’s a photograph, depicting a middle-aged couple, man and woman, of Asiatic descent, standing close, their tilted heads touching, both wearing glasses, and smiling broadly, showing sets of perfect teeth. They are somewhat plump and seem quite content. They stand, in what appears to be a summer’s garden, above a bouquet of yellow flowers of uncertain variety (the photograph has that old Kodak gloss, yet lacks detail in the focus). The couple are clearly from the late 20th or early 21st century — there’s no attempt to dress them in Elizabethan drag. There is no caption beneath the photograph explaining who they are or what their appearance might possibly have to do with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30.
So why are they here? Putting on my semiotician’s cap, let me try to give it a read. Bear in mind that with that cap on, I must consider the significance of the whole page, from introduction to final questions at the bottom.
The first thing we notice is that the focus of the poem is a text by William Shakespeare. If we juxtapose that with an image of a contemporary Asiatic couple, one of the first notions that can occur to us is to remember the legendary resilience and wide-spread appeal with which, in this culture, we are expected to associate with Shakespeare. How better to emphasize that Shakespeare has a ‘timeless’ appeal to all peoples than with a picture of cheerfully receptive people not of his time nor of his culture. (Actually, there are many better ways to do this, but one admits the cleverness here — the designer of the page makes this emphasis without words needing to express it.)
Since the couple are standing so close together, one easily recognizes them as ‘friends.’ Surely then they represent the kind of social connectivity Shakespeare reveals in the last two lines of his poem? Aren’t friends good to have? Look how cheerful being friends makes this couple. Not only do “sorrows end,” they’re nowhere to be found. As R. Kelly recently sang on Happy People, “Put a smile on your face/ And make a friend.” It’s nice to discover that great poets from such different backgrounds can express the same thought in different words.
Which leads me to the big idea that I think this page is trying to convey: some variant of the notion that Shakespeare, so feared among the young for the difficulties of his texts, is really as understandable (and as harmless) as a common greeting card. Because take away the Introduction, the notes, the final question, and that’s pretty much what we have here. And the Introduction, the notes, the final questions, rather than challenge that notion, are clearly intended to support it. Not by simply coming out and saying it, of course. The pandering, the over-simplification, the banality would be much too obvious. So the words instead strip the text of its latent power, its ambiguity in phrasing, the emotional resonance of its final lines, and let the designer’s photograph do the rest.
Am I being too hard on those involved? I’ll begin to consider that when I get a cogent and reasonable explanation of what that picture is doing there. Because even if the above was not the intended message, that is surely one possible — indeed, one probable — message one can get from the signs on the page.
It can also be argued (and I think the authors here would argue) that I fail to recognize the appeal to readers who have differing levels of competence in reading at the high school level. I understand that we have at last realized that the different needs of different readers have to be addressed. What I don’t see, however, is why this needs to be done with a sonnet by Shakespeare. Are we trying to sneak Shakespeare in through the back door, leading students to believe they are reading Shakespeare when what they have is something that only exists as constructed by the authors of the notes and designer of the page with that dreadful photograph? Or are they really reassuring the student that, once they grasp the fundamentals of literacy, they need think no more on Shakespeare than they do on a greeting card?
I think that’s really what’s going on here. Elements of Literature, from stem to stern, reassures its intended student audience that the primary purpose of literature is its use as a tool for mastering skills — e.g., for learning how to write a resume, give a speech in public, or justify one’s movie choices. And of course, to pass tests. There is little in this book that truly suggests that reading literature can be a pleasure; that it can enrich one’s experience; that it carries cultural codes from generation to generation, commenting on the human condition as it changes across time. It’s a big, heavy book that tells students that literature is hard work, but once they get through it, they will have developed skills, after which they won’t have to bother with it again. What they have read, they can then forget.
Because certainly, if I had to work my way through this book as a student, assuming I’d had little experience with literature previously, there’s no doubt that I would simply read the cues as to what I am expected to write on the exams, and completely forget any of the morass of literary texts presented. Trying to remember particular texts from the book would be like trying to remember the differing doors of a house flying by in a tornado. It’s a jumbled mess of words, images, history, unexamined ideas and lost opportunities for richer, more edifying discussion, anchored only by the ruthlessly repetitive instructions on how to pass the PSSA.
I admit it’s likely that the book was offered to school districts as a resource, with individual teachers allowed to assign what sections they wished (as long as the majority of their students continued to pass the PSSA). But that misses my point. The very size and shape of the book, its design, the repetitive instructions on how to pass the test, all contribute to its essential message. It would be very difficult to read anything in this book and learn to love it, or even become interested in it, Opening the enormous tome and looking down at the glare of its glossy pages is physically stressful.
It is true that I came to literature quite young; when I was twelve I read through The Deerslayer, the Iliad and the Odyssey (Rouse translations), and Goldfinger (well, okay, we all have our guilty pleasures). But it is also true that in my junior high school, while students clearly read at different levels, the books provided at the differing levels were still identifiably literary in quality. The Honors class got to read Catcher in the Rye, the Basics class got Herman Wouk’s City Boy. By 9th grade Social Studies, we were reading Plato, Volatire, Hardy, Orwell, Steinbeck; most students had read a Shakespearean play or seen one performed. (In 1968, Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet had proven quite popular among young people.)
It is also true that the literature anthologies I knew in my youth, even those available in freshman college English, could be imposingly large, with editorial material and commentary that were dreadfully dull, even stultifying. But they were just text, on plain paper, with many complete works that were clearly literary in quality and with an identifiable time line and cultural narrative. And no pictures of smiling couples. They were real books containing texts from other books and existed therefore in the realm of books; in a culture that valued books.
I don’t know at which grade level Elements of Literature is targeted, but at one point, the students are reminded that “You probably have been taking standardized tests throughout your school career,” and they should be thinking about going to college. Again, this book is from 2007. I tried to verify whether it is still being used in Pennsylvania, but the Pennsylvania government and education websites are difficult to navigate or search.  What I did find out is that the PSSA is currently only administered in grades 3 through 8, with a follow-up in the 11th grade. I also sampled some curricula from Pennsylvania school districts.  Notably, the only course in English with a sustained emphasis on reading literary texts, in their complete book format, is the Grade 12 Advanced Placement course, intended for those expected not only to go to college, but possibly also to succeed there.
Now, there is nothing in and of itself offensive about teaching “English Language Arts” rather than English literature. It might be best, our culture as fragmented as it is these days, to let students, once taught to read, find their own way to the literature of their choice. What’s appalling about this whole experience with the Elements of Literature is the duplicity involved and the ugliness of its presentation, overwhelming because of the bureaucratic regulations requiring it. Literature is not literature, it’s a tool. English literature will not be taught, but there will be “exposure” to Beowulf and Shakespeare. Reading and writing are not about ideas or emotions, but about passing tests. There’s no fundamental difference between literature, comic books, movies or political speeches. And should a student find any problem with this, they’ll fail the test. This isn’t education, it’s indoctrination.
But what makes it even worse is that it’s not indoctrination in a way that makes any sense. Because students are not really being taught the language arts, they’re not really being guided toward success in college or in professions (or simply in jobs). And they’re certainly not being “exposed” to literature, so much as they are being driven away from it. They are being taught how to take a test. The only lesson they learn and can carry away and use throughout life, is to submit to authority, and use whatever means, regardless of value, that will help them “get ahead” — i.e. pass whatever test life presents as obstacle to their success. “What forms do I fill out in order to get that new car?” is the kind of question this book prepares students to ask.
Which is weird, because when literature and books really were of value, we not only found such questions fairly easy to ask, we didn’t see any need to set literature aside in order to ask them. But that’s what the student readers of Elements of Literature are being taught: that literature is an impediment to overcome, in order to get to the ‘real’ questions in life, like how to negotiate a car purchase.
There was a time when books, cars, political speeches, film, history, all formed strands of the great web of life, without mistaking any one for any of the others. There was no reason to dispense with one in order to enjoy the others. Now everything is everything, and nothing matters — except “getting ahead.” There’s just nothing anymore, beyond bare survival and hedonistic pleasure, which seems to give that any value.
 Elements of Literature Sixth Course Essentials of British and World Literature. Pennsylvania Edition. No author designation on title pages. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2007.
 I move we expunge the word ‘awesome’ from the English language forthwith.
 As one of my teachers once put it, “A classic is a text written by someone who’s dead.”
 William Shakespeare, Sonnet 30:
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.
 For instance: http://www.education.pa.gov/Pages/default.aspx#tab-1
[6 ] For instance: http://www.basd.net/Page/8914