Why Anthony Esolen is Wrong, Part II
I’ve received some wonderful responses on my previous post “On Teaching Writing in High School – Or, Why Anthony Esolen is Wrong,” and I thought I would show you two of them here and then respond.
My dad writes:
[…] I’m wondering if there is a difference, or a distinction that should be made between teaching how to write, and how to read? While you are undoubtedly correct that the majority of high school students need “formulas,” if you will, to learn how to write, crawling before walking, as you put it, how about reading?
This got me thinking. Indeed, Esolen’s piece, especially the part where he says that “We attend to Keats’ words and metaphors so that we will better see what he is saying to us about what it means to be human,” it is clear that he has shifted from talking about writing (and the Common Core’s “Substandard Writing Standards”) to talking about reading.
Of course, the two things go together. As Flannery O’Connor says, “I write to discover what I know.” One might alter her words and add, I write to discover what I read.
I don’t mean to be to carefree and conflate terms here, but in a way, writing is a way to read.
My dad continues:
I’m thinking about Professor Nagy’s approach to teaching Homer, which admittedly is at the college level, but still aims at taking the completely unintiated neophyte into a very alien “song culture,” but does it without formulas, without imposing preconceptions from the outside, but instead rigorously insists on reading out of the “text” not into it [emphasis added]. He introduces useful techniques, such as comparing “micro narratives” within the text with the “macro narrative” itself, but never in a way that reduces the work to an easy formula. Thoughts?
I guess my initial thoughts are these. I teach reading very similarly to how I teach writing. In fact, although my (sometimes distant) end goal is to get kids to read with an appreciation for Esolen’s “true, good, and beautiful,” my immediate goal is to get them to read at all.
Last year I realized many of my high school kids did not know how to read. That is, they could sound out letters and let the words wash over them, but they failed to realize that the act of reading is a complex process that involves the use of multiple skills. So, I spent two units, one in the fall, one in the spring, on teaching “Reading Strategies.” In essence, they are the same type of “formulas” and “ingredients” that Esolen seems to eschew in writing.
Here are two posts in which I write about how I did that:
“7 Quick Takes Friday, Last Week of School Edition”
My friend Jeff (also an ACE graduate) writes:
I’m not sure whether Esolen’s argument against the common core is based on the idea that teaching formulaic writing based on evidence wastes time better spent encouraging higher order, more creative thinking or that teaching formulaic analysis and writing about literature precludes more creative, organic analysis of literature, but I take issue with both.
If you can teach a student to find the beauty and truth in a poem but they aren’t able to communicate this truth to others, the value of that education is severely limited. One good thought able to be understood by others is more valuable, I would argue, than a million brilliant thoughts trapped inside the mind of one.
To which I can only say, “Amen!”
My kids say things to me all the time like, “I understand it, I just don’t know how to explain it.”
To which I always reply, “If you don’t know how to explain it, then you don’t really understand it.”
Again, Flannery: “I write to discover what I know.”
Best of all, Jeff continues and describes his perspective on all this as a Math teacher:
Furthermore, I don’t believe that being taught formulaic writing/analysis precludes being able to appreciate the beauty of a poem in a more creative way. I have never taught writing or literature but get frustrated when teaching math that I spend the vast majority if my time teaching basic skills instead of how to creatively apply math concepts. However, when I look back at my experience learning math, my understanding of it was very formulaic. Then I took calculus, and I realized that this understanding was limited and needed to be replaced with another approach. However, if I had never had a formulaic understanding if math, I would never have been able to understand the beauty of calculus. Even parts of calculus I only understood once I had worked out dozens of problems in a formulaic manner. I would think that a writer would outgrow his or her formulaic way of writing when it no longer expressed in a satisfactory way his or her thoughts.
Thanks so much, Dad and Jeff!
As snarky as my last post was, I do not mean to give the impression that I am not one of Esolen’s “comrades,” as he calls them. In terms of fighting for the renewal of education, especially Catholic education, I am totally on his side. I would also like to think that I am also on the side of “the True, the Good, and the Beautiful”–but only the Lord knows the extent of my allegiance to Him.
But I think that in order to help our kids appreciate the Transcendentals at all, we have to get our hands dirty and take a very Sacramental, blood and sweat and dirt and bread and wine approach.
You know, the Jesus approach.
After all, He helped the blind man see by putting mud and spit on his eyes (cf. Mark 8:23, John 9:6).
And the poor man didn’t see everything clearly right away. He said that the people around him at first “looked like trees, walking” (Mark 8:24).
If thesis formulas and reading strategies are a bit muddy and dirty, that’s okay by me. I figure the Lord can use those things too to help my students write and read their way towards Him.