In Brief: Why Teach Archetypes to Middle Schoolers?


Friends and colleagues sometimes ask me why I have my students perform archetype analyses almost every day in class. What, they ask, is the point of having a 13- or 14-year-old scrutinize these universal symbols? It is a reasonable question, especially when you consider that the texts that discuss archetypes tend to be dense, esoteric college-level material. Nevertheless, this just means that the means of expressing the idea of archetypes is dense, esoteric college-level material; it does not mean that archetypes themselves are. It has been my experience teaching archetypes over the past few years that young adolescents are readily able to understand the material, provided it is introduced in a manner accessible to them. Thus, I generally introduce archetypes with a film like Star Wars — something delightful to the eye and yet fundamentally archetypal. But still, the question remains: what do middle school students need to understand archetypes for? Mastering the concept will not particularly enhance their understanding and appreciation of the more difficult literature they will encounter further down the road — though it will help somewhat — and they most likely will not get continued archetypal instruction by many of their high school English teachers. (Though luckily, high school students at my school do get this valuable continued instruction.) Archetypes, it would therefore seem, have no outward applicability to the middle school English classroom; and yet, their true value as I see it is intrinsic: for the archetypes themselves are merely the vehicle for text-based critical thought. Though archetypal analyses may not be high on every English teacher’s “Things-to-Teach-This-Year” tallies, critical thinking most certainly is. By studying the archetypes in everything from Star Wars to Seedfolks, my middle school students exercise the acts of questioning a text, identifying patterns, and critiquing the effectiveness of these patterns. It does not seem like learning to many of them because it does not come to them in any standardized English instruction: they think they are getting away with less work by talking about easily-recognized symbols like colors or natural elements, and what is more they occasionally get to analyze these things in movies; but my hidden agenda — which, like all teachers, I tirelessly maintain beneath the surface of my curriculum — is to teach them how to think critically. I can help them a little bit with their writing — mainly by having them do it often and read the greats — and I can somewhat help them bolster their vocabularies; but more vitally than either of these, I can help them think: certainly this skill, more than any other they can learn or practice in English class, will lead them to the greatest success as individuals and global citizens in their adult lives, for it will enable them to question, discern, and effectively critique the world around them. Thus, archetypes are ultimately just the means to an end: in my English class, it is the thinking that matters in the long run.


4 thoughts on “In Brief: Why Teach Archetypes to Middle Schoolers?

  1. Englishteacherman: this is an enthralling epic about you own teaching skills. You should be self-prmotive more often (like me). You are on the brink of sublimity, keep going and you will reach the status of Lord of the Ring.
    P.S. You should check out

  2. Hello English Teacher Man! I’m a future middle grade language arts teacher. This is exactly what I’m writing my MA thesis on: The benefits of teaching archetypes for middle school students. What it improves and why it is a good method. One of these is obviously – as you said – it improves critical thinking and literary analysis – but I’m having trouble finding resources for why we should teach this (journal articles, books, etc) You think there would be tons of stuff, but there is surprisingly little. Can you suggest any resources? It would help. Thanks!

    • Hello! I’m thrilled to hear about your future in teaching and your interest in teaching archetypes to middle schoolers! I did a quick search on JSTOR and found two articles that might help you out. I’ve emailed these to the address attached to your comment. I hope you find something useful in these! In the end, though, the strongest “proof” I have found to support our theory that teaching archetypes to middle schoolers enhances not only their literary analysis skills but also their critical thinking has been first-hand experience in the classroom. Good luck finishing your MA thesis!

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