English class isn’t about English.

I’m sorry- it just isn’t.

The way we teach English class (at the High School level, mind you. Because that’s what I know about) isn’t about the language- it’s about thought. Let me explain.

Human thought isn’t linear. It’s web-shaped. We see connections through our formidable pattern recognition abilities, and those connections help us understand the relationships between ideas. Simple. Except there’s no way to transmit those complicated web-shaped blobs of information to other humans. No device exists. The solution that we’ve come up with is written text- but written text is an entirely linear device. It’s unable to capture and transmit our webs of thought, so we are forced to translate our web-shaped thoughts into a single, cogent, clear linear form.

And that, there, is the essence of a High School English class. What we really teach, to a large degree, is the skill set needed to translate from web-shaped to linear. We try to push the bounds of students’ abilities with pattern recognition, but we are limited there buy the cognitive abilities of our students. That’s not an insult, by the way. Far from it- it’s time we recognize the limitations of our students are sometimes simply the result of them being young. The relative lack of life experiences and experience in general combined with their still-developing brains means there are some hard limits to what they can achieve. More on that later.

The books we English teachers are so attached to are to a large extent unnecessary to the teaching. This cannon of literature functions only as a tool. While many English teachers view these books as direly important, the reality is that they are fertile and convenient sources of established patterns for students to work with. They are cultural touchstones. But they are in no way strictly necessary. Let me be clear here: I love Shakespeare, but I recognize that my literature-dorkiness is the cause of that. I love teaching Shakespeare, but I recognize I could explore similar ideas and teach the same skills via many other texts. Heck- there’s a good case to be made that we don’t even have to be limiting ourselves to written literature. Film and Graphic Novels are ripe sources for teaching. Again, more on that later.

I’m thinking that we ought to be at least thinking about re-conceptualizing the very nature of what we now call English classes. Even the name is so wildly outdated as to have next-to-nothing to do with what we actually teach in such a class. The basic description of what we try to accomplish hasn’t changed in many, many years. But that’s (wait for it) for a later post.