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Good References

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I was, interestingly enough, thinking just what Mique was–that the people who were actually here during the election have a far different take on the Palin situation than the people who weren’t.  I’ll just leave it at this–I think it’s probably not a good idea to take the ramblings of the more infuriating members of RAM all that seriously, and that as far as I’m concerned, Palin didn’t get slammed nearly hard enough.  

But let’s take a look for a minute at the kind of thing that I get into knots over, given a large  population of Ignorant and Proud of It students to consider when I actually teach introduction to literature.

Over the last few days, I’ve been reading a Terry  Pratchett novel called Witches Abroad.  I think  I mentioned it.

Pratchett novels are often full of references so esoteric, they make your head spin, and the novels are definitely better experiences if you get all or most of these. 

In Witches Abroad, the actualy esoteric references are minimal, but there are still references, lots of them, and if you don’t get them, the book is going to be completely mystifying to you.

But those references should be general–they’re the kind of thing that people like those of us here tend to think that “everybody” knows.   They’re the kind of thing that when  I say my kids have no context, people automatically (and without realizing it) except in their minds in a category called “but she doesn’t mean that kind of thing.”

What you have to know a lot about to understand Witches Abroad is…fairy tales.

You know the kind of thing I’m talking about.  Cinderella.  The three little pigs.  Frog princes returned to human form by a princess’s kiss.   Fairy godmothers.  Rapunzel.  Sleeping Beauty.

Pratchett is not an expository writer.  He gives you minimal prose and lots of dialogue, not a whole lot of glimpses into the way his character’s heads work from the inside, just straightfoward plot and dialogue, so that the entire meaning of the book (or of some of them) endes up being lodged in the references.

If you don’t get the references, you may get a few good laughs–Pratchett can be very funny–but you’ll have no idea what the hell the book is actually about. 

Pratchett’s best book is called Small Gods, and it’s definitely one of the three I’d have with me on a desert island if I was going to be stranded for life.  It’s one of the most interesting takes on religion I’ve ever read, and probably the best  Christian novel I’ve ever read, and that in spite of the fact that Pratchett is a fairly straightforward and outfront atheist in his private life.

Witches Abroad is not as dense or complex as that, but it’s an interesting take on the kind of people who “want to make you happy whether you want to be or not.”

It’s also an interesting take on how narrative–or thinking in narrative–can warp and ruin people’s lives.

And it is, as is most Pratchett, very funny.


The chances are good that I’m not going to be able to use this book any more successfully than I have been able to use Small  Gods, and for the very same reason–a solid majority of my kids won’t know the fairy tales.

And no.  I’m really not exaggerating.

For many years, I gave a classroom exercise in point of view by asking my kids to retell the story of the three little pigs from the point of view of the wolf, or Cinderella from the point of view of the ugly stepsisters.  I had to give it up, because the exercise is useless when performed by people who have never heard the original story, or who have only heard it in class right before I ask them to write, because I tell it to them.

Think about this for a minute.

How is anybody supposed to be able to teach literature to students with no shared culture at all–at least, no culture they share across generations.

Forget trying to explain “Bartleby the  Scrivener” or “A Rose for Miss Emily.”  They’d find it nearly impossible to decipher Poe or Twain.  And if they have been taught one of these novels–say, Huckleberry Finn–in high school, they’ve been given a standard spiel about politics or race as an explanation of what the book “means.”

And politics and race are the good news.  At least an explanation like that connects the book to the real world.  Too often, what they get is an endless boring stream of “spot that symbol!” blather, sort of a game show approach to reading fiction.

I think it was W.H. Auden who is supposed to have been asked what children should read in school, and to have answered, “it doesn’t matter, as long as they all read the same thing.”

And I get that, but I think it does matter at least to this extent–we need to give our chidren at leas some experiences to share with ourselves.   I should think fairy tales would be right at the top of that list.  

By now, I think everybody reading this must be aware that I’m not much interested in the iea of doing this through the schools.  I think schools are a bad place to do it in, for a lot of reasons.

But surely there’s got to be some way, outside of controlling the institutions, that we could make sure every six year old knows the story of Cinderella, or of the three little pigs.

If we could find a way to get the basic bible stories out there–Adam and Eve, Noah and the Arc, even Sodom and Gomorrah; and yes, to atheist children as well as Protestant ones, if only to make Shakespeare comprehensible–that would be even better.

Written by janeh

August 2nd, 2009 at 8:21 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'Good References'

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  1. I hate to say it, but the situation may be hopeless. I had a “stay at home mother” as they are now known, and I had CAPTAIN KANGAROO. I don’t just know the Three Little Pigs and the Three Billy Goats Gruff and Goldilocks and the Three Bears–is a pattern developing here?–but I know Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel and Make Way for Ducklings. And so does almost every American within about five years of my age. In the Age of the 100 Channels, there’s NOTHING that all the kids are exposed to.

    Mothers aren’t going to take up the slack. Take a good look at names. I’ll bet that a measureable percentage of those students who don’t know fairy tales weren’t given names because of what the name means or because the name tied the kid to previous generations of the family, but because the invented syllables sounded nice. That’s not just sailing away from tradition, but sawing through the anchor cable. (It’s even getting into some of the “what to name the baby” books, by the way. I’m turning up names of “unknown” origin with a meaning–simpply invented by the book’s authors.)

    As for “controlling the institutions”–which always seems to be the next thought these days when an American can’t get what he wants–even that won’t work. In order to show you’re in charge, you have to change things. And in order to show you’re not to be held accountable for last year’s poor outcomes, what could be better than a whole new curriculum this year? A friend of mine is about to retire from decades of teaching middle school/junior high students, many of whom are exactly those most in need of institutional support–poverty, broken homes, recent immigration. He tells me that in more than 30 years in the same school system, they’ve had a consistent program top to bottom with each year building on what was to be taught the year before twice. The first time lasted two years. The next time will be next school year and his last.

    We may soon have a national system of mandatory “pre-school.” But even if you could get the educational powers that be to include fairy tales and Bible stories in the curriculum and tell them straight, I wouldn’t expect the curriculum to last as long as four years.

    So I doubt very much we can improve the situation much. But that just means an educational underclass will persist. In most cases, parents and churches will continue doing good work in this regard–if they aren’t “helped” too much.


    2 Aug 09 at 10:18 am

  2. Well, that — like much of what you write on your teaching experience — floors me. I was going to say “But what about the cartoon versions of Cinderella, or the Muppet take on the Three Little Pigs (very funny, BTW),” but is the reply “They didn’t watch those cartoons”? I recently walked down memory lane with a DVD set of one season of Rocky and Bullwinkle, and delighted in Fractured Fairy Tales and other very witty programming. Too bad that’s not in reruns (but I guess kids wouldn’t watch it). I think we also had fairy tales read to us in nursery school and kindergarten.

    I agree about the Bible stories, too. Byatt said that authors can no longer use Bible stories in fiction because so few people get the references.


    2 Aug 09 at 10:56 am

  3. Back in my teaching Freshman Composition with a component of Intro to Lit days, I typically assigned James Joyce’s Araby. While I’m not a big Joyce fan, I love the complexity and richness of this story and, naively, hoped to have my students ‘get it.’ Invariably, students got bored almost immediately. When I pointed out the garden, in the backyard, with a tree in the middle (such a short throw-away bit), students looked blank. After a 20 minute tirade in which I would rant about the Garden of Eden and its implications in loss of innocence and how this triggers the entire story – and – oh yes – how everyone, regardless of religious belief system, must read the Bible, my students would yawn. While I had some converts, I also had students accuse me of trying to ‘Christianize’ them. Fifteen years later I have moved from literature to art. The story is much the same, but there is a difference. My students now are those who are choose my classes and are more inclined to be willing to learn.

    I often wonder if the shallow, unimaginative people out there know what they are missing. I have family members who love Palin. They don’t understand what a destructive force willful ignorance combined with power can be. Palin appalls me; her hairdo alone is unnatural and creepy. Palin and my family members want the world to be simple, good versus evil. They don’t realize that there is only human nature existing in the natural world, and humans are unpredictable and complex. We are a people who create great stories, great sculptures, and paintings. We have adventures, explore the world and the universe, and discover the most infinitesimal bits of matter in existence. We are capable of great passion, sometimes wrecking great havoc on this world. What we are not is simple with limited vision or ability.

    Sometimes I think I see the world in Technicolor, while others around me are slogging through a black and white existence. Of course, I just re-watched the Wizard of Oz and was shocked at how the Technicolor world is the ‘dangerous’ world and really – there is no place like home in all of its black and white glory.


    2 Aug 09 at 12:52 pm

  4. Maybe the loss of common referents is inevitable. Maybe the lack of common experiences and stories, aided by the changes in the sources of our experiences and stories , must inevitably result in the fracturing of cultures and eventually societies. We’re the dinosaurs, bleating in the swamps about our increasing inability to communicate with our youths; even with many of our adults.


    2 Aug 09 at 1:59 pm

  5. I think Cheryl has a point. Since there is no longer a canon for adult literatute, why should we expect one for children’s literature? I keep seeing references to “To Kill a Mocking Bird” and “Catcher in the Rye” but I don’t remember reading either of them.

    Does going to High School in the early 1950s and taking my last university English course in 1956 make me a dinosaur? Perhaps!


    2 Aug 09 at 6:59 pm

  6. Maybe when someone isn’t familiar with something that seems like it should be *common* culture, there’s a multiplicity of cultures and we just don’t know theirs. Jane is right that there used to be a single generalized list of Stuff to Know.

    Now there are many more versions of StK, and many more ways to access that stuff. The problem comes when we expect there to be just a single cultural path, and start making value judgments about the worth of those who don’t follow it. Variation, difference and diversity are not bad things of themselves, and yes, I agree that not having a single cultural path may lead to the death of cultural norms we old geezers hold dear.

    This doesn’t mean that there will be no cultural norms. In order to preserve something we find valuable, we have to make that valuable to new generations, or they won’t adopt it. Clearly the common Western literary canon is less valuable to people nowadays, including fairy tales. Those people who never heard of Cinderella, most certainly know of Star Wars, which is just a fairy tale set in space. I think it’s less important that we all have the same referents than that we all have SOME referents and know how to use them in writing and discourse.

    Of course, I have no doubt there are countless people out there who know absolutely nothing about any culture. Their brains are remarkably empty of facts, referents, opinions and ambition. About all they have going for them is fads and desires, and seeking out their own kind. Perhaps future societies will select them out of the gene pool because they certainly can’t contribute anything intellectual.

    Luckily, it won’t be my problem.


    3 Aug 09 at 12:10 am

  7. “But surely there’s got to be some way, outside of controlling the institutions, that we could make sure every six year old knows the story of Cinderella, or of the three little pigs.”

    But really, and I don’t know how to prove this one way or the other, how many six year olds, as a proportion of the population, ever knew either let alone both?

    Even if we grant that in Shakespeare’s London most of the populace understood his references — in Shakespeare’s England, 90% of the population was ignorant, illiterate and superstitious peasants in the country who would have been lost.

    In 21st century America most people live in urban areas and have been forced to go sit in classrooms for 12 or thirteen years, but alas it hardly follows that their parents etc. absorbed the literary culture of the city dwellers even as they were forced to move to cities to feed themselves. They still didn’t own any books, or have a tradition of reading.

    And now we’re forcing ever more people up the grade levels by pretending there’s no such thing as a bell curve so that “everyone” is capable of ‘x’ level of competency in every subject.

    We don’t force every boy to play on the football team and/or the basketball team etc. and insist that they reach some level of competency obviously out of line with their physiques, but we pretend (even while measuring the differences that should tell us clearly otherwise) that everyone can reach the same level of academic achievement.

    And now I’m starting to ramble.


    3 Aug 09 at 12:14 am

  8. re the multiplicity of cultures/common norms issue:

    If we don’t have the common culture, we don’t have a society. I think it’s a mistaken idea that we can have a society consisting solely of different cultures. There HAS to be an overarching (and/or foundational) culture that defines the society, otherwise you simply have a society in process of fragmenting into various new societies along cultural lines, or you have a lot of cultures which really aren’t all that separate because they have all figured out how to accommodate each other. But they don’t want to recognize this accommodate and other commonalities as a society-wide culture… why, exactly? Because some people are uncomfortable at ranking cultures, and saying that one is the overarching one that defining one for the society as a whole and the others aren’t, is, well, wrong. Elitist or something.

    And I don’t think the problem is whether or not people value fairy tales – it’s the block to communication you get when one group automatically picks up on common references and the other doesn’t. In a basic example – supposing, like Jane, you want to teach students to work with point of view using a simple tale that they will all be sure to know. How can you do this if there isn’t one they don’t know?

    In more complicated debates, how often have you suddenly realized that you and the other person are talking right past each other because you and/or the other person just aren’t getting the references and implied meanings, and are answering things that weren’t asked or missing ideas that were there? It’s certainly happened to me.


    3 Aug 09 at 8:21 am

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