Leave them teachers alone
We learned more from a three-minute record than we ever did in school. — Bruce Springsteen, “No Surrender”
It would have been helpful for Bruce to disclose the title of that valedictory single. But then, “No Surrender” runs longer than three minutes, so nobody’s perfect.
In the 16 years since Springsteen released that song, his work and the canons and careers of Madonna and others have been set on the podium of education. No longer the province of occasional songwriting classes or headline-seeking pop culture surveys, the form and substance of pop music suffers full-time academic prodding and dissection.
For hilarious examples, spend an afternoon on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Web site (www.rockhall.com). Teachers have posted 65 lesson plans incorporating pop music into English and history curricula. The titles alone are rib-ticklers: “Pink Floyd and the Carpe Diem Theme”; “Isn’t Life Ironic?”; “Who Rocks Your World?” But dig through the content, sometimes several pages’ worth of procedural notes and objectives, and you’ll see how far down the shaft teachers are willing to mine to deliver simple literary conceits.
Using Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary” to teach the poetic device personification is less telling it like it is than salesmanship. Joe Knap — a Bay Village, Ohio, high school teacher — has devised a one-hour lesson (a quickie among the 65 plans) that uses the Hendrix number to provoke examination of the way loss and depression figure into the song, and why Hendrix says it’s the wind that carries his sadness. Not even The Fox makes me listen to Hendrix that long.
Knap, it turns out, is responsible for most of the howlers on the list. “Break on Through: The Poetry of Jim Morrison,” a lesson he designed for upperclassmen because it demands “a certain amount of literary and poetic sophistication,” uses more than a week to discuss the ways William Blake and T.S. Eliot influenced the Lizard King. Somewhere, Harold Bloom’s tight, rock-hating ass is spinning in its grave over the latest application of his praise for Eliot. “His undoubted achievements as a lyric and elegiac poet in itself would suffice to establish him …,” Knap quotes from Bloom’s “Modern Critical Views of T.S. Eliot” in reference to Morrison. Or as T.S. himself once said to his wife before he institutionalized her, “Love me two times, I’m going away.”
Not to be outdone, Juliet White, a teacher from Avon Lake, Ohio, proves that the water in Ohio is dangerous, at least to academicians, by submitting Lesson 44, “Billy Joel and Seduction Poetry.” Here, “Only the Good Die Young” is held up to Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” Marvell took a hard-line approach to satisfying his libido, reminding his untried prey that The grave’s a fine and private place/But none, I think, there do embrace. In other words, even fat Jim Morrison would get laid more often were he still alive. Of course, Marvell was writing at a time when the median life expectancy ran to about that of your average Buckley or Allman family member. “Identifying the speaker’s purpose … should be easier after studying ‘Only the Good Die Young,'” White figures. The main reason “Coy Mistress” still makes reading lists is that it’s relatively easy to teach a poem about getting your virgin-killer on. If it takes Billy Joel trying to climb in Virginia’s pants to reinforce the concept, literature study needs a hit of Viagra. I wonder what songs the health classes are using.
We’re not talking about some face-off between Michelle Pfeiffer and Coolio. These are brightly lit classrooms with Ritalin-bred kids looking at collegiate futures. But those futures are jeopardized by teachers bent on old school — you know: books, the occasional filmstrip, essay tests, the kind of thing baby boomers and gen-Xers continue to relive in nightmares of arriving naked and/or an empty-headed imbecile for the SAT. Classroom emphasis has turned to making sure the kids are all right, by any means necessary.
So says Dr. Phillip Wilson, my senior honors English teacher at Shawnee Mission West. In a tearful reunion, he gave me the reassurance I’ve waited 11 years to hear: “If you took my class now, you’d probably get an A.”
I went to see Wilson after remembering that he followed Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness with a screening of Apocalypse Now, which was based on the book. That movie opens with Martin Sheen freaking out while The Doors’ “The End” grinds on the soundtrack. But Wilson is really no rock fan; he prefers jazz, it turns out. Rock seems to sort of scare him, as it does Woody Allen. After talking about the lesson plans with him, I’m scared of rock too.
“The expectations have changed,” Wilson says. “Even in an advanced placement class, I have pressure to hand out as many good grades as I can. I went to a conference where a teacher got up to speak. He talked about teaching Heart of Darkness with a plan that asked students to write a song about the book — just the plot, not even the theme — to the tune of ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat.’ Those are the teachers who are getting the awards and applause.”
Twentysome years ago, as Wilson first entered the classroom, he occasionally brought in a Simon and Garfunkel record, such as “Richard Cory,” to drive home a point. But it was a goof, a way of keeping things light. Now, he says, it’s about maintaining student focus. To that end, most of the lesson plans on the Hall of Fame site, and much of the study of literature in general, orbit the concept of relating the work personally to the students. It’s no longer about the author’s intent, says Wilson, but what, if anything, in the text mirrors the young, unformed persona reading it.
Speaking as someone who never met a college English paper he didn’t bludgeon into sharing a title with a rock song or a dicey link to some pop culture idiom or another, I don’t have much room to complain about this trend. But my approach wasn’t instilled by teachers trying to keep my attention; it was another reflection of my twin obsessions: music and film.
Interpreting anything — a book, a piece of music, whatever — requires close listening. We’ll have to wait awhile before we know what the class of 2000 has been listening to and whether it did any good. All generations have in common the arrogant confidence that they’re smarter than their elders; if senior skip day was whenever the CD player got wheeled into English class this year, they might just be right this time.Putting one teacher’s rock and roll lesson plan to the test.