I honestly wonder what kids are learning in English Lit these days. I'm tutoring some junior and senior high students in English, not because they're stupid, but because their parents believe that extra instruction in reading, composition, and vocabulary would be beneficial to them.
So, I'm starting things off by going through some short stories with them. In particular, we are reading The Californian's Tale, by none other than Mark Twain. Yes, that same Mark Twain who wrote (among numerous other things) such classics as Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Granted, I myself have not plumbed the depths of Twain's writings, but at least I have read the first three just mentioned.
However, upon questioning my students if they know who Mark Twain was, all I get are mumblings and blank stares. It's incredible that the name of one of the giants of American literature should elicit no other reaction than a shrug of the shoulders and an "I dunno"! (To give credit where credit is due, one student did mention, "I think I read something of his once," but when pressed for the title of the reading, couldn't provide any clue.)
They know nothing about Mark Twain - what he wrote, when he lived (not even the general time frame), where he was from, what his real name was - NOTHING. It's inconceivable to me that any American student can get through junior (let alone senior) high without possessing the foggiest idea who Mark Twain was, without reading even an excerpt from one of his numerous writings. I remember reading Huckleberry Finn in fifth grade; don't tell me that Twain's writings are inaccessible to any junior/senior high student of at least average intelligence.
I think it's safe to say that if Mark Twain is a stranger to American students, then James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Edgar Allan Poe have hardly fared any better.
What are they learning, indeed? PARENTS! An "A" in English doesn't mean that your junior or senior high school student is actually learning anything....