What is the purpose of assigning novels, anyway?
Kellie Marie

I was the biggest slacker back in high school. Teachers would literally say things like “You make the lazy kids look ambitious” to me. Though English was one of my favorite classes even when we had to slog through books I hated like Ethan Frome. I’m no expert on any of this, but I think this is an interesting topic so here are my thoughts on it.

Whether you’re a teenager or an adult, reading is one of those things that you have to want to do for it to feel worthwhile. I’m not a teacher myself, but that seems to be the biggest obstacle to teaching English through literature from my perspective. Aside from dealing with a classroom full of teenagers, anyway.

You covered all of the apparent goals of English classes in your questions. In general, the humanities are thought of as “mind-broadening” subjects rather than strictly practical ones. Which I guess just means the goal, beyond any technical reading or writing skills they’re meant to teach, is to expose students to as many different experiences and perspectives as possible. Though the degree to which they actually succeed in doing that varies from teacher to teacher and student to student.

Going back to English lit now, things that I’d call “modern classics” like Fahrenheit 451 (books with socially minded or artistic goals rather than primarily commercial or entertainment based ones that are at least 20 years old but were written no earlier than the start of the 20th century) are probably thought to be more meaningful than contemporary novels because they’re seen as dealing with more historically significant social, political, or philosophical themes. Classics (my definition is: ancient myths, literature from antiquity, or really any written works from before the 20th century) seem to be thought of as historically significant cultural artifacts in and of themselves. Presumably, aside from their content, these are all more “teachable” than things written with more commercial or entertainment-based goals because they tend to be dense enough to serve as teaching examples for thematic analysis, plot structure, storytelling techniques, symbolism, etc.

How well these considerations are actually translated into current teaching methods is debatable. To some extent, I’d say that teachers — or even professors — for all their education and expertise are only able to provide a cursory introduction to reading and writing. A lot of the skills they introduce to students don’t really develop past a certain level unless you’re constantly reading things that require their use, or constantly writing things that are more involved than tweets or blog posts, which most people choose not to. Besides that, there are many subjective aspects to literary analysis and interpretation, so teaching it only goes so far.

Outside of the classroom, I think there’s too much of a focus on writing as information or entertainment these days. At least personally, I feel that all the greatest literature is more artistic than commercial. Publishers are too concerned with what sells and what doesn’t to the point where even “literary” fiction has become stagnant and averse to risk. More people than ever are reading, but the vast majority of the books that are published and actually read are just too similar to one another.