A Little Knowledge Can Be A Dangerous Thing

Many of my students come to me by word-of-mouth, so their parents know each other. All it takes is one parent with the wherewithal to download a list of classic books and we have a epidemic of ignorance on our hands. Damn The Guardian: it has caused me a great deal of grief over the last three weeks.

Now, as I’m a tutor, it’s a given that the students who come to me aren’t good at English. Most of them don’t like reading, and they certainly don’t get off on words or punctuation. It’s also a given that their parents are of similar mindset, otherwise they wouldn’t be paying me to do a job they were capable of doing for free.

These parents haven’t read any of the classics – at least, not in English. And they’ve only read the ones that have been translated into their own languages because those are the ones that fit in with that language’s culture. Governments and spiritual leaders aren’t known for allowing a banned book to be translated just so everyone can see how sinful it is.

An unabridged Chinese translation of Lolita has only been available within the last few years. The parents in question haven’t read it, yet they want their children to read it because it’s a classic.

They also want their children to read Shakespeare and Austen (*pitooey*). Many of these parents still write their grocery lists in their mother tongues, and it’s somewhat comical to think of them trying to slog their way through, say, the banal dialogue found in Emma. They want the kids to read The Three Musketeers, but when I ask which translation they prefer, they’re not able to specify; apparently, their atheistic children will comprehend the church vs. state conflict in any of the available translations. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, they say, is “educational”; the students, though, don’t have any immediate plans to travel to the bottom of the ocean, nor are they able to make the connection to The Odyssey.

I don’t get it. I’m not a cartographer, but I know that trying to find my way through Toronto using a 200-year-old map won’t get me anywhere. Why would parents think their child, who is getting low grades in school, would learn anything by using resources whose ages are measured in centuries and are from another country?

With bewildered parents, I argue this point long and hard. And then, once we get past the issue of language and its purpose of communication, we get into culture. Should I make sure that the students understand every lewd joke in Romeo and Juliet, and any subtle nuance in Madame Bovary? I want to ask the parents, “Are you sure you want this, you who makes your daughter wear long sleeves and a hijab even in when it’s thirty degrees out, you who signed your son up for Friday night classes so he couldn’t go out partying?” It’s quite tempting to just do what they ask and leave them to deal with the consequences. *sigh* But I don’t. I say, “That book isn’t really appropriate for someone his age.” If we’re dealing with severe language barriers, I haul out Google Translate and make sure the parents understand the relevant nouns and verbs. (I wish I could take a photograph of their reactions, sometimes.)  Then I make lists of things the kids might actually enjoy reading. The parents get frustrated because they don’t know any of these books, because they feel like they have no option but to trust me (and they’re not sure they can, given the loose culture I was raised in). But I can’t do my job if the student doesn’t read, or doesn’t understand what he reads.

Usually, I end up finding a couple of books that the student enjoys, and then we can get on with literary analysis, etc.

Jpod. The kids usually like Jpod: modern language, a profession that makes sense, and an entertaining plot… and swear words that they can understand. They also like Neil Gaiman books – American Gods and Anansi Boys – because the mythology is surreal and therefore fun. They like Fruit because, even if they’re not gay, they know what it’s like to battle against parents and be neurotic about body parts. If they have any familiarity with Indian history, Life of Pi is okay once they get to the Bengal tiger part (but they ignore the beginning and the end ‘cause they’re not really interested in Indian history). They like novellas (Gaze in particular) and other very short things.

This summer, I figure I’ve spent about a third of the average high school tutoring sessions trying to smooth over the problems caused by well-intentioned parents. I now understand why doctors and other professionals despise the internet: it makes their job so much harder.

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