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Class, Read Whatever You Like

There's an article in the New York Times about a trend in middle and high school education--dropping assigned, classic texts and letting kids read pretty much whatever they want, including "James Pattersons adrenaline-fueled 'Maximum Ride' books, plenty of young-adult chick-lit novels and even the 'Captain Underpants' series of comic-book-style novels."I tend to be a tad crusty on issues like this--as in, "this is another sign that the Apocalypse is upon us"--but as a parent and a teacher I know the exhausting struggle of wills with students these days when it comes to asking them to read something. Anything.So I do have brief moments when I think "let them read anything--the back of a Honey Nut Cheerios box--at least that may help get them in the habit of reading."But, back on the crusty side again, I think: "This is the death of authority and the triumph of consumerism."To read something because your teacher thinks it's a good idea--this is now oppression?In fact, I suspect that the most powerful force at work here is not postmodern attacks on authority but simply the siren song of pragmatism--"in the age of Twitter they won't really read or engage 'Huckleberry Finn' so they should at least choose to read 'Captain Underpants.'I don't buy it.A good teacher should be able to fire up any class for a great text. Part of the teacher's job description is learning how to overcome resistance. In a word, to generate the right set of circumstances for the secular equivalent of a conversion experience.For me it happened in the eighth grade during what seemed like an interminable line-by-line slog through Julius Caesar. One day I was full of fear and loathing; the next I was intoxicated and in love. I don't think this could have happened without that slog. (Thank you, Mr. Taussig!)Teachers, don't despair. Do not abandon your teaching authority. Challenge them to read the good stuff. Literary metanoia can still take place.

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I can remember my college english teacher being horrified by my reading choices - Robert E. Haoward's Conan the Barbarian, HP Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, etc. He wanted us to read The Scarlet Letter, The Old Man and the Sea - yuck! I think fostering a love of reading is more worthwhile than forcing certain books on students - maybe those who are forced to read what's to them boring might never read much of anything after school's over, but those who love to read will eventually get around to everything. I did read Julius Caesar, not because someone made me do so but because I liked Roman history :)

It's funny. A few years back I subscribed to the Library of America and received a volume of Edith Wharton. I thought: I've never heard of her - I'm going to send it back. Instead, I thought well if LOA says it's good, then I'll at least read a little bit before sending it back. I was riveted by the story of Ethan Frome, which I regard as a great tale of horror. Only later did I learn that many students complain of having to read Ethan Frome... I would say that if we resist everything that we do not immediately and impulsively like, then we cut ourselves off from the richness of human experience. How could I have read Elie Wiesel's Night, for example? Or The Road? In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury sees the root of censorship stemming not from government oppression but from people's rejection of the diverse humanity captured in books which challenges the passivity and lethargy of their chosen entertainment.

I wonder if the TV generation's mode of thinking hasn't been changed to an extremely visual one. If their chief means of making contact with the world is images in a box, then perhaps we should expect them not to seek information from non-ideographic media. Reading requires a great deal of abstract thinking, and maybe their brains have not been exercised and therefore developed in such a way that they can use their prefrontal cortex efficiently.The manga books -- cartoon novels which originated in Japan -- are becoming more and more popular. I must admit that the quality of story=telling in them is quite good largely due to the excellence of much of the drawing. However, the medium to me seems seems limited to action stories, and the books I've looked at have been extremely violent. I can't imagine telling Pride and Prejudice in cartoons. But maybe I'm prejudiced.

When I was in grade school (St. Rose, OutinthemiddleofWisconsin) we were BLESSED to have a love of reading instilled in use as early as the third grade. We all read the same book (I remember The House of the Seven Gables) and, while reading, we had to answer written questions. The discussion at the end of the reading was instructive and seemed to capture the attention of even the doltish among us.Do primary school kids have such an advantage these days?To this day I am a voracious reader and credit it to those good young Sinsinawa Dominican sisters who lavished their love of reading on us hicks in the sticks.

I think it's important not to veil your own middle school experience with a false golden glow. In many respects, we were also a very visual generation, however, students now are far more likely to rebel -- and to a certain degree, have forced educators to re-examine longstanding practices that were not necessarily all that useful even for previous generations.First, go back and revisit your own adolescent reading habits. I don't remember a single book that I read from middle school except Huckleberry Finn and Lord of the Flies. It's important not to give up on worthwhile literature, of course, but literature and literary analysis can also be taught through less complex and more "relevant" works. Giving kids assigned reading and a choice, with some veto over obviously inadequate reading material, seems like a decent idea.Second, what is accepted as "standard" in many classes has not necessarily worn well. I hated "Lord of the Flies" then, and I still don't understand why that work endures as a middle school staple. The same is true for "A Separate Peace" which I had to read in high school. On the other hand, I view my children's love of fantasy with complete bemusement. I simply can't understand the appeal of something so divorced from reality. However, I do admit to reading romance novels at the same age, which were probably just as divorced from reality, and all things being equal, fantasy is probably better from a social perspective. I just don't think our own schooling should serve as a kind of glory days benchmark for what is happening now.

Bigger part of this picture is the challenge teachers face in selecting books for a generation of children who have never been read to and whose parents do not read. Given that these kids are visual learners, graphic novels like "Star Dust" might not be a bad place to start (and here I'll give a plug for a grown-up graphic novel, "Rex Libris," about a super hero librarian, which is smart, funny, with art reminiscent of that blocky 1930s WPA style). Agree with Barbara's caution about the golden glow of middle school memories in general, but not about "Lord of the Flies" specifically. This is a book adolescent boys still respond to on a visceral level and will talk about amongst themselves when they think you're not listening.

Research shows that a major component of kids reading is having been read to when they were small. So if kids are refusing to read, the problem is connected to what went with previous generations. So much for romanticizing the past.I'm inclined to agree with those who say reading something is better than nothing. I read comic books like crazy--and heard the prophecies of doom about so doing. Anybody remember Classics Illustrated? But the new media have also changed things big time. We didn't get a television till I was six, so maybe that explains my book mania now (Derrida as well as graphic novels).Yesterday there was a report on NPR about schools increasingly paying students to study and succeed. Maybe libraries could disseminate some of the stimulus money to young readers!

Yes, Jean, it did seem that every book I read in middle and high school was deliberately chosen for its appeal to boys.

I just think that there are certain works that MUST be read by every student at some point in his/her primary schooling, because they are so important to the culture. Huck Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird certainly would be at the top of my list. I'd pick out one or two Dickens novels, too, and something by Jane Austen.I would think that Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller need to be on the same list.Also Emily Dickenson.And, of course, the Bible.After that, there are a lot of options. And I'm not opposed to light or pulpy stuff, either. Whodnunits and humor get teens reading. But there are certain basics that just can't be avoided.I know we discussed, some time back, whether Catcher In the Rye has stood the test of time. When I was in school, it was on The List of Stuff That Must Be Taught. Steinbeck was in that pantheon, too: we read "The Pearl" in 7th grade and "The Grapes of Wrath" in 10th grade. I didn't like either one, and wouldn't want to inflict either one on my children - and so far, none of them have had a Steinbeck work assigned - but I support the notion that certain authors and certain works are just too important to miss - and our children are not the ones to decide.

I disagree that middle school curriculum is guided by some notion that we are giving them "great" works. We are giving them noteworthy works that are reasonably accessible given their current level of comprehension. Furthermore, what most of these works have in common, along with those of Willa Cather or Edith Wharton, is a certain currency or relevance to important themes in American society, which is why Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson are rarely included. When "The Catcher in the Rye" first made its way into the curriculum, it was relatively current. "The Grapes of Wrath" and "The Pearl" were probably only a generation removed when they made it into the curriculum. Which is to say that the "standard" curriculum doesn't necessarily require the teaching of Arthur Miller or Lorraine Hansberry over more contemporary equivalents exploring the same themes at a comparable level of literary achievement.

In my view, literature should help bind us together as a culture, give us shared experiences, and help us understand the literary references in jokes on "The Simpsons." (Caught one about Beowulf and Grendel just last night!)But this has become nearly impossible as parents demand veto power over the books their kids read.My son's middle-school English, er, "language arts" teacher is smart, well-read and energetic. But she has to offer kids a suggested reading list. This has become almost mandatory as parents object to elements in books that were once classics--adultery in "The Scarlet Letter," witchcraft in "The Hobbit," the n-word in "Huckleberry Finn," the f-word in "Catcher in the Rye" and on and on.Add to that the fact that many kids are not readers, and that teacher's really up Chaucer's famous creek trying to impart any literary knowledge.