Jane Error

Note: this article is about problems with the current way in which Literature is taught in primary and secondary education, but deals with the problems in a way that is biased towards strong readers like myself. Please accept the unpolished musings in this post as such.

About a year and a half ago, one of my friends put up a rather eloquent treatise, inspired by Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, that discussed being a writer and being a woman and being a female writer. One of her points challenged readers (specifically male readers) to attempt A Room of One’s Own as well as Jane Eyre before recommending “two works of literature by any male authors that you like”.

In the next few weeks I read A Room of One’s Own, found it rather brilliant, and used the inspiration for “Diversity”, one of my essays attempting to explain my views on multiculturalism.

A few months later, I read Jane Eyre. This is after having read Pride and Prejudice, which I had found very well-written but had not particularly liked. (“Very well-written” because I felt that my feelings about each character were exactly what Austen intended at almost every point in the book.) Given that Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice were so often mentioned in the same breath—they are classics, after all, from similar periods (well, written “only” 30 years apart), with female protagonists, and of course most importantly (or maybe just most obviously) both written by women1—I didn’t anticipate liking it very much. But, it was part of my education and part of the challenge, so…

Jane Eyre was great.

Young Jane captured my interest very quickly, particularly when she was sent to school. My childhood is pretty much completely the opposite of hers: I grew up with a boy with parents and a younger brother and went to a very liberal school, not a girl with an abusive aunt and older cousins, going to a strict and pious school. Yet still her love of reading, her need to stand up for herself at home, and her ideas of fairness all struck a chord with me. Ten-year-old Jane Eyre already had my respect.

In her adult life Jane is headstrong yet sensible. She strains against some social conventions but resigns herself to others. She’s a lot like me. The plot is resolved by deus ex machina, and a not-too-unpredictable one at that, but when caught up in the story it doesn’t matter so much.

But this post isn’t really about Jane Eyre, although I did make sure to reread it before writing this. This post is about my error—thinking I wouldn’t like it—and where that feeling comes from.

It wasn’t just my lackluster reaction to Pride and Prejudice. It certainly wasn’t anything about Brontë being a woman—too many of my childhood favorites were written by women, from Gertrude Chandler Warner to K. A. Applegate to Anne McCaffrey to Ursula K. Le Guin to…well, everyone knows J. K. Rowling…for that to make any sort of difference for me.2

The reason I didn’t think I’d like Jane Eyre is because it’s a “classic”.

And the fact that this is true points to a problem with the way Literature is taught.

What’s wrong with Literature?

In elementary school, middle school, high school, most often we are given a book with the instructions to read a few chapters, fill out a worksheet or “writing journal” (usually a worksheet in disguise), and come prepared for a “class discussion”. The worksheet questions are usually something like these:

  • How did Anna react when Selsie came to her door at midnight? (“Did you read the chapter at all?”)

  • Write down one example of foreshadowing and one example of synecdoche. (“Do you understand this week’s requisite esoteric grammatical/literary devices?”)

  • What would you have done in Anna’s position? (“Think about what you’re reading…Please?”)

Clearly I am not happy with these kinds of questions. Why?

“Did you read the chapter at all?”

Yes, this is a problem for a lot of people, I know. Students are both busy and lazy, and may skip reading assignments. But this sort of question doesn’t stop that—they’ll get the answer from Cliff Notes, cheat mildly by copying a friend, or just take the hit in points for that week. This question does nothing except make a student practice their handwriting (possibly necessary) or typing (probably not). It’s busywork, not education.

“Do you understand literary devices?”

At first you might say that “foreshadowing” is hardly esoteric, and that “synecdoche” is so common that I’ve probably used it in this post already. But that’s missing the point of knowing about literary devices. I’ve never heard someone say “oh, I think I’ll use synecdoche here”; they’ll just say “I’ve read Charlotte Brontë”, meaning “I’ve read a book by Brontë”.3 And if the foreshadowing is good, you often won’t know it’s foreshadowing until the actual event happens.

Much ado is made of the difference between simile and metaphor. But they’re usually introduced at the same time, with the instruction that “similes compare things using ‘like’ or ‘as’, while metaphors don’t”. And so someone thinks that the difference between similes and metaphors is lexical (i.e. based on the words). But it’s not! It took me a long time to really understand that, since for so long I just knew that similes used “like” or “as”. The difference is (roughly) that similes only relate one attribute of a thing (“she looked like a wolf”, “she was as hungry as a bear”), while metaphors might add all sorts of extra connotations (“he was a monster”, “the homework threatened to devour him”). But that’s hard to put into words (I didn’t do a very good job), so teachers just use the lexical rule.

How would I teach this? I’d just call any sort of substitution metaphor, and ask people to come up with as many kinds of substitution as they can. They can then group the substitutions, and more likely than not the groups will match up with terms like “synecdoche”, “metonymy”, “simile”, etc. I don’t know if this will work, and it won’t seem as efficient as just handing out a “list of literary devices”…but I would bet that it would stick better. And the students would understand better why these things are useful.

TLDR: “This is cool” / “Yes, that’s called X” works better than “There’s this thing called X” / “So what?”. The hard part is getting the “this is cool” a priori.

“Think about what you’re reading.”

I think you know already that this doesn’t work. If a student’s not into a book (or a particular assignment), it’s going to take a damn good open-ended question to actually get them interested. More likely they’re going to spend two minutes thinking about something that sounds good and write that down. If asked about it in class, they’ll probably shrug; they won’t remember what they wrote. (Sound familiar, anyone?)

It is possible to write a “damn good open-ended question”, but I wouldn’t rely on it. No teacher can do that all the time. Instead, I’d suggest “write about one thing that you found interesting”. You could put a minimum of “four sentences” (or whatever), but I’ve found that putting “ten minutes—set a timer” has a possibility of generating really great results if you can get students to take it seriously.4

Class Discussions

Class discussions are a toss-up. Some discussions are dry, with the teacher prying single-sentence answers out of the students, and/or using the “discussion” as a vector to teach students whatever they had planned ahead of time. Hint, teachers…if you do that, it’s not discussion. It’s lecture. (I’ve been guilty of this for sure, but at least I understood what I was doing. Mostly.)

Other times, though, you’ll get enough of the class interested to have a real discussion, which will most likely never make it past one or two topics because everyone is participating. (Two people talking to each other only is good for them, not so much for the rest of the class.) It’s this sort of discussion, though, that is so valuable for teaching Literature, because it gets students invested in what they’re reading. More on this later.

As a side note, I want to give my teachers credit for merely advising me not to read ahead, rather than telling me outright. Stopping in the middle of a book you enjoy is anathema for most people, especially those who read on a regular basis. However, I did come to a class discussion after having read ahead…and then had to hold my tongue as my classmates discussed what might happen next. Which is no fun either. So this one’s a toss-up too.


Let’s get back to the idea of “classics”. These are books that, for whatever reason, have been declared as “important” and “worth teaching”, possibly without expiration. The obvious problem with that is that there are more and more books published every year, and in theory at least some of them will become “classics” as well. Do we then have to extend the length of someone’s schooling to fit them all in? (Oh wait, that kind of actually happened with high school in the last 500 years.)

If the answer to “why are we teaching this” is “because it’s a classic”, you’re doing it wrong.

As an analogy, it’s okay to buy a bestselling book when you know nothing else about it, because you’re betting that the reason it’s bestselling is because it has something in it that many people like, and you’d like it too. But it’s not okay to buy bestselling books and then teach them because they’re bestselling, and (in my mind at least) “classic” is just another form of “bestselling”.

“But a classic does more than a bestselling book! It {shows a real depth of emotion, illustrates a core part of human nature, captures the essence of the time period}!” Okay, if that’s true, than that’s why you’re teaching the book. Not because it has that dubious title of “classic”. Animal Farm is a great book to read, and a satirical allegory for the rise of Stalin—that’s why we teach it. Lord of the Flies exposes a dark part of human nature—that’s why we teach it.

If you’ve seen Dead Poets Society, I think you know what I’m talking about.

To be fair, little of my assigned reading has been assigned solely for being “classics”. I can’t help but feel that way about Steinbeck, because of the way I read5, but Grapes of Wrath, at least, has historical value. Of Mice and Men is about people. And The Pearl…well, I read it in 6th or 7th grade, but I’m still not convinced that there’s anything in it besides description and literary devices.

Still, far too often we seem to be reading things and then told why they are interesting, or being given a set of background facts and then a book that came out of them. Neither of those really answers the question “why are we reading this?” for a student. If I don’t like a book, I at least want to know (a) what I’m getting out of it, and (b) why other students do like it. Both of those things can kindle my interest if not my “like”, but if nobody likes it, something in how it’s being presented can probably improve.

There is one argument for why everyone should read “classics”, and that’s to have a common pool of knowledge we can all reference. And people do use allusions, comparisons, and references all the time. But the set of “classics” chosen is always too limited in scope (often works by “old white men”—some of them great, but still a limited perspective). And to be honest, I’d rather have others be able to recommend books I haven’t read rather than only talk about ones I already have.

One last quirk of the “classics” is specific to me. If one person tells me I might like something, I’ll add it to my list and seek it out later. But if I get told several times I should read something, I get stubbornly resentful, and when I finally do get around to reading whatever it is (or watching, or playing), I’m not in a good mood for it, and end up almost looking for reasons not to like it. I know it’s perverse and I mostly manage to compensate for it now, but that’s still my instinct.

Anyway, in that sense a “classic” is something that a bunch of people I don’t know or care about told me I’m “supposed” to like, and that gets that same reaction, with less of a reason to control it.

Don’t tell me what to do

But I think the more general feeling for students is that the burden of interest is on the teachers. Some people really don’t like reading, I get that. But I think mostly students just don’t like being told what to do. That means teachers face an uphill battle if they want to get good teaching done: they have to convince students that they (the students) want to read these books.

This is hard. Students are not all the same.

For someone like me, it’s not that difficult. Give me a book, say “read this so we can talk about it”, and you’re pretty much good. Even if I don’t like it that much. And if I really don’t like it, we’ll talk about that, right?

For other people, it’s harder. They have to decide that they’ll get something out of reading the book, or that they can actually get something out of a class discussion. I think a lot of kids give up on this by high school, so my lackluster high school discussions (excepting English AP) are due to a classful of kids who don’t care about books. Or rather, they don’t care about any book assigned to them—they might still really love some other books. (Harry Potter and *gag* Twilight have gotten probably millions of kids to read, which is still a good thing regardless of Literature.)

I don’t have a solution for this, but I think it’s a core part of the problem that students feel like they’re being made to do this work. Nobody enjoys being made to do something. Shouldn’t it be possible to have people want to do some of this stuff?

Without conscious effort on behalf of my teachers (nay, with active effort to get me to read!), from 5th to 11th grade I held a disdain for “classics”. Why should I read something just because someone else liked it? We probably don’t share any tastes. Today (and partially thanks to my 12th grade English AP teacher), I realize that’s silly…but there’s an element of truth in there. I think most people would agree that giving Conrad to 6th graders is a bad idea. A school book I don’t care about might just be a book I don’t care about yet.

But either make it clear why I should care about a book (not why it’s important, but why I, personally, should care about it), or let me read it on my own and decide for myself. Please don’t tell me to read it, fill out worksheets about it, and then tell and expect me to like it.

I want to close by saying I really don’t blame teachers alone for students’ lackluster learning: a second-period class of thirty is almost always inherently less receptive to learning (and to a good discussion) than a fourth-period class of twenty, for example. But there’s still much room for improvement.

TLDR: I’m not against teaching classic books, but I am against teaching books just because they’ve been taught in the past, I think teaching a book is almost pointless if you can’t get the students interested in it, and I think that most of the usual schoolwork associated with teaching books works against that.

As usual, a webcomic has gotten here first and stated things much more clearly and succintly than I have.

(SMBC comic)

  1. Also, a group of my friends in high school often put “Mr. Darcy” and “Mr. Rochester” up on the whiteboard as ideal boyfriends. For my part, I don’t think Darcy was a particularly good boyfriend. But I guess he was never on my list. ↩︎

  2. Other than Warner, there was (and still is) a definite pattern in the genre of books I read for fun… ↩︎

  3. I know, this is actually metonymy, not synecdoche. I couldn’t think of a nice synecdochic example. Also, I had to look up “metonymy” via synecdoche to remember the term for it…but until today I haven’t needed the concept of “metonymy” in years. “Metaphor” usually works just fine. ↩︎

  4. My favorite English teacher used this for generating possible college application essays: given a very minimal prompt, write whatever you want for twenty minutes. It felt great↩︎

  5. I almost never image when I read. The landscape is cartography more than photography, and the characters are…bundles of impressions about their personality, really? Maybe body type, but that’s pretty much all. If you ask me a character’s hair color, I usually get it wrong, or can’t answer at all. All of this makes strong descriptive writing, like Steinbeck’s, almost entirely wasted on me. That said, I sometimes have strong negative reactions to cover art, even if I don’t have a positive image to replace it with. ↩︎