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