1. Paki-Writing
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    Paki-Writing Member

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    The point of English Class

    Discussion in 'The Lounge' started by Paki-Writing, Dec 24, 2010.

    I never understood why we must read fiction in college, or even highschool. What's the point? I've had to take these classes. I can learn how to write a thesis-driven essay without reading fiction. What point does writing one for fiction serve? Why should we over-analyze Shakespeare's plays?
     
  2. LordKyleOfEarth
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    LordKyleOfEarth Contributing Member Contributor

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    That is a heavy question there. Here is one of many possible answers.

    In brief, fiction can be broken down into two categories: Mythology and Literature. Mythology serves to convey cultural entomologies and values from one generation to the next. Literature comments on the current culture and replaced the oral tradition as the primary means of delivering myth.

    In studying fiction from the past and current times you learn who you are, where you came from, and what it is that makes us human. Over analyzing Shakespeare allows you to understand the culture that birthed the modern world. That culture created ours, so Shakespeare is like a great-great-relative of yours. The same can be said of Gilgamesh, the Thebiad, and the Tao Te Ching.
     
  3. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    Literature is one of the most fundamental aspects of any culture. The way people write, the stories they tell, the things that concerned them, how they communicated, thought about the world and each other are all revealed through a study of literature. This is where the value of English Literature classes lies. It isn't just an arbitrary class to teach you to write an essay--the essay writing isn't the point, the literature is.

    Literature is one of the main (and in some cases only) source of information about ancient and pre-modern cultures, so it contributes greatly to our historical knowledge, and provides an idea of how our contemporary world developed, not only in the sterile sense that some histories provide, but on a human level.

    So, in 'over-analysing' Shakespeare, you are being invited to explore the concerns, ideas and stylistic tendancies of a 16th century English writer, and to consider what this might mean in a contemporary context.
     
  4. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    I have to say for all there are downsides - I also know that I was introduced to much literature I wouldn't have read otherwise.

    I am in Scotland - and whilst Shakespeare is someone I have read since I was about 8 or 9, the likes of Grassic Gibbon and Burns were something I needed to be taught. There is a danger in overanalysing if you lose the passion for the story whilst you are doing it. However it can also teach appreciation of a story.
     
  5. Noya Desherbanté
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    Noya Desherbanté Senior Member

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    The point of English for me was just that I enjoyed it. I would have hated PE (gym to you guys over the pond!), but anyone sportier than me might have loved that and hated English. In my mind it's just another subject which expands on a basic vital skill - PE/health, English/reading - for the enjoyment of some, and the expansion of knowledge for the others. That was the goal, anyway. Not every student appreciates each class (obviously I'm not saying you don't:)).

    Going wider, I'd say English class is maybe a reflection of our own self-importance - Man is still chuffed at inventing a written language all of his own, and the intricacies he's created fascinate every one of us. A chimp can fling a painty brush at a canvas and it can mean something to the Art world, but no other animal has English class. But I agree with arron89 and Elgaisma - literature, because of it's uniqueness, is taught and cherished as a universal way of learning about different cultures, which, in this converged and globalised world, is more important than ever.
     
  6. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    studying literature in school is every bit as important as history, geography, social studies and all the other non-elective subjects... for reasons given above and more...

    it all helps to make our children cognizant of the world they'll be responsible for some day... and of what sets us humans apart from our fellow animals, as 'sentient beings'...
    [not that we've made it something to be proud of! ;-( ]
     
  7. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Maybe in analyzing Shakespeare (competently, I hope) you will discover that the most noble sentiments of his time - Remember above all else, to thine own self be true; the quality of mercy is not strained; tickle us, do we not laugh? Prick us, do we not bleed? - are STILL noble sentiments, and the darkness that such sentiments struggle against threaten us in the present just as they did then. In this way, you may possibly discover the continuum of human existence, of basic and unchanging values that belie the rampant moral relativism of our times.

    Why on earth would someone who is a member of a writing site ask such a question?
     
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  8. Trilby
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    Trilby Contributing Member Contributor

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    Ditto!
     
  9. Show
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    Show Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think fiction reading selections in schools need to be more varied. I know my mandatory reading has left a permanent bad taste for reading in general in my mouth simply because I was forcefed painfully dull books and told that I was supposed to like it because somebody decided it was good.

    It's important to study literature but IMO, the literature courses are, by and large, too rooted in the past and too narrow minded. Include the past but don't make it all that there is. I think the benefits of literature get lost in the formulaic approach of most literature courses.
     
  10. LordKyleOfEarth
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    LordKyleOfEarth Contributing Member Contributor

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    I actually think it's a great question, what is literature and why does it matter? Why read Shakespeare rather than stephanie meyers or Stephen king? Why preserve the work of one English playwright over another? In a time where teaching curriculums are so over stressed and spread thin, how do you justify the contents of a given lesson plan? Why teach humanities at all when the modern world is tech driven and increasingly detached from the working class; would the time be better spent teaching a skill like C++ programming or HTML?
     
  11. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Arron89 gives voice to one of the most widely held tenants of the science of anthropology. Little by little, as we study the other creatures that inhabit this planet with us, that host of traits that we once thought to be purely our own, purely human, have been slowly whittled away. We have learned that other creatures make use of tools, other animals farm, other animals practice animal husbandry. These things are no longer our own. But one thing which remains purely ours is our capacity to move accumulated knowledge forward through time via language. Other creatures have been shown to have the ability to teach their young behaviors that are not innate to them, and in this way they do have the rudiments of culture, but no creature, other than us, has the ability to express our feelings and sentiments concerning our behaviors and the behaviors of those around us. No creature has the ability to create knowledge for no other reason than its enjoyment. No other creature has the ability to create allegory and thus comment on the world around them in a way that is deeper than factual; we can describe the world around us emotionally. The study of fiction is absolutely worth your time because fiction is a form of art and the function of art is to comment on culture.

    I could not agree with this more! I think too many young people are turned off to the in depth study of fiction at an early age because the offerings are tortuous. In my AP English course in my senior year of high school my teacher was in a literary love affair with Steinbeck. Today I can appreciate Steinbeck, but at the time his work was like pulling out finger nails. It was, to my untrained, young mind, sepia toned bipolar angst and I hated it and it turned me away from a more serious take on fiction. Had I been allowed to read and comment on works that were a little more relevant and perhaps actually enjoyable, I might have been brought into the fold at an earlier age.
     
  12. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    As an arts major, that's a question that often (somewhat condescendingly) gets hurled at you from time to time, and really it boils down to what you think is important. I see an education in the arts (particularly one that leads to academia or work in other institutions) as an acknowledgement of the importance of things like literature, art, philosophy and music, and an effort to preserve them for posterity--this is why you see the same texts, the same writers, artists, thinkers appearing again and again in universities throughout the world on a more or less permanent basis. Unlike material wealth, our cultural wealth, our knowledge of these works and what mean, is transient, and it takes continued study from generation to generation to ensure that the fundamental and important texts of our various cultures remain studied and relevant.

    On the other hand, a degree in something like Computer Science, which would prepare you for a career in this technological economy, seems more suited to someone who values the infrastructure of culture (as would, say, an engineer, a doctor, a lawyer). It's great that as relatively wealthy countries with high standards of education and good infrastructure that people can devote their lives to the seemingly pointless life of reading and writing while other people have to work hard to keep companies running, keep people healthy, keep roads usable. So then, the study of literature, and study in the arts in general, allows people to enrich the culture of a society, contribute new ideas, new scholarship, new writing. There's a limit to how far infrastructural work can take us--if you push a few hundred years into the future, it's likely that these jobs will have been increasingly relegated to mechanical labour (as terribly scifi as that sounds), which means that rather than working to maintain or improve our physical conditions, more and more people will be able to pursue a (dare I say) noble life of engaging on a day to day basis with their culture in whatever way they see fit.
     
  13. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    I have an MSc in Informantics, and a BA in Social History. The informantics degree is now totally redundant due to the march of progress, but the history (and my earlier literature and art studies) stay with me to enrich my life.
     
  14. Mercurial
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    Mercurial Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think this highlights the difference between academics and job training really well. They are similar like an apple and a grape are similar. They both require a lot of studying and have their characteristic values, but in the end, one is more practical for the job market while the other serves to enrich lives holistically.

    It's true that these days what's taught in literature-based classes does not really serve a practical, career-focused purpose, but the same could be argued with history or fine arts courses. What these subjects can offer is a deeper understanding of who we are, who we were, and who we can be. They help us express ourselves and provide us with the tools to reach out to one another on many levels --linguistically, musically, artfully... Literature is a tool. For some it is a form of escapism while for others it may be a way to explore a concept more thoroughly.

    I do believe that English-based classes, not literature-based classes have great purpose though. Imagine not being taught how to properly form a sentence? Then the users of this site might never have had this conversation in the first place.

    As for the complaint about strict authors or novels to study, I totally agree. I will never be able to say Faulkner without a bit of a scowl on my face... On the whole I enjoyed the particular course that forced Faulkner down my throat, but that unit was brutal.

    In my high school, one of the classes offered that fulfills the senior literature credit was called Novels. I didn't take it (instead I took a college course for lit credit and creative writing for writing credit), but apparently there was a list of over 2000 novels that you could choose from. There were historical distribution requirements, but still you were able to choose what you wanted to read, and I really respected the English department for offering that. Most of the kids I knew who took the class really enjoyed it.
     
  15. J_Jammer
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    J_Jammer Banned

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    If English morphed every so often into what is understood now then it would be not only relevant it would be a great class.

    Meaning they would discuss a popular book for their age group and who liked it and who didn't and why.

    They would talk about slang and not just words they use but other words that become popular because of famous political events or disasters in someone's famous life.

    Language is constantly moving and changing....especially with English.

    Brings me to this video by Stephen Fry. He talks about the English language and slams the Grammar Nazi in a really poetic manner.

    If the curriculum changed to show what is NOW English instead of what was English...students would care.
     
  16. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    When I studied English we did modern works as well as classic. Fact is the skills of analysis, reading and thought learned in a humanities degree are useful and never date.

    However nearly all degrees become out of date over time - my archaeology whilst enriching my life is 13 years old - History the same. Astronomy was 10 years ago. Aspects of all those subjects will have changed by now.
     
  17. Paki-Writing
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    Paki-Writing Member

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    Lots of answers!

    Technology has given you a computer to write with, running water, plenty of food, ability to travel the world, etc. It is activism that's given you your rights. It helps to study sociology/history to become a good activist. How does reading fiction compare with that?

    Mind you, I believe in having classes to learn grammar and to write well. Communication is very important. I just don't understand why I need to read The Man of Mode.

    I'm on this site in order to become a competent writer. I need not study fiction in order to become a competent writer. Being able to write and communicate effectively is important.
     
  18. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    Not at all, although in recent years, definitions of literature (I'm sure many people on these forums will be pleased to hear) have widened considerably, at least at tertiary level. Anyway, Shakespeare was the best playwright of his time, but by no means the only, hence it is his work that is remembered, studied, celebrated. Will Gossip Girl come to be our generation's defining work? I hope not, but something will be. You're quick to point out examples of 'low' culture, but there is still a lot of amazing work being done today that will absolutely be remembered by future generations and studied the way we study seventeenth and eighteenth century texts now.

    As for the idea that we gain a complete understanding from mere history, it's utter nonsense. Yes, we gain a broad overview of some civilisations (and only a select few have written histories that are anywhere near comprehensive), but a study of art and literature in conjunction with what recorded history exists is the best way we have to gain real access into the lives of people at this time, which is (in my mind) far more important than the sterile collection of dates and occurances so often found in archaic histories.

    I still have trouble understanding where these questions are coming from if you do indeed want to be a writer. On the one hand, you say you want to communicate to readers, but then you say you don't see the point in learning how to analyse and interpret other writers' work? Seems like a contradiction...
     
  19. art
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    art Contributing Member Contributor

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    Aye. A similar point is raised by CS Lewis, a chap often mocked for his conservatism and fuddy-duddiness. He says literature is the readiest means into the shoes and outlook of another. A forceful point. To accept it - fully - is to think of reading as an exercise in stripping away the self. This might seem slightly at odds with some recent developments in literary theory.
     
  20. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yes TV is a fundamental aspect of modern culture, not sure my life would be half as rich without being able to admire Captain Jack's backside in Torchwood every so often or going through a gammet of emotion with Jonathan Creek - it is the equivelent of the oral legends, songs and bothy ballads of the past. Entertainment has been around for many years, as has story telling. Some cultures the only history we have is stories. History is nearly always taught from the victors point of view - or given a spin. Stories add the humanity. The very best historians/archaeologists etc have an appreciation of story and can tell the story of the history or archaeology etc

    If you don't appreciate good fiction then your academic essays will be more dry. My experience was being able to write science reports was a thousand times easier because I had studied arts before I did science. English is what helps you communicate the information you have to the masses on a variety of appropriate levels. I write fiction books for my kids to teach principles they wouldn't understand at 7 and 4 normally - Chlorie the Chloroplast (sp??), does botany, we have Twinkle the Star for astronomy, Atomic Arry for Chemistry and Hottie the energy beam does Physics. I know the complex system of goldfish bowls and fishhooks taught to me by a Chemistry teacher has given me a fantastic abilty with chemical equations.

    The teachers that stood out for me in a variety of subjects are those that can make their subject as fascinating to read as good fiction - they do that by reading good fiction.
     
  21. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    It makes it worth having all those things.
     
  22. Paki-Writing
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    Paki-Writing Member

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    Celebrate Shakespeare all you want. Why force other people to learn it? There are a lot of crass jokes in Shakespeare and several areas where the phallus point is shown i.e. dick jokes. I don't see Shakespeare as high culture. It's more about pleasing the ruling class while entertaining the masses, in my opinion.

    You called Gossip Girl "low culture," but that is your opinion. Parts of society being "high" or "low" is arbitrary.

    My history book's preface says a history book should be a well told story. My history book is. It's very interesting and emotionally intense. It's not just a "sterile collection of dates and occurances [sic]."

    Also, history books can incorporate what is written in fiction. One doesn't need to spend large amounts of time reading novels for that. Again, a history book like Early Modern Europe will teach much more than Timon of Athens.

    Do note, it is not being said that reading fiction is useless. Of course historians can benefit from reading fiction to learn more about the time they are studying. I just don't see why a physicist must do it.

    Let's look at what I said.


    Writer: "5. a person who writes or is able to write" (dictionary.com)

    Competent: "2. adequate but not exceptional. " (ibid)

    I want my writing skills to be adequate. I need to be able to write well enough to do well on my GREs and to write peer-review articles. I want to be a scientist. Being able to write competently is a good skill for scientists.

    I don't need to read fiction to do that. Sorry, I don't. We (students at my university) had a introductory writing class. We didn't see any fiction, but we did analyze. "Being able to write and communicate effectively" is not the exclusive domain of fiction. Noam Chomsky writes well and communicates quite effectively. However, he authors non-fiction books.

    I see your point. When I was reading By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept the author made me feel the main character's emotions. The thing about old fiction is, it's a struggle just to understand what's being said. That really doesn't help much in being a better communicator.

    Also, can't one just take writing classes without reading fiction? My beef is that I'm forced to take two fiction classes in college, and I rather use that time doing something I don't hate. I don't mind doing something I hate, as long as it'll pay off later. So far, the one fiction class I've taken was painful. It did help me in elucidating my arguments. But I don't see why I'd need to read fiction for that, because it was the writing part of the class that helped.

    Also, these literature classes don't pick fiction books that best communicate to students. If they did that, then the class would be more useful (and less painful). If English teachers wanted to make a class that showed effective and interesting writing, why not choose something students can understand without buying cliff notes?
     
  23. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    You could always take a technical writing class. My school had a few classes within the science and engineering departments that taught students how to write and edit scientific and technical articles.
     
  24. LordKyleOfEarth
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    Paki, I feel that you have just never had a good humanities/lit instructor. You have covered a lot of literary ground but you were never given the context to appreciate what you had.

    Done correctly, you can see the artistry of a work. How it incorporates the mythological record, fears, dreams, and hopes of a people. It is different from history because it tells what people wished would have happened, or stories that were meant to inspire and guide a population.

    The fiction novel is a relatively new construct, but I'm sort of getting the feeling that you are confusing it (and fiction's context) with works that are not really 'fiction' in the sense that we see the genre today.
     
  25. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    Think you have made the point yourself if you are struggling to read old fiction clearly you are lacking in skills - it isn't just you don't like it. Thanks to an education I can read classics from Beowulf down to Cloud Atlas without a problem.

    I struggled with Sunset Song but learning to read it has made me a much better writer. Also challenged me in many ways.

    You hate it because you have decided to blame the literature instead of realising it is skills you are lacking. Learn the skills and you may still not like the stories but you will be able to read them better.

    Arron is right some of the very best at certain writing skills we need to learn how to read. Sunset Song was what introduced me to the idea that when you play with punctuation it effects the book. The run on sentences are difficult to read at first but once adjusted to the book becomes this amazing mythological dream sequence. Captured in a manner few others have tried.

    Thanks to Shakespeare we have malaprops - and I have had huge fun writing them. He has an ability to characterise in a few words of dialogue very few others have achieved since.

    Jane Austen managed romance without the ick factor. Agatha Christie remains one of the best in detective fiction her thought processes are amazing.
     

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