Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Education: Part I

I was reading some posts on Barbelith, and there was a topic on what your ideal school curriculum would. I found the question really interesting. It's easy to complain about schools, everyone does and when I was in high school I certainly did, but it's a lot harder to come up with something that would actually work. But I'm going to give it a try, to find something that would work within the realities of student lifein high school.

The first thing to consider in assessing school is the fact that students are not going to want to do work. No one wants to be there, even if they do, it's basically required to feign disdain for even the least bit of work that is requested. So you're working with a problematic situation because the students' goal is to just pass the time as quickly and effortlessly as possible. That means if you give them the opportunity to 'explore freely,' they're likely to end up just doing nothing.

I think the biggest problem with school is that it puts you off learning. School is bad, you learn at school, therefore learning is bad. For a long time I held this belief too, the idea that analyzing a book, like we would in class, was reading too much into it. Frequently I'd hear people question an assertion by wondering whether that was the author's intention. Was something created as a symbol or was it just coincidence, and if the author didn't intend it, then why are we bothering to talk about it?

I think the biggest change for me was when I read Watchmen, and for the first time I saw a work that required using literary techniques to analyze it. You couldn't really understand the work without the understanding of foils, juxtaposition, metaphor, etc. It's a work that demands to be analyzed, to be deconstructed and unraveled. And so for the first time, I had to move from passive absorber mode to active explorer when it came to approaching a work of fiction, and that meant that I was doing the same things I did in class on my own time, and suddenly, doing them in class didn't seem so ridiculous. This was followed a couple of years later by The Invisibles, which broke me out of this idea that a symbol is only valid if the author consciously inserts it into the work, The Invisibles showed that the greatest books essentially write themselves, with the symbolism arising organically out of the work itself, rather than through specific choices by the author.

So, this experience I had forced me to reevaluate the kneejerk student reaction that whatever we're doing in class is stupid. That brings up the question, if people have to discover this themselves, how can we expect to teach them? I know a lot of people still refuse to engage with a film beyond the mere act of viewing it, and that likely stems from the fact that school experience makes people associate analysis with work, and in their free time, they don't want to work.

The other problem with English classes is the fact that so few people actually read the works that are discussed and written about in class. I always tried to read the whole book, but there were times when I'd do a skim and then take a look over the Cliff Notes to make sure I got the point. If you consider the fact that your average person might read a Shakespeare play and not understand it any better than they would if they looked through the Cliff Notes, it makes sense why people don't bother to read. But at the same time this means that the class becomes increasingly removed from the text itself and becomes more about repeating the same few ideas, an enaction of a tired ritual instead of a live engagement with a fresh text.

So, what would it take to make people actually read? I would suggest starting to mix in study of films with books in English classes, so that people would be able to write about something that they actually know about. You could give people a great book, but still some of them aren't going to read it because schooling creates an aversion to reading. That's a big problem for later in life, but putting that aside, people usually enjoy watching movies, so it would make sense to educate them through something they enjoy.

Some movies are shown in class, but it's usually the movie of a book you've already read, and then it gets evaluated in relation to the book, not as an art object in and of itself. Or a film is used to illustrate a historical event. This use of film reinforces the idea that the medium is somehow inferior, the only films worthwhile are ones that are based off something that is already acccepted into the academic canon.

I would move to a split books/films English class, where the films are challenging original works that have all the thematic complexity of the books that are read. Shakespeare's stuff was the popular fiction of his time, so there's no harm in having people learn from something they actually like. The problem then becomes, which films would you show? The initial leaning would be to go for something old, probably a European art film from the 50s, films that are inherently artistic, and also aren't popular fiction. This would be a way to avoid the complaints that would arise if you started showing people popular films. People would think the film has to be something you wouldn't want to see, or else it's not really learning.

The primary reason you read books in English classes is to provide the material to write about. I consider writing the most important skill you learn in high school, it's got the most real world relevance, and it's also the thing you're going to use most at college, regardless of what major you do. So, even though I'm a film major, most of my assignments are still writing essays, just about films instead of books. Even if you're a science major, you're still going to write stuff, so students need to learn how to write, and unfortunately, the fact that they don't actually read the books they're writing about means that composing essays is seen largely as 'bullshitting' enough to fill the page requirement. It's this association of the analytical process with 'bullshit' that's disturbing, and is something I see a lot in college students. There's the implication that reading deeply into something is inherently ridiculous, and that a work is primarily surface.

So, using films in the classroom and then having students analyze them in written assignments would hopefully be a way to get people comfortable with the process of analytical thought. There wouldn't be the issue of not reading the book because everyone would see the same film. What sort of films would I use? Because you're approaching from a narrative perspective, the actual film techniques used should primarily be those with literary antecedents. One film I'd consider ideal would be 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yes, there'd be a lot of chuckles about the drug association, and I'm sure a lot of people wouldn't understand it, but it's a film so symbolic that you have to read into it. So, assigning people to discuss the meaning of the film, as they see it would be an ideal chance for people to analyze a text in their own way.

Another film that would be great would be In the Mood for Love/2046, films rich with symbolism, parallels and literary technique. These would be films that would challenge people, but also hopefullly be enjoyable and give them a lifelong appreciation for qulaity films. Antoher great duo to analyze would be Before Sunrise/Before Sunset.

As I mentioned before, one of the biggest problems with having kids read in school is that it creates this lifelong association between books and school, leading people to view books as bad, or reading as something they 'should do,' not something they'd want to do. By the time you get to school, film is already ingrained as something entertaining, so in theory, these classes would make people take what they already do, but approach it from a more literary perspective.

Now, would this work in reality? You'd have to choose the films carefully, or else people would build up a wall between the films shown in class and the films they watch for entertainment, to the point that they would consider them almost seperate mediums and zone out from those films in the same way they do the books people already read in class. I think a good opening exercise would be to take a really popular, accessible film, perhaps even one chosen by the class, and then read into it, to show that the techniques used in class can be used on any film, any piece of fiction.

That's one of the keys in this revamp of schools. It is learning the act of analysis that's most important, not that what people are analyzing be within the accepted canon of literary material. In high school, I would enjoy writing essays when I could do it on a topic of my choice. So, I wrote about all my favorite stuff over the course of the four years: Star Wars, Batman Returns, Ghost World, Pink Floyd, Philip K. Dick, Tim Burton, Blade Runner, The Invisibles, Watchmen, Brazil and more. When I got a chance to do an essay on whatever I wanted, I put more effort in and took the time to really make it good, whereas an essay on a book I didn't really care about I'd just write quickly to get it done. On the AP English exam, I wrote an essay on The Invisibles and got a 5, so it's not what you write about, but how you make your point that matters.

So in theory, if you were to give students carte blanche to write on whatever they want, they'd put more effort into the essays. So, you could have people write about rap lyrics, videogames, whatever, as long as they put an effort into legitimately analyzing that which they choose to write about. In an urban school, are people really going to read Hamlet? No, but maybe use Tupac's poetry in the course and you'll get people more interested. Going down this path, you get into the problem of the middle aged teacher seemingly trying to act hip by teaching what 'the kids today' like, and also having to do additional reading to evaluate the quality of assignments.

So, that's the basic idea. In the next part I'll cover some of the issues, and also discuss how math/science fit into things.


Anonymous said...

kubrick said the main problem with education is that it uses fear as the only motivation, fear of failing exams etc and its true learning shouldnt be like this ... but if you change this surely you have to change the adult world of work which in the main also operates in this way

Patrick said...

This is true, the only reason people actually do work in school is because they're scared of the consequences of not doing it. I guess most people tend towards laziness, so you've got to use something to motivate them.