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Love of learning, no fun intended

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Esther Cepeda
February 14, 2011
— Is it a sign of a coming intellectual apocalypse? Probably not, but AOL’s recent announcement that it will be teaming up with reality TV experts to create video versions of CliffsNotes Literature Guides to present classics through “humorous, irreverent, animated shorts” has set book lovers and English teachers on edge.

According to AOL’s news release, at the top of the list for the video summaries are works by Mark Twain, William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, “and many more,” though no titles were specified.


AOL said the videos won’t just explore plots, characters and themes. Rather, it will offer “high quality videos that provide analysis, interpretation, and criticism of the great works of literature in a fun and highly memorable way.” That all those objectives could possibly be met in the same length of time it takes to microwave a frozen pizza is unimaginable.


Though AOL is touting this as cutting edge—“updating the (CliffsNotes) format for a new generation of online consumer”—the idea seems outdated in the novelty department. It makes me think of the cheesy anti-drug videos shown in my high school health class featuring messages of moral rectitude via throbbing quasi-gangsta rap.


The video CliffsNotes scheme is insidious, but not because these videos will actually keep any student from reading a great work of literature. Trust me, so many of today’s students seem to have such a sincere hatred of reading hard-wired into their psyches that even the threat of a failing grade won’t stir the faintest whiff of effort. That’s why anything—anything at all—that could possibly familiarize a student, even in passing, with an important piece of literature should be welcomed with open arms.


No, the real harm is that this is yet another endorsement and facilitation of the stultifying education myth that learning must be—or can be made to be—fun. And that regurgitation of facts on a test determines whether the next book can be slapped onto the student’s plate for the next cycle of digestion, analysis and eventual elimination.


Despite the relentless theories of modern teacher education, learning—like important literature, and life itself—is not always fun. It can be rewarding and fulfilling but in most cases takes concentration and perseverance. Yet we constantly drill into new teachers and students the falsehood that education can be entertainment, then wonder why students who have mastered Xbox or iPod apps aren’t engaged with even the most creative, interactive lessons.


As a society, we simply don’t respect the work that goes into learning—there’s nothing wrong with it not always being a barrel of monkeys. And when it is a challenge, it must not be abandoned because of a low giggle factor.


I can’t conceive that giving “David Copperfield” a coarse makeover will garner AOL the lucrative teen demographic’s hungry eyes. At best, lovers of literature will gleefully share the links on Facebook. At worst, however, it’ll be one more denigration of the ideal of instilling in students a lifelong love of learning.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her e-mail address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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