What High School Didn't Teach Me Excerpt

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation:

Let me introduce you to one of my high school friends, who I will henceforth refer to as Jamie to protect his identity. As a student in my accelerated (read as “honors”) English class freshman year, Jamie was one of those students who absolutely devoured books. He was a zealot. While the teacher was arranging her notes for the day and all the other students were curiously scrutinizing their phones for text messages with their backs bent, Jamie would start reading his DK Big Book of Planes. And he didn’t stop. When the teacher started talking, he simply reached into his pockets, pulled out his iPod and white Apple headphones and started listening to some 90’s rock music, and continued to read. When he didn’t have anything to read, he would retrieve his composition notebook and start writing dystopian sci-fi stories. They were spectacular—almost professional in my eyes.

This trend continued throughout high school, and by the time we were seniors in AP Literature and Composition—arguably one of the hardest high school courses because of it’s subjective nature—Jamie really didn’t care much about the class. He didn’t listen to any discussions (let alone participate), and didn’t even read the vast majority of the assigned material. And yet, when he sat down to take the English aptitude tests, he consistently scored almost perfectly, whereas students who followed the teacher’s departmental plans and were equally intelligent, struggled to score higher than a measly C (keep in mind that this is a test which only requires around a 58% to pass).

Something’s not right is it? Students who actively participate in school are “supposed” to do well, right? Right? Wrong.

Students who are intrinsically motivated to do something, whatever subject it may be, will do the best. Truly, people will input the most effort and will make the most innovative leaps while partaking in something they are fundamentally interested in, not while working for grades, money, or even college acceptances. Indeed, in Jamie’s case, while everybody else was working away to earn that A or B, Jamie was reading and writing because he loved reading and writing, not because he was forced to do something to fulfill the teacher’s requirement. So why don’t we mold our classes to that standard?

The motivation Hierarchy

Quite frankly, why don’t we create an education system in which every student is intrinsically motivated just like Jamie was? Not only would students achieve the true goal of English and school—to debate literature and actively discuss the human condition— but students would also gain something more meaningful from the study of our past literary than a measly A on their transcript. They might have to actually think rather than simply memorize the plot of a book, take a test, and then forget everything—as many currently do.

Why do we force our students to read Shakespeare?

English teachers seem to adore Shakespeare…. Students seem to chug through it…. Everyone else in society sits questioning why our English teachers force our students to read literature by a guy who lived 500 years ago, who writes in barely recognizable English, and whose plays are painfully predictable? Why not spend more time studying modern authors, modern advertising/print-making, and contemporary journalism? Not only would this latter scenario help students in this age more able to grasp the seemingly abstract culture of today, but it would also assist them in more technical fields such as business and engineering….

But nevertheless, Shakespeare aside, some of the books that are taught in our modern English classes are in fact vital to the growth and development of scholars; specifically, novels such as THE GREAT GATSBY are modern enough that students will be able to appreciate the “slang” (i.e. contemporary language), contain enough complex & meaningful literature to be worthwhile, and on the fundamental level contain plot lines that students can directly relate to (after all, which occurs more often in our modern culture: an evil brother pouring poison into his brother’s ear to seize the throne, or a woman being arrested for prostitution and heroin accounts?).

Shakespeare isn’t Worth Teaching

In the former case (that of Shakespeare), the ROI (return on investment) seems to be significantly smaller than the ROI of reading modern literature. In other words, it seems that the only reason we are reading Shakespeare is because some person in some governmental institution 400 miles away decided that we should. And every one listened. With no reason.

Why? The governmental officer may argue that Shakespeare is essential to understanding the literary influences of modern English, or that reading Hamlet helps students truly appreciate literary devices, or even something more absurd along the lines of “we’ve always done it, and it seems to work, so why not continue?” But what evidence is there that reading Shakespeare helps students in the modern age survive in the work- place, live without government aid, and achieve familial goals? Very little….

Now one argue that most people who are in the level of classes that read Shakespeare in high school (i.e. AP/Honors students), probably won’t be on the brink of barely surviving (as previously proposed). But, it is precisely those students who are will be on that brink that will also probably read Sparknotes / Cliffnotes, and perhaps not read the play at all, therefore gaining little to nothing—outside perhaps the ability to “get away with a BS essay”….

Truly, forcing students to do something in which they have so little interest will most probably result in students not reading or contemplating—the main goal of English—the books at all. On the other hand, reading more of the modern equivalent of Shakespeare (e.g. The Great Gatsby) will not only acclimate students to the literature that they will be immersed in every single day of their lives, but it will also be more relatable (and hence, students are more likely to fully read and contemplate the book).

Why is this phenomenon valid? Humans will innately do what they are most interested in with the most fervor, will reason/debate the most, and will input the most available resources. On the other hand, they will most probably input little to no work or innovative thinking doing something that they really don’t care about. And as shocking as it may be, since video-games/video/news of our modern age seem to stress the high amounts of violence/crime, students (even those in higher level classes) will be more likely to sit up and listen if a love-torn couple ram a yellow wagon into a woman and kill her (as occurs in THE GREAT GATSBY), than they will be if for some unseen reason a love-torn woman just happens to fall into a river, drowns, and no one sees (as occurs in HAMLET).

Why? The latter scenario doesn’t happen very often today, but car accidents— especially those involving drunk couples—are not uncommon. The former is more relatable, interesting, and contemporary. Indeed, contemporary novels like Let the Great World Spin contain just as much literary benefits as A COMEDY OF ERRORS does, but the fact that students simply won’t care about the latter as much as they will about the former seems to reject the hypothesis that Shakespeare is absolutely vital to our English curriculum. Why spend time doing something that students will simply not spend time doing?

Replacing Shakespeare with Modern Newspapers:

So we’ve hit a wall: sure there may be more benefits to reading modern literature than there are to reading Shakespeare, but how many teachers will actually change their course? Probably very few…. Why? They’ve done it all their lives; it would require them to input vast loads of work to design a new curriculum; and the modern institution seems to “work.” So why change? Here’s a proposal: teach Shakespeare to the extent that all students are working to understand the material, but decrease the total amount. Simultaneously, increase focus on modern advertising, difficult economic/scientific/opinion articles in New York Times/Wall Street Journal/The New Yorker, and modern novels such as LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN.

And as time goes on, even the CollegeBoard will realize that perhaps they should focus more on modern applications than classical ones, and perhaps one day more of the
novels high school students read can be similar to contemporary novels such as LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN.

Problem: The letter grade that takes dominion everywhere:

Another major problem with our current English system—and education system on the whole as you will later see in the Mathematics and Social Studies Chapters—is grades. Everything is run by grades—an external motivator—and so students are really never able to develop intrinsic motivation. As such, they never develop interest in the material or input creative effort.

Consider, if you will, the same class freshman English class I introduced in the introduction of this book. In this class, we often read novels to “enhance” our critical reading skills. But that enhancement rarely occurred.

For example, while reading ROMEO AND JULIET, we discussed plot summary of every chapter in class (including very little discussion about the textual meaning), took a multiple-choice test on the plot, and then moved on to the next book. I didn’t remember anything by the time I had to re-memorize the plot for the final. And this more or less occurred throughout every year of high school.

Everything was grade-oriented. So even if the homework for the night was to go online and memorize an act of the play, I had to do it. Did I learn anything from it? No. It was completely busy work. But my teacher and my peers were pushing me for one reason: to “earn” an A. So I did. I chugged though. Still, the more busy work I had to do, the more interest I lost in the actual material. After some time, I frankly didn’t care to analyze the effects of the family feud in the plot since I was too busy memorizing the name of the Friar that Romeo sees.

And as such, my reading comprehension skills didn’t really improve. I was truly so worried about my grade that I didn’t care about my writing—the true matter I should have focused on since I would be using the skill for the rest of my life.

Solution: Increasing the Possibility of Intrinsic Motivation:

So what’s the solution? In theory it’s simple: develop intrinsic motivation for English in every student’s mind.

Now you may think this is a utopian dream that’s never achievable… How could we ever create an English system in which grades don’t matter and everyone has intrinsic motivation for the material like Jamie? After all, many students simply don’t listen or “try” for the sake of not listening….

Perhaps the main method is by making all the required readings and assignments relatable to the students. If they can relate to the assignments, thematic problems, and ideas, they are significantly more likely to develop intrinsic interest for the assignment.

Secondly, ensure that students have choice in the books they read. So when choosing a required reading book, let the majority of students pick which of five books they want to read. Indeed, currently, not many people are interested in a book that they had no choice in picking; however, if we move closer to the ideal of a “book someone reads for fun,” by letting students pick it, there is a better chance a higher percentage of the class demonstrates intrinsic interest for the book.


Posted on July 26, 2014 in CafeMocha, Journal

Share the Story

About the Author

Rajat Bhageria is the author of What High School Didn't Teach Me: A Recent Graduate's Perspective on How High School is Killing Creativity. Additionally, he is the founder of ThirdEye and is currently a student at UPenn. Find out more about Rajat at his personal blog: RajatBhageria.com
Back to Top