From Gilbert Sewall, “Lost In Action: Are time-consuming, trivializing activities displacing the cultivation of active minds?,” American Educator (Summer 2000).
Some activities are simply in bad taste. Francine Prose writing in Harper’s magazine (September, 1999) notes Carolyn Smith McGowen’s Teaching Literature by Women Authors (a book with which I am personally unfamiliar), a guide that gives this suggestion to teachers preparing to teach The Diary of Anne Frank: “Give each student a paper grocery bag. Explain that to avoid being sent to a concentration camp, many people went into hiding. Often they could take with them only what they could carry… Ask your students to choose the items they would take into hiding. These items must fit into a grocery bag.”
Hands-on activities often fold into writing assignments. Authors like Prose are puzzled when they encounter teachers’ manuals and instructors’ learning guides that verge on the bizarre. They learn from a teachers’ guide called Teaching the Novel: Students might write a script for the TV news announcing the Macbeth murders or write a psychiatrist’s report on Lady Macbeth. Students might write her suicide note to her husband, or Macbeth’s entry in Who’s Who, or his obituary. Prose deplores such writing around the subject. These teaching strategies are inert to the power of language, to the unparalleled contributions of Shakespeare in particular, and to the essence of human feeling and heart contained in his plays, she complains.
Prose condemns teaching strategies that put the student at the center of the subject, an increasingly common practice running throughout school-level humanities today. For Prose, “those who might have supposed that one purpose of fiction was to deploy the powers of language to connect us, directly and intimately, with the hearts and souls of others, will be disappointed to learn that the whole point is to make us examine ourselves.” The wonder of Me.
Describe how you would react if…. Did you ever feel … ? This second-person device now extends into textbook captions, lesson extensions, and classroom review exercises. But activities that continually thrust the student into the center of the literary or historical event “narrow the world of experience down to the personal,” says Prose. They actually shrink the student’s vision. They limit the student’s imagination, which remains imprisoned in its own perspectives and experiences, which are often meager and mundane.