The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body."...  ...Sir Richard Steele.

Commentary of the Day - January 5, 2009: Books are the Things With Pages.  Guest commentary by Henry Marchand.

Like most of the educators I've worked and spoken with during the 17-and-counting years I've spent teaching English courses at various colleges and universities, I have vivid memories of junior high and high school teachers who embody, for me, the best and worst of our profession.

There was Mr. Cohn, who brought the humanity of Steinbeck and Vonnegut to a room filled with the least enthused readers in any northern New Jersey high school; his own love of the books he put in our hands was so powerful and unrestrained that it got through against tall odds and changed lives.  From this invaluable man I learned that it's not just all right to care about literature and about people (even empathy-deficient high school students),  it's essential.  But there was also, sadly, Ms. Gamparelli, who taught literature by flipping the switch to spin a film projector's reels (yes, reel-to-reel film; I'm that old) and sitting in the back of the darkened classroom to nap.  It didn't bother her that we saw just the first reel of John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath -- that was enough to test us on.  Need I say that we didn't read the book?

For years, that was my definition of the inferior English teacher: someone who shows movies in class instead of making students read books.  When I started teaching, I reveled in compiling reading lists for my classes that fairly shone with literary value and inspired me to loose my love of the writer's art without restraint.  Over the years I repaid my debt to Mr. Cohn, with interest.  Students frequently told me that I had compelled them to read more than they had ever dreamed of reading, and they said this with pride and gratitude.

You may sense where this is headed.  As the Fall semester of my fourth year in the Humanities Department at a small liberal arts college ends, I polish my syllabi for the coming Spring and find that my reading lists are not alone; now I'm listing films as well.

Who invited Ms.. Gamparelli to my classroom?  Honesty demands this answer: I did.

But why?  After all these years, why?

Again, in honesty (and with no little embarrassment): because everyone else invites her to their classes.  In our elementary schools, junior highs, high schools, and colleges, "reading film" and "visual literacy" have somehow become concerns of English faculty, while the reading and enjoyment of great books, poems, short stories, plays, and essays slides toward the margins.  I abhor this diminished focus on the written word in English classes; I believe it is unfair to students and unhealthy for our nation.  But the situation is, as they say, what it is; with education itself near-universally perceived as a commodity that students and their parents purchase with tax and tuition dollars, responding to their wants rather than their needs now carries the day.  Sometimes administrators and even other teachers wrathfully descend upon K-12 teachers who "expect too much," and the logic of the marketplace requires that their complaints be heeded; thou shalt not discomfit the customer.  Educating those whose homes may contain no books at all must, therefore, make use of more familiar materials.  To engage students in a college level literature course today, their previous experience in book-thin English classes must be acknowledged and their expectations at least partially met; professors ignore the video element at their peril.

And so my "Voices of Africa" syllabus notes that we will watch all or part of several films (Tsotsi, Amandla!, Hotel Rwanda) in addition to reading the work of great African writers (Ben Okri, Ama Ata Aidoo, Mariama Ba…); my Special Topics class ("Historic Crises and American Literature") will discuss film adaptations of Angels in America and Slaughterhouse-Five -- works that we will also read in their original forms.  And while I have made a sort of peace with this cinematic imperative (borrowing, I confess, a palliative metaphor from the song in Disney's Mary Poppins about a spoonful of sugar helping medicine go down), I can't pretend to be happy about it.  This is not a good thing, this devaluing of books (however regretfully or grudgingly) by English teachers in our "consumer model" schools -- at all levels, albeit to varying individual degrees, we are coddling students rather than making the kinds of demands that broaden and deepen their minds and lives.

Still, I have hope ("the thing with feathers," Miss Dickinson wrote. I found that in a book, a thing with pages).  I have a stubborn and sustaining hope because the particular rewards to be found in the work of a great writer cannot be replicated anywhere else, even in the work of another great writer.  And I have hope because there is something in every human being that waits to be touched and awakened by these rewards, and because each time a student's eyes meet a writer's words a new love and awareness can be born.

I have hope, finally, because good English teachers know this.  And because they know it, these fruitful connections of student -- any student, no matter how book-deprived or resistant -- and writer will continue.  The good work will be done even if Mr. Cohn is forced to team-teach with Miss Gamparelli, and first-year College Writing texts forevermore present ads for underwear and soft drinks as rhetorically equivalent to the essays of Virginia Woolf.  It will be done because English classes must and still can be about celebrating written language, the greatest and most ennobling of human inventions.

Even if Dickinson and Steinbeck have to share space in our market-driven curricula with "How to Read Reality Television."

[Ed. note: Mr. Cohn and Ms. Gamparelli are pseudonyms.]

2009, Henry Marchand.
Henry Marchand is an Assistant Professor of English at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, PA.

The IP comments: Professor Marchand has raised some excellent points.  Unfortunately, we have raised a generation (or more) of students who do not read.  Watching and listening are passive forms of learning.  Reading, on the other hand, is an active form of learning that stimulates the imagination.


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