On Teaching AP English toward English Majors

This is the start of a text-heavy post for my old google blog. To read all the words, you’ll have to go there.

I have faced a bit of an unspoken conundrum over the last few years: to what degree do I make AP English the kind of literature class for future English majors, and to what degree to I tailor it to the future doctors, financial wizards and entrepreneurs around us? In more practical terms, this means I ask myself whether or not I should teach literature for literature’s sake, or approach books and poems from a more practical perspective.

As a person who switched out of an English major in college and spent five years working in “the real world” (as opposed to the ephemeral paradise that must be this school universe), I have always bent toward the practical, which my Jesuit education tells me is an understanding of the human experience, not some sort of an economic good. I have never understood the value of knowing that the conch is a symbol of democracy for the sake of knowing that the conch is a symbol of democracy; I would rather use that symbol as a lens through which to see the various threats, internal and external, to a societal system that is probably the most fragile because of its insistence on dissent and instability.

And this takes me to a series of opinion pieces written in The New York Times, whose columnists have spent a lot of inches addressing a recent report on the not-yet-protected species of the humanities major. The report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, titled “The Heart of the Matter,” notes that the percentage of college students majoring in the humanities has dropped from fourteen percent to seven percent in the last thirty years. While I can surely remember people telling me that my degree in English would leave me with the choice of becoming an English teacher or going to law school (they obviously didn’t know the number of caddying or bartending jobs available to the well-read), I can see how events of the last two decades, from the dot-com bubble to the housing bubble and their subsequent bursts, to exponential increases in college costs, place an even greater importance on return on tuition investment.


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