I've mentioned before that my day job is that of an electrical engineer, a profession that relies heavily on the modes of thinking developed in math and science classes rather than language arts classes, so it should come as no surprise that as my schooling progressed, I grew to favor my math and science classes.
It may, however, come as a surprise that I didn't always prefer math and science classes. In fact, in elementary and middle school I considered math and science to be fairly boring, and enjoyed my language arts and history classes much more.
So what happened? What caused the shift in my passion?
Was it because I had bad teachers in my literature classes and good teachers in my math classes? Not exactly. As you will see, the teachers definitely played a role, but it wasn't so much the teachers themselves, it was the system of teaching.
What Makes Language Arts Classes Different From Math and Science Classes?
In a word: objectivity. In math, science, and (in some cases) history, there is one and only one right answer to a question. Two plus two equals four, force = mass times acceleration, America fought against Germany and Japan in WWII. These are all facts, if you put those answers on a test, you would get full credit for the question.
Literature classes, on the other hand, often take a large departure from objectivity. In the early stages of schooling, though, language classes are about just that: learning the language. In an English class, one initially learns what nouns, verbs, etc. are, how to structure sentences, and eventually how to write good and Capitalize correctly and punctuation and not write long run-on sentences that seem to just keep going and going all the while wondering when they are just going to get to a point (my attention may have lapsed in a few classes).
At a certain point, though, language classes (or, more specifically, the teachers of those classes) stop teaching things in an objective way, and instead do things like ask the students to think about and discuss the book/poem/passage that they read. Let me tell you, there is nothing an introverted student hates more than an open discussion. What usually happens with these talks is a few of the goody-goody kids giving their "well, this is what I think..." takes on the piece of literature, and after every analysis the teacher nods and goes "well, that's a very interesting point" without really giving a straight "it's right" or "it's wrong" answer. Sometimes teachers will try to steer the conversation in the direction they want, but at the end of it all I was usually just confused about what the takeaway of the passage should be.
And some would argue that this is the point, literature classes and the like don't have an objective "right" answer, it is open to interpretation. Great, so then everyone in a literature class should just get an 'A', right? I mean, there are no wrong answers, so clearly any interpretation of a work is considered valid. My analysis of Romeo and Juliet is that men should never trust women, and my analysis of 1984 is that surveillance is beneficial to society because it limits civil unrest.
Obviously, there are "right" and "wrong" ways to interpret works, and this is entirely up to the teacher to decide. Now, in most classes, students write papers that are supposed to argue a certain point about the reading assignment, so any point that is argued well should receive a good grade. This is true in theory, but you can bet that a teacher will not be as lenient towards an opinion with which they disagree. As a student, it then becomes a game of trying to find out what the teacher thinks is right, and then choose that side in order to get a good grade. Also, keep your mouth shut and never voice a dissenting opinion in class, otherwise you will be targeted by both the teacher and, in some cases, the students.
Now, a good teacher would welcome differences in opinion as long as they are thought out and bring forth a rational discussion amongst the students in the class. But, at some point, I think teachers just need to teach. Most books that are taught in literature classes have a fairly straight-forward takeaway (at least at the middle/high school level), so it's not unthinkable to suggest that there are indeed ways that students could be graded in a completely objective way in these classes (while actually learning something in the process).
It is, of course, not easy to be completely objective when grading certain things in a language arts class. A teacher may seem to notice more errors in a paper written by a student he/she doesn't like, perhaps even unintentionally. This could be mitigated by having students submit papers with their student ID number and not their name, which may very well be the case at many high schools and colleges, but was not the case in any of my classes. That's also not a perfect solution, as over the course of a year it's possible that teachers who don't have too many students may begin to memorize student ID numbers, or even just look them up before grading if they want to "cheat".
Aside from papers, it's very possible to structure quizzes and tests very objectively in literature classes. There are always objective facts about a book that tests can ask in order to make sure students read it. Granted, with the advent of Cliffsnotes and other such resources which give you a nice summary of the work, it's become hard for teachers to actually make sure students have actually read the book. And to some degree, who cares? Sure, reading the Cliffsnotes won't give you the full insight into a work, but if you at least take the time to read that (which includes notes about themes and takeaways) and get the jist of the work, isn't that really the ultimate goal? I read many books in high school for various classes, most of which I couldn't tell you many character's names or plot points, but I remember the basic premise and takeaways. You can't expect students to remember every little detail that they read, so as long as they understand the work and why it's important, then you've accomplished your goal as a teacher.
Why Objectivity Is Important
Yes, I know that there is a lot of grey area in life, and not everything has nice objective answers. But, in a school environment, where students are given very objective grades that determine both their sense of accomplishment and their potential for future accomplishment, objectivity in grading is important.
If you give every student an 'A' for just showing up and participating, then you aren't really helping them. They'll go through the class thinking that they are really smart, and won't seek to improve. Likewise, if you grade some students really harshly simply because they are outspoken and don't see eye-to-eye with you, but are otherwise academically gifted, then you also aren't doing them any favors. They'll become either really resentful of the subject (and the teacher), which could lead to long-term shortcomings, or they'll feel forced to adhere to the agenda that the teacher is setting forth, and be limited in their intellectual curiosity. Teachers may prefer the latter outcome, but in my mind that isn't really teaching, it's indoctrination. A free society relies on free thinkers, not a horde of people who were all taught that there is only one way to skin a cat.
At their core, Language Arts classes are important in the development of children into adults. The ability to write and speak clearly and properly is an vital skill that all too many people lack. Communication is the cornerstone to our society, and failures in communication can certainly lead to problems.
At the lower levels, Language Arts classes are simply about things like grammar, spelling, sentence structure, etc. At higher levels, though, it is assumed that all those "basics" are solidified, and so writing (and interpretation) becomes the main emphasis of such classes. Writing is important, but teachers should not concern themselves so much with what the students are writing, but how they are writing it. Do they form sentences well? Is their point easily understood? Are there any holes in their argument? These are all objective things that teachers should be looking for, and some good ones probably do, but all too many fixate on the overall message rather than the implementation.
There is, however, an easy solution to this problem. If the paper is to argue a point one way or another, then simply tell half the class to argue one way and the other half to argue the other way. This will accomplish two things: if the students are assigned an argument that they don't agree with, then it will give them an opportunity to exercise their ability to shift perception and see things differently. It will also make it so that the teacher doesn't really know if the students genuinely support their argument, or are just arguing it because they were supposed to. This limits biases that a teacher may have against certain arguments (or students). This may very well be the case in many places, but it was not the case in any classes I took in school. When choosing a side to argue, you had to take into account not only how easy it would be to argue said side, but also if the teacher would like the argument.
Grading objectively in such classes may never become a reality, but I believe that most teachers can do a better job than they have been.
And, if all else fails, just study engineering: where you can get a job after college and not have to deal with biased teaching styles...