The GEICO Scapegoat: It’s What You Do commercial transports me to 10th-grade English class with Lynn Harrill, who would become my mentor and friend.

Throughout high school, I was living a double life: at school I was a math and science student—the courses in which I made As—but at home, I was collecting and reading thousands of comic books as well as consuming science fiction (SF) novels, starting with Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain and working through Arthur C. Clark, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, and other SF writers with the same obsession I brought to comic books.

In Mr. Harrill’s class, I experienced a paradigm shift about English class because 8th- and 9th-grade English had been spent doing grammar text exercises and days on end of sentence diagramming (assignments that earned me As in junior high). But in Mr. Harrill’s class, we wrote essays and spent (what seemed to me) hellish hours doing vocabulary workbook exercises and tests (assignments that pulled my English grade down to Bs).

Vocabulary words struck me as a huge waste of time, completely disassociated from my secret home life dedicated to words.

“Scapegoat” was one of those words that I still associate with feeling no connection between the isolated act of studying and being testing on the weekly list of words and being a young man who would in the coming years discover in spite of formal school he is a writer and a lover of books.

The word itself, “scapegoat,” as the commercial skewers, creates a tension between the word’s meaning and the embedded “goat,” that triggers most people’s prior knowledge. Out of context, studying “scapegoat” for a test cheated me—cheats all students—of being engaged with the rich etymology (one blossoming with allusion) of the word.

Formal English, I regret to admit, has mostly and continues to treat human communication as separate skills—grammar, phonics, vocabulary—meant for lifeless and mechanical analysis and acquisition.

Reading and writing in school are too often reduced to algebra.

I hate to confess also that in Mr. Harrill’s class I was chastised about reading SF—told I needed to read real literature—and never given any sense that my comic book life was worthy of being considered the foundation of my life as a writer, reader, and teacher.

While reading Gary Saul Morson’s Why College Kids Are Avoiding the Study of Literature, I immediately thought also of my high school experience with English and vocabulary—leading again to “scapegoat.”

“Time and again,” Morson explains, “students tell me of three common ways in which most high school and college classes kill their interest in novels.”

Morson’s three ways (“the technical, the judgmental, and the documentary”) essentially are reflected in my story above—reducing human communication to algebra, stripping the life out of reading and writing through school-only practices such as five-paragraph, prompted writing and answering multiple-choice answers after reading decontextualized passages.

But Morson’s criticism sparked for me the scapegoat-de-jour: the Common Core.

While it is fashionable for some to proclaim that the Common Core will save U.S. public education and others to condemn Common Core as the end to all that is good and right in the world, a much more accurate assessment of Common Core is that it reflects more than a hundreds years of misguided teaching and about thirty-plus years of horribly misguided education reform.

I attended junior and senior high school in the mid- to late-1970s, just a few years before accountability gripped my home state of South Carolina. However, my English classes were dominated by isolated grammar instruction, nearly no original essay writing or drafting, weekly vocabulary lists and tests, prescribed reading lists of novels by white males, and literature textbooks that were mostly god awful.

As I mentioned, Lynn Harrill would teach me 10th- and 11th-grade English, embodying the teacher I wanted to be, mentoring me as a beginning teacher, and guiding me into a doctoral program as well as eventually a university position as a teacher educator.

Many of our conversations over the years have been about his regrets as a teacher—about how even as a young and seemingly “radical” teacher himself, he bent to the pressures of traditional teaching that were not supported by research and instilled in the students he loved what Morson laments in his essay above: English classes often make students hate reading and writing.

How many students, as I did, fell in love with words in spite of school, in spite of their English teachers’ practices?

That doctoral program to which Lynn Harrill guided me opened another world to me—in much the same way a speech class in college opened the world of poetry high school had hidden and my English professors opened the world of black writers high school had ignored—the world of Lou LaBrant, the eventual subject of my dissertation.

“A brief consideration,” LaBrant wrote in 1947, “will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods.”

Just as no accountability, standards, or high-stales testing were mandating the bad practices of my junior and high school English teachers, LaBrant nearly 70 years ago leveled a charge that resonates today, coincidentally in our Common Core era.

As English teachers, we have a long tradition of abdicating our autonomy to a shifting series of scapegoats: next year’s teacher, textbooks, the canon, Standard English, standards, and high-stakes tests (to name a few of the most prominent).

Do we love reading and writing, love language? Do we love our students?

Each student who trudges through our classes and learns to hate reading, writing, and language suggests our answer is “no.”

Engulfed in war, the world LaBrant wrote in during 1943 prompted her to note: “Hence teaching is a unique profession, dealing with remote rather than immediate influence over society,” adding:

It is important that we do not set up in our classrooms prejudices or snobberies which will make our students less instead of better able to understand, enjoy, and use this language….

Too frequently we give children books which have enough value that we call them “good,” forgetting that there are other, perhaps more important values which we are thereby missing. It is actually possible that reading will narrow rather than broaden understanding….Let us have no more of assignments which emphasize quantity, place form above meaning, or insist on structure which is not the child’s….

We are responsible for such writing when we approve the correctly punctuated, correctly spelled, and neatly written paper which says nothing of importance, as against a less attractive but sincere account or argument. Children can and should learn to write correctly; but first should be sincere, purposeful expression of the child’s own ideas….

Similar unsound attitudes can be the result of being taught to “write just anything” (or to write on the teacher’s topic) ; to spend time correcting sentences which someone else has written about nothing of importance; to change one’s structure merely to have a variety of sentence forms; and so on through a whole series of assignments based on the principle that form is first and meaning second….

Today, LaBrant’s final warning rings true still: “Teachers should consider carefully what they are doing with the most intimate subject in the curriculum.”

As Lynn Harrill did with me—his greatest lesson—I now often face myself, the struggling me who stumbled and bumbled his way through teaching English—often badly—as I sought to gain my balance, stand on my own two feet in order to continue my journey toward being that teacher who embodies a love of language and students, to be in some small way the because and not the in spite of.

See Also

“A Call to Action,” P.L. Thomas, English Journal, 93(2), 67-69.


6 thoughts on “Scapegoat

  1. I too was a fan of SF in addition to Fantasy, but I was “NO” A, B or even C student. While I was an avid reader, who easily polished off two paperbacks a day even with a part-time job starting at age 15 working nights and weekends washing dishes in a coffee shot that took up 30 hours of my week beyond the time I sat in class doing little or no work—I still read the stories that interested me the most.

    Several years, after barely graduating from high school with a 0.95 GPA, I left the US Marines after fighting In Vietnam and decided to go to College on the GI Bill.

    I was not college material.

    I was not college ready by any standards.

    For instance, I never too any college prep classes. All my classes in high school that I mostly ignored while sitting in the back reading and hiding my SF/Fantasy paperback inside the propped up class text.

    And I’m sure that in today’s environment with the Common Core Crap and the draconian high stakes tests what will deny children who take all the required classes and bass them even with D’s, I would never be allowed to graduate from high school. But my parents, both high school dropouts who clawed their way out of poverty when I was a child were both avid readers too and every night I’d see my dad reading his used paperback mysteries or western novels while my mother sat across the room reading her sanitized romances. My dad’s favorite book stores were used book stores because he could afford to buy those books.

    After Vietnam and the Marines, I started college not only with the PTSD I brought home with me from the war but I had to compensate for my severe dyslexia that I was born with and learn what it really meant to be a student. That first two years in the community college were hard and that is an understatement. For the first time in my life as a student I had to actually read the assignments and do the work both in and out of class.

    The college gave me a literacy test as pat of the enrollment process to determine if I needed remedial English—what we called bone headed English—and I was reading at such a high level, I didn’t need that class but I had to take algebra, geometry, trig and calculus for the first time in my life—after all, I was not college material when I was in high school. To make up all the college prep classes I didn’t take in high school, I carried about 21 units a semester and earned my AS degree on time in two years with a C average.

    From there I went to Cal Poly Pomona for one year and then transferred north to Fresno State where I would earn my BA in journalism three years later on the deans honor roll with a GPA in my major that was close to 4.0.

    Some kids start out behind and have to work harder later to catch up. Children are not Common Core Crap widgets on an assembly line.

    My favorite place at high school was the school library where I worked one period a day for four hears as a student helper and that was the only class where I earned A’s. Imagine what my high school GPA would have been without that period in the library where I was checking out books and plowing my way through the historical fiction—for instance—for the American Revolution, for the Civil War and the Napoleonic Wars in addition to a lot of other historical eras while I kept up with my fascination with SF/Fantasy.

    Fast forward to almost age 70, and I’ve published four books to critical acclaim—and one, the historical fiction, has been an Amazon best seller a number of times—but my rough drafts are riddled with spelling, mechanical and grammatical errors my editor catches and cleans up for me. I do my best to catch as many as possible, but my best is never good enough. I guess that’s what editors are for.

    I bet that if I took that Common Core Crap high stakes test today, the results would judge me as not college ready. I never was a good bubble test taker.

  2. i hid novels behind textbooks 🙂 …once, when caught, an English teacher called me ethereal in front of my junior HS year class…i knew what it meant because i read…voraciously….i once was placed in an English class in the beginning of the year where they were diagramming sentences…(i had mistakenly been placed in a “regular” class…yes, we were being tracked in the 70s) and guess what…the three weeks in there were HORRIBLE…and i couldn’t do it…still can’t….thankfully, for myself, i was transferred back to a class where we read and wrote, and there was no whiff of the mathematical/ugly grammar lessons…i wonder how many of those kids in the “regular” English class learned to love to reading….i cherish my BA in English Lit, my two masters, the fact that the love of reading was passed to me from my mom, from me to my daughters, and now to my grandchildren…but i mourn for those who do not read, and whose possibilities were killed, mostly not purposefully back then, in school….and i fight now against the reformsters who WOULD kill the love of reading ON PURPOSE…..

    • I was in high school in the first half of the 1960s and had one English class where the teacher spent hours having students diagram sentences. I was also lost with that garbage. Couldn’t get any of it right and it made absolutely no sense to me. But that didn’t stop me escape the garbage and reading SF/Fantasy and historical fiction every day and night.

      I was also scheduled into general math for all four years of high school. Never touched algebra until community college in 1968—after Vietnam and the Marines.

      What’s really interesting I took two semesters of Algebra, one of Trig, one of geometry and one of Calculus to get my college math requirements out of the way, and I never used any of that math crap I was forced to learn in community college—Geez, all of those trig formulas I had to memorize.

      When the Coleman Report came out in 1966, I was in Vietnam getting shot at. Yep, I was fortunate enough to get through high school and miss all of the diarrhea and vomit that came after thanks to the endless RheeFormers, but when I became a teacher in 1975, I suffered through wave after wave of top down reforms for thirty years. :o) And I never let that stop me from doing what I thought was right as a teacher.

  3. Pingback: Writing and Teaching Writing By Topics: By Garn Press Author P.L. Thomas - Garn Press

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