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First, let me start off this post by saying I’m really beginning to feel that I have to go out and read Silas Marner.  I never have, and it was never assigned in any school I went to, or in any school my sons went to, but it seems to be such an excruciatingly awful experience it’s put a lot of you off the Great Tradition as a matter of principle–and I’m not even sure it properly belongs in the Canon.

That said, there are a couple of differences between me–and Janet, and, I think, Raphael–on the subject of what to assign in elementary and secondary schools, and the first one has to do with why we assign reading at all.

I don’t think it’s the job of the schools to “instill a love of reading,” and in fact I don’t think they can do it in any but the most exceptional cases.   Instructional situations are not meant to instill love, they’re meant to instill information–and in elementary and high school, I  mean information, not knowledge.

The first kind of information such reading is meant to instill is an understanding of how the  process is done–enough in the way of knowledge of form, vocabulary, and cultural context to make it possible for you to read a New ork Times op ed, or an Agatha  Christie mystery, and know what it said.

The second kind of information such reading is meant to instill is a glancing acquaintance with the fact that there is a great tradition, and that some writers and some works are importnt in it. 

I really mean a glancing acquaintance.   I don’t expect your average college sophomore to be able to analyze, dissect, or even fully appreciate “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” or King Lear, but I do expect him to know that there were writers names Geoffrey Chaucer and  William Shakespeare who wrote the works in question, that the first came earlier in time than the last, that the first wrote poetry and the second plays in poetic form as well as poetry, etc. 

Right down to the twentieth century and George Orwell. 

It should not be necessary for an entire college composition class to be stopped dead in its tracks because no student in the room knows what Nadine Strossen means when she says that the new surveillance systems being installed in malls are reminiscent of 1984.

This is, really, a very basic and undemanding level of information I’m asking for here, and it doesn’t require any high school student, in a traditional classroom or out of it, to truly understand Shakespeare, or even William Blake.   It is only necessary that such students know that these people existed and that they are important and maybe a little about why.

On the elementary school level, I’m asking for even less–in American venues, I’d say that a thorough acquaintance with things like “Paul Revere’s Ride” and the stories of Washington  Irving, placed in the context of “these are the things people wrote because they wanted to assert their new identity as Americans” would do.   Other countries would of course have their own literary works of that kind, ones that everyone calling themselves “Italian” or “french” or “swedish” should know. 

Often such works are not canonical at all (over the river and through the woods…), and they’re rarely difficult to read and to understand.

But although  I don’t think elementary and secondary education should be about “instilling a love of reading,” if that was what I was going for, the last thing I’d give them is the kind of work by a contemporary author that “asks interesting questions.”

Okay, I must apologize to Janet here before I start, because I may be misunderstanding her.  She didn’t give any examples of writers in that vein, so I may have assumed something I shouldn’t.

But when  I hear things phrased like that–contemporary writers who ask interesting questions–what I think of is Judy Blume and those endless “young adult” problem novels about  sex, drugs, rock and roll, divorce, sexual identity, high school outcasts, yada yada yada yada yada.

If that was all  I knew of reading when I was in school, I’d have walked out the doors after graduation and never bohered to read anything else again.  Lots of people here think Silas Marner is the ultimate literary turn off.  I think it’s The Outsiders, and all its cousins.

The problem with these books for me is that they are just one more reflection of the therapeutic culture promoted by the school, by parents, by teachers, by almost everybody, until we’re damned near drowning in it.  They ask questions, yes, but they’re always the same questions, and they’re always the wrong questions.

Romeo and Juliet has more to say about the experience of teen-agers in love–the full experience–than any Judy Blume novel ever could, because Shakespeare understood that such love is violent and destructive and only worthwhile at all because it is both. 

Judy Blume and her sister authors would cluck and sigh over all this “inappropriate” behavior and try to urge the lovers to mature “choices,” but none of that is true to the experience involved, and none of it will stop the next suicide pact in your local high school.  Shakespeare might, because anybody who reads that play (or sees it) sees just those emotions they really do feel, instead of being told (tacitly, but bluntly) that they aren’t real emotions at all, or that they’re so out of left feild that they need to be fixed.

People are what they are.  They are not what the therapeautic culture tells them they are.

Don’t get too fixated on individual suggestions–I’m not demanding any one book in particular. What I’m saying is that if you want to instill a love of reading, then you have to give kids real books, books that mirror and even celebrate all that “inappropriate” behavior.

Yes, of course, a lot of The Iliad is men behaving badly, but that’s because men–and especially young men–do behave badly.  It’s perfectly natural, and has as much to do with evolution and hormones as it has to do with “choices”–hell, a lot more to do with evolution and hormones.

In modern society, of course, we expect men to control themselves better than they would have been expected to in the world of the Trojan War, but that doesn’t change their nature, nor does it make pious little problem novels that define such behavior as “understandable acting out” that can be made right by more of those “good choices” true to life.

What good literature presents us with is the full range of human experience, good and bad, moderate and extreme, and insists that it is all legitimate, all of it.  It is all part of being human. 

What the therapeutic culture and all those problem novels present us with is a vision of the “normal” human being that is not normal to human beings, or at least not to most of us.

The first books I loved were defintely the stories about Nancy Drew, but the first books I couldn’t stop reading were by Dickens, and Dostoyevski, and, yes, Hemingway.  The people in them did not have problems, and the books did not ask questions, interesting or otherwise.

What they did do was present me with people, lots of people, different people, served up raw and identified as fully and legitimately human, with “choices” just as valid as the ones made by the people who made the “right” ones.

I had a good friend for many years who had a history of clinical depression, the really awful kind that makes you just sit for hours on end and makes it impossible for you to do anything.  She spent years going to doctors who gave her antidepressant drugs.  Some of them did nothing.  Others did, but left her blank, with no sex drive, and not much ambition.

And then she discovered something: smoking cigarettes not only temporarily lifted the depression, they did so without impairing her in any way.  They were relatively cheap, she could self-dose any time she needed to, and the result was a career on a jet-speed track and a life she really loved.

In a contemporary problem novel, all these benefits of smoking would have been illusions, and our heroine would learn that they were, find the perfect antidepressant drug, and start making “good” and “approproate””choices” in her life.

And anyone with my friend’s particular set of circumstances would, on reading that novel, know that it was a load of crap.  And if that was all she knew of novels, she’d conclude–with reason–that all novels were just loads of crap, just one more delivery system for the Official Version.

If you have to insist on trying to instill a love of reading, keep kids as far away from those contemporary writers who ask interesting questions as you possibly can.

And now, of course, Janet will tell me she eas really talking about Umberto Eco and Joses Saramago.

Written by janeh

March 20th, 2009 at 8:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Inappropriate'

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  1. I don’t think I was assigned ‘Silas Marner’ in school, although I read it – several times – in my teens. I don’t claim it’s ‘Great Literature’, whatever that is, but I loved it. I can’t understand why so many people seem to find it the epitome of Terrible Assigned Books. OK, maybe it’s a bit sentimental and maybe the symbolism is a bit heavy-handed – lost golden coins and found golden-haired child – but that’s hardly reason to really hate something. You’ve got someone who has a perfectly good reason for turning into a miserly hermit transforming himself into a much happier and more useful person.

    Now, if I had to list required books I hated, “The Old Man and the Sea” would probably top the list – I have a strictly pragmatic approach to fish and can’t identify with all that angst of being masculine and aging at all. Hardy would be well up there, too. I found what little I read by him – Tess? I’ve put it out of my mind – full of boring people and far, far too much description of the countryside.

    I grew up a little to early to get into Judy Blume etc. and I’ve never read any of them. I tended to read children’s historical or adventure or science fiction stories and anything else I could get my hands on except the children’s versions of various classics like Gulliver’s Travels or Shakespeare which always made me feel like I was being cheated. I used to prefer what were called ‘boy’s books’, although I also read as much Nancy Drew I could get my hands in, Cherry Ames, the Bobbsey Twins, and assorted Orphans in Danger books, none of which were ‘boy’s books’.

    I don’t know if a similar diet would make a young person today become an avid reader.


    20 Mar 09 at 4:59 pm

  2. OK, I’m one of the guilty parties on instilling a love of reading. Let me amplify: No, I’ll have to agree, if the kid just doesn’t like reading, then you can’t make him like it. After all, if repeated exposure were sufficient, my parents would have instilled a love of fried tomatoes and travel in me. And certainly some of us learn to love reading despite every obstacle our teachers could provide. But schools can make a difference some of the time–I suspect much of the time–and they have to try.

    How to make a difference? Begin with the notion that reading can be and often is pleasureable. Even my junior high gym teacher seemed to think boys might enjoy his subject. Perhaps the English Department could give it a try. Repetition of the “English as brtoccoli” motto: “It’s a critical part of our civilization and you WILL learn it” even if true, is unlikely to trigger any response other than “No I won’t, and you can’t make me.”

    Of course, Coach Detweiler didn’t put us all on the parrallel bars every day all year and think we’d all enjoy THAT. He had a little variety. No, we can’t instill a love of reading the way we can innoculate against smallpox. But we can certainly expose young people to the full spectrum of English literature and see whether they like any of it. We CAN, but we don’t.
    Reading at the 6-12 grade level–where all the kids can be expected to have the tools–is pretty much gruel city: bland, politically correct and relationship-driven. As this becomes more and more the case, surveys show young male reading of fiction dropping steadily, and as they get older, they keep the habit of not reading. By a fortunate coincidence, we have a large body of literature in English known to have appealed to a predominantly male readership. Perhaps before the schools give up and blame television and video games or just trank the boys, they could consider expanding the range of fiction offered to opur young people?

    And why shouldn’t we give up? After all, I don’t like to drive, work combination locks or word-process. I just know how to do those things. But reading is one of the core skills–possibly THE core skill–of our civilization. The more videos–or “multi-media presentations” attempt to convey information or complex ideas they more they resemble reading and require the same skills. And it’s a complex skill set: as Jane points out, sounding out the words only gets you so far. To get all the juice out of an article you need sometimes a fairly extensive vocabulary, and enough background to recognize a wide range of references. Five or six assigned books a year doesn’t begin to cut it. To be a good reader–able to understand what the author says and to understand what the author is trying to do–NOT the same!–requires a lot of reading–maybe not a lot by the standards of this group, but far more than is mostly done, AND MORE THAN YOU CAN COMPEL THE KIDS TO DO. The Army saying is “pushing a string.”

    This is why some many diets, exercise programs and stopping-smoking campaigns fail. The discomfort and inconvenience are immediate, and the benefits distant and sometimes hypothetical. It takes an unusual person or a deep emotional commitment to persist under such conditions. But if you can find low-calorie foods the dieter enjoys or an exercise routine that’s fun…

    The best people in any field put in the most hours of study and practice. They’re doing what they’re good at, certainly. But they’re also doing something they enjoy. It would be nice if the schools considered this when choosing the required reading.


    22 Mar 09 at 4:04 pm

  3. Hmmm, I’ve never read Judy Bloom. And I certainly do not mean those trendy books that relate to teen problems…ugh. But you cited an author that I beleive teens would like…Dickens (at least some of the good stuff) and Trollope…They’re not pretentious authors and their writing is accessible and I won’t apologize for assigning things that I think are both challenging and enjoying. Many kids have never understood that reading is fun.

    Books I have assigned to college freshmen…One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Green Mile, Hardscrabble Road, Tin Roof Blow Down, The Plague, Agamemnon (see, I’m not ‘anti Greek), Confederates in the Attic, Roots (this one was a long time ago). Maybe they’re not ‘classics’, (well, Aeschylus sure qualifies) but, damn it, the writing is good, and the authors deal with issues that students can deal with. Lots of mine complain when I assign them; some complain the whole way through. But many tell me after reading them and talking about them and dicing the issues, that they’re glad to have done so. They say that when they go home they can more than hold their own at the family holiday ‘heated discussion’ dinner. If that’s where they start, then I’m happy. I beleive that, initially, the way one becomes an addicted reader is by reading. T do that, there has to be something about the reading that keeps one coming back.

    Janet Lewis

    23 Mar 09 at 12:40 pm

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