Years ago, when I was a much younger teacher, I had a conversation with my Grandma Flo that I still mull over sometimes as I do lesson plans. Grandma knew I was an English teacher, but she was curious exactly what I did. She assumed meant I taught grammar and punctuation, “things that would help kids get a good job,” as she put it.
Well, no, that isn’t emphasized in high school English, I confessed. We did lots of essay writing, but not sentence diagramming and activities like she was asking about. We didn’t even have a grammar or punctuation textbook. She was pretty incredulous at that, and couldn’t imagine what I did with my students.
“We read a lot,” I explained. “And we talk and write about the reading.” That was the simple version, but basically covered everything we did in the 80’s in English classes.
She nodded her head, agreeing that reading is important, yes. “There are lots of good stories out there. Do your students read about Corrie Ten Boom?” She was on a Corrie Ten Boom kick then. I shook my head no. “Well, there’s lots of other good stories. Do you read any of those stories by Dale Evans that you liked?” Grandma remembered when I was in elementary school and read the books by Roy Rogers’ wife that were laying on Grandma’s end table.
Again, I shook my head no. Grandma looked at me, brow furrowed. The stare went on for a long time….possibly hours, the way I remember it. She finally said something: “Now Jeannine, you aren’t going to tell me you waste your student’s time with made up stories, are you?”
We’d been reading Hemingway. I was starting a Chekhov story the next week. I had to admit to it.
“Well, that’s just wrong. There are so many true stories out there, so many people those kids could be learning about and inspired by. You just need to look at what you do and ask yourself why you’re wasting their time with lies and made up stuff.”
I tried to counter her position: “Grandma, Jesus told stories. That’s what parables are.”
“He surely did tell stories–and they were teaching a lesson to uplift us. And you don’t know that they weren’t about real people, do you? He just didn’t use names because he wasn’t going to air somebody else’s dirty laundry in front of everybody and their neighbor.”
I could have kept trying. I can explain all sorts of literary theory about the power and universality of fiction. I can explain Bruno Bettelheim’s and Joseph Campbell’s and Jung’s defense of the need and purpose for fiction. I could have quoted C.S. Lewis and Susan Sontag.
But it would have been sound and fury; I would have been protesting too much. I knew the look on Grandma’s face. I wasn’t changing her mind on this.
I’ve told that story a couple times to other English teachers, and we chuckle and shake our heads. Of course we read “made up” stories–and find great Truth and meaning in them. Using my Grandma story as a quirky icebreaker, though, ignores the bigger issue, and this is an issue that plagues education reform today, but it’s a difficult, messy question: what is the purpose of education? Why do we do what we do?
Grandma’s mission statement was crystal clear: formal education is to help people get good jobs. With that as the goal, an emphasis on fiction really doesn’t make sense. When education reformers emphasize the need to educate a work force that can compete globally, they are rallying behind Grandma—21st century jargon as a value-added fun piece.
Or do we need to create citizens who are capable of governing a democracy wisely? Or should the goal of education be to form “educated” people in the classical sense–people who know the classics, who are well-versed in the humanities? Or to provide an underclass that will consume and keep the free market growing?
At the early elementary level, all the purposes are served by similar methods. But by middle school, it’s clear that we’re trying to do a bit of column A, a smattering of column B–it’s the stone soup approach to education. Everybody brings what they have to the pot and throws it in, hoping that it all fits together in a tasty broth.
But if Grandma were sitting down with reformers and politicians who are cooking the educational broth–I have no doubt that she’d look at them with the same furrowed brow, asking hard questions about what we are doing and why. I’d have wanted a front row seat for that!