Friday, March 27, 2009

JTG & CM

For this and other reasons long lost, I decided to teach Moby Dick to my eighth-grade classes. Including the dumb ones. I discovered right away the white whale was just too big for forty-five-minute bell breaks; I couldn’t divide it comfortably to fit the schedule. Melville’s book is too vast to say just what the right way to teach it really is. It speaks to every reader privately. To grapple with it demanded elastic time, not the fixed bell breaks of junior high. Indeed, it offered so many choices of purpose—some aesthetic, some historical, some social, some philosophical, some theological, some dramatic, some economic—that compelling the attention of a room full of young people to any one aspect seemed willful and arbitrary.

Soon after I began teaching Moby Dick I realized the school edition wasn’t a real book but a kind of disguised indoctrination providing all the questions, a scientific addition to the original text designed to make the book teacher-proof and student-proof. If you even read those questions (let alone answered them) there would be no chance ever again for a private exchange between you and Melville; the invisible editor would have preempted it.

The school text of Moby Dick had been subtly denatured; worse than useless, it was actually dangerous. So I pitched it out and bought a set of undoctored books with my own money. The school edition of Moby Dick asked all the right questions, so I had to throw it away. Real books don’t do that. Real books demand people actively participate by asking their own questions. Books that show you the best questions to ask aren’t just stupid, they hurt the mind under the guise of helping it—exactly the way standardized tests do. Real books, unlike schoolbooks, can’t be standardized. They are eccentric; no book fits everyone.

From Eyeless in Gaza, which is Chapter Three of The Underground History of American Education

I think John Taylor Gatto would agree with Charlotte Mason's approach to literature. In fact, while we may want guidance as home school teachers because of our own paltry educations, great literature must be approached as a conversation with the author and not as a formula to be memorized. So we keep learning ourselves.

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