The Fragile Femme: The Disregard for English Class

The lack of AP English classes at the high school suggests a disregard for English as a reputable subject.

Creative Commons

The lack of AP English classes at the high school suggests a disregard for English as a reputable subject.

Last weekend I was in the car with my older brother and his friend, and I was talking about the homework that I had to finish that day. I mentioned that I was reading Fences for my English class, which launched a discussion about junior year American Literature – a class that they had both taken two years ago. My brother’s friend turned back towards me and said, “Jordan, when you read The Great Gatsby, your English teacher will try to get you to talk about the symbolism of a green light.” He paused. “There’s no hidden meaning. I promise you, it means literally nothing.”

I hear similar sentiments about English class often. It seems that many of my peers find questions of metaphors, themes and the broader implications of stories to be too silly, too abstract, too sappy—ultimately too feminine to be taken seriously. English class is merely an obligatory course that, for students with an all honors and advanced course load, doesn’t garner the highest level of effort when in competition with the high school’s endless selection of difficult science and math classes.

But every time I go to my English class, I feel that it is challenging me to the highest level of thinking that I confront all day. We discuss characters and their thoughts, motivations and insecurities; we write about style and word choice to locate emotion, underlying feelings and secrets that only stories can truly put into words. We analyze themes and try to unearth understandings of humanity, morality and even our own identities. English is not an obligatory course for me. In English class I find empathy and widened perspectives that I carry with me everywhere. In English class I find a sense of self.

It bothers me that at the high school there is a complete absence of advanced or AP English classes. At Cambridge Rindge and Latin School there is AP Literature and Composition and AP English Language and Composition. Wellesley High School offers three levels of English classes, as well as honors or “advanced college preparatory” levels for courses like humanities, gender and sexuality, philosophy and contemporary global problems. Newton South High School offers a Race, Class and Gender course and an Ethics of the Modern World course at college preparatory, advanced college preparatory, or honors levels. Needham High School has three levels of English from freshman to senior year, and then they add AP Language and Composition for juniors and AP Literature and Composition for seniors. At Somerville High School, students can start AP English sophomore year. And yet, at Brookline High School there is only standard and honors English. It’s the only subject that doesn’t include a single AP course.

Meanwhile, there are two AP computer science classes, three advanced math classes, three AP math classes, six AP science classes and eight optional honors science classes. Courses like social justice, global leadership, racial awareness seminar and gender in society are unleveled.

While the AP or advanced label isn’t necessary for a class to be rewarding or worthwhile, at a school that is so deeply concerned with grades, class level and academic achievement, the omission solely of advanced English classes suggests a disregard for English as a prestigious or honorable subject. This derogation of English class is, in subtle ways, rooted in gender-based prejudice.

Societally, there is a widely-believed stereotype that suggests girls are better at reading and writing, while boys supposedly dominate STEM. Although it is false that gender dictates our academic strengths or interests in this sense, different subjects are traditionally taught with different approaches that employ a “masculine” or “feminine” way of thinking, which can often divide us among gender lines. English class engages a sense of empathy, sensitivity and patience—ideals boys aren’t always raised with, while these qualities seem more intrinsic to a feminine part of our mind. School teaches math with a competitive, right-or-wrong approach beginning in young grades, which encourages an aggressive mindset commonly instilled in boys.

Of course, it’s important to note that the high school is more progressive than most high schools in the country in terms of the gender makeup of these advanced STEM classes. Female-identifying students succeed academically in math and science at the high school. And yet, the underlying problem still remains. We allow girls to succeed within traditionally masculine ideals of intelligence, but we don’t also recognize the validity, integrity and beauty of this more feminine type of intelligence. This emotional, analytical type of intellect is incalculably crucial to an empathetic and humane society, and it should be encouraged in everyone regardless of gender.

I thought that AP US History, which I am taking this year, would provide the rigorous learning focused around moral and philosophical inquiry that I seek, but it’s not quite what I expected. I don’t feel like I’m really learning any important perspectives or takeaways from the material because I’m never asked to consider my own opinions or the larger impact of anything we study.

I feel out of place among my APUSH peers, and there have been days where I’ve come home crying because of the judgmental, competitive attitudes that infiltrate the high school at times. I often feel that as students we only care about academic achievement because we want to be better than others. I have to constantly remind myself that I have a different identity, that many of us have a type of intelligence that doesn’t always reveal itself within the molds of success at the high school.

Of course, there is a larger argument about the issues with the leveled class system. In a broader sense, I think the culture of the high school would improve if the administration limited the number of advanced and AP classes students can take, which would ensure students are in hard classes because they truly care about them and curb the obvious inequalities that emerge from the leveled structure.

But assuming this troubling, yet fundamental, aspect of our high school won’t change in the near future, adding more advanced English classes would expand the confines of success at the high school to include more diverse skills and ways of thinking. Though the type of students that would end up in an advanced English class might be the same as those coming from an advanced math class, the type of student who would succeed in this course may be fundamentally different. They are more sensitive, more introspective and existential, more feminine-minded, and these qualities should be celebrated.