Every second Tuesday at HistoricalKB Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives affect us individually and in society as a whole.
I recently stumbled upon Twitter account for SparkNotes, and I’m happy to say I fell down a den of pure pleasure. Who knew that SparkNotes, what I generally thought of as the cheater’s shortcut in high school, has now become such an example of wit and whimsy? You may be familiar with what SparkNotes is best known for: creating abstracts, easy-to-read vernacular translations, and study guides of classic works of literature. But you may not know that the company has now branched out into a whole new arena of modern vernacular on Twitter verse through the mind of a SparkNotes employee, a writer named Courtney Gorter who took over the management of the Twitter account a year ago. and a half ago. Thanks to Gorter’s wit and ability to create memes from classic stories most students need to read in high school, SparkNotes’ Twitter has exploded with a viral following. But the appeal of the account goes far beyond just using clever memes, like this one:
Gorter is only 26 years old and, as a Millennial, brings a fresh and innovative understanding of not only how to use the company’s Twitter account, but also what SparkNotes should be about in the first place. As a recent Time to expose by covering the phenomena, he is trying to help his company achieve their « long-standing goal, » which is to: « [make] classical literature easier for students to understand”. It’s a simple goal, but one that all liberal arts educators should prioritize. Gorter is not a traditional teacher, but she understands the importance of the meme as a medium, both in young life and in bridging the gap between the voices who wrote the classic works it is tasked with marketing and the educators and young people who he has reach with his company’s products. And she’s closing that gap, with some of her memes racking up well over 100,000 likes.
SparkNotes ultimately produces educational tools, but in trying to summarize and provide study materials, what they’re really doing is telling classic stories in more accessible ways. Gorter has unlocked a key way to do that for Millennial and Gen Z audiences, and not just because memes are funny. Through the use of a common language, he drew on the Seven Laws of Teaching, inviting his audience to a deeper examination of the works and, ultimately, of themselves.
Remembering the classics can be a way to plant seeds of interest, sparks that give life to seemingly boring, intimidating, or difficult pieces of literature.
StparkNotes might generate some criticism among elite thinkers or scholars. And as they delve into the waters of memes, it may seem to some that they have stooped to an even lower form of communication. That’s because they aren’t particularly academic, but it’s important to remember that SparkNotes is not intended for academics or use Of academics, unless those academics are faculty trying to reach struggling students. They are for students and traditionally for use by students who struggle with understanding, engaging, or even picking primary texts.
More than a know-it-all in high school, I was always « too good » for SparkNotes. Like Hermione Granger, I couldn’t understand people who didn’t want to read books and read them through, nor did I ever understand that some people struggle with reading comprehension. True wisdom and understanding only comes with the full consumption of a work – that’s what I’ve always thought. People who evade fully reading anything are cheaters, and therefore using SparkNotes (or anything like it) is unfair to those of us who work hard to wrestle with primary source material. I was often, as you might understand, full of knowledge, but devoid of wisdom. Demanding that everyone around me reach the level of understanding I possessed, but offering nothing to help them get there.
Later, once I was training to be a teacher, I came to study the Seven laws of teaching (by John Milton Gregory), and it changed my whole perspective, especially on how I was supposed to communicate with others. The « Hermione » in me had to die, or at least she had to learn not to be an « insufferable know-it-all. » A key ideology of the Seven laws of teaching is that the teacher’s goal is to teach students how to think, how to learn, and how to grow, not just how to repeat and regurgitate information. A student must be taught how to be wise, not merely intelligent, only then can she seek out and identify the Truth. To this end, the Fourth Law of the Seven Laws of Teaching deals with communication between teachers and students: finding a commonality of language to build bridges so that true education can take place.
StStories are always meant to educate us, as much as to entertain us. This is what makes the liberal arts so powerful and so powerfully important. A liberal arts education is an education in how to think and how to be. Stories educate more than our minds; educate our hearts. It’s easier to think of classic stories like A tale of two cities OR Romeo and Juliet this way because many of us had to read them (rather than collect them for fun), but today’s classics were once the pop culture of yore. For those who have no interest in the classics, whether due to difficulty reading comprehension, poor instruction from teachers, lack of access, or some other reason, memegging the classics can be a way to plant seeds of interest, Sparks that bring seemingly boring, intimidating, or difficult pieces of literature to life. Furthermore, the accessibility of internet memes educates and edifies in little bites of the imagination, starting with the known and nudging prospective students into the unknown. He offers a helping hand by saying, « Here, if you can figure out this conflict in The officethen you already understand this conflict in Romeo and Juliet.”
Romeo during the duel between Tybalt and Mercutio pic.twitter.com/oFQulKZyno
— SparkNotes (@SparkNotes) August 23, 2019
Memes also have the potential to reveal what makes these stories classics. If the central conflict of Romeo and Juliet can be reduced to a meme or gif by The office, so the meme has already done more than just spark interest in a classic work: it’s started an education in it. What makes us human does not change despite the changing mores of the world. What it means to be human – to live, to love, to worship, to fight, to die – remains consistent. Man against man is man against man, in Romeo and Juliet It’s inside The office. Starting with a meme, using the common language of our culture, can transform entertainment seekers into engaged and critical thinkers over time.
As such, the meme actually reveals something special about each story, that quality that, perhaps, makes it last. Beyond the sheer amusement of giggling at a meme, the “I get that reference” feeling we get connects us to stories, and it connects stories together across time, genre, and relevance. The classics become not just dusty stories from the past filled with hard-to-read words and long, tangled sentences, but stories a little more like the ones we enjoy watching on Netflix every night. These things don’t lower the classics (is that possible?) – they elevate all of our experiences with all other arts and media. To tie a meme to a classic work is to elevate the subject matter of the meme, not to disparage the classic. When we teach very young children to read, we don’t expect them to start with Shakespeare; first we teach them nursery rhymes. It would be foolish to initiate any person into education about any great thing in a language he doesn’t understand.
To truly learn something, a person must have or develop a passion for it. Memes can help with this job, especially in an age where everyone lives on the internet and consumes media in small bites. It takes both knowledge and wisdom to know how to reach potential students with stories that seem beyond their reach. Memes may not be a « big » language, but they are a communication tool and a modern day language. In educating great stories to a younger generation, a meme can be a welcoming invitation to deeper understanding. It can also teach people of all ages words like they go out and make them wonder what all this Shakespeare stupidity is about, anyway. I’d argue that Courtney Gorter is absolutely « making classic literature easier for students to understand, » one meme at a time. In this, she enters a great job.