Via I became aware of a New York Times article extolling the virtues of two virtuous teacher-types who have decided that the Western canon of literature is simply not the thing for their classrooms. They are middle school teachers who think instead that their students should read any book they like in school, to encourage and foster a love of reading.
The New York Times reporter writes, “For years, Lorrie McNeill loved teaching _To Kill a Mockingbird_. But last fall, for the first time in 15 years, she did not assign it–or any novel. Instead, she turned over all the decisions about which books to read to the students in her seventh- and eighth-grade English classes.” They could choose anything, up to and including Captain Underpants or the dynasty of junk* supposedly co-penned by James Patterson.
At first my argument was similar to one given by my own eighth-grade English teacher. She was asked why our class had to read “Romeo and Juliet” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “A Tale of Two Cities” when we’d just finished “The Outsiders,” which the class felt was SO MUCH MORE RELEVANT and INTERESTING and EASY TO READ.
“We did THE OUTSIDERS because we felt it had literary merit,” she answered. “And you had a blast with it. But that only took us a few days. You could understand it on your own. In here, we don’t want to use up our time with books you can fully appreciate on your own. We want to open your doors of perception* by exposing you to great works you might not otherwise be able to fully understand, or that you might never bother to pick up and try to read. Spend your free reading time on anything that makes you happy. Here, we try to edify and widen your horizons as well as entertain. If we didn’t all read Shakespeare, then we’d miss that person who will turn out to completely adore Shakespeare and become a scholar . . . but who would never have known that love otherwise. And the rest of you need to be exposed to the foundations of our culture. We choose books that you need help to get into and undrstand. Then you have them with you for a lifetime.”
[* Yes, she was a hippie. Yet erudite. Her name was Velma Banuelos, and I’ve never forgotten her or the other great teachers I’ve had. Bettye Mischen in particular. Also Ms. Moss, who bravely read aloud to us from HUCK FINN as the class blushed and crawled under their seats–because Ms. Moss was African American. When she noticed our unease at that N word that keeps cropping up in the passages, she put her hands on her hips and had us stand up and look her in the eye. She explained that this word was authentic to the dialect and to the period, and that this was the word in general use during the Civil War and before/after, and that there was no shame and she took no offense from it, as the book made the case AGAINST slavery and prejudice and other such awfulness. If, she added, one could comprehend the book and “got” the point, unlike those who would ban it. She had us sit down again. “And that is why I am reading this to you, so you may understand what has been termed The Great American Novel. So that you will not join the ignorant masses who won’t read a classic because of misunderstanding or misrepresentation, and missing the entire point of the story.” I love my teachers. Their voices have stayed with me.]
But then I re-thought this stance. Okay, middle schoolers of today are not like we were as children. They have had video games and video (movies, TV, etc., on demand) and other claims on their time from day one. We had books, playing outside, or coloring. Board games. Stuff like that. Yes, television did exist, but it wasn’t interesting to me except for rare shows. Movies were a special treat that we went out for every Friday night or whatever, usually with the family or friends. It wasn’t an all-day thing. So they don’t want to read those old Dead White European Males and A Few Token Females. Why bother? When there’s TWILIGHT? (See Chaucer’s take on it here.)
What occurs to me now is: middle school? That is too late by far. The time to nurture a love of reading (with free library reading periods or whatnot) is from first grade, if not before. Let them have this choice during a forty-minute library break three times a week, or every day. Whatever the powers that be will allow. THAT will be the time to build their love of the printed/written word!
My friends and I were readers. By third and fourth grade, we knew who the readers in our class were going to be. In fifth, I was exchanging books with my best friend (taking turns checking stuff out of the library) so we would be kept in reading material. Her parents were also readers. We’d each been brought up by a family of people wearing half-moon glasses and peering at tiny text.
Much of the foundation for being a lifetime reader was laid at home. This won’t be happening as often now with so many people addicted to videogames and who can get new released movies or anything out of the film vault off YouTube and Netflix.
The place to read for pleasure is outside of school. In school, use the time wisely.
The teacher read to us after lunch in my third- and fourth-grade years. I think the teachers chose any books they liked. There was Narnia, “Little House,” and that ghost story thing set on the moors with the song “Danny Boy” (the book I have never found again.) We got a carton of books from Scholastic every month where students had paid fifty cents for a great novel or a new pop release. These were passed out in the classroom. Does that exist now? Now the classrooms have lots of video interludes. Video is more real to people than text, than reality.
We’re talking about dismissing the Western canon, which has for years transmitted the values of our culture, a context for history, and the cadenced rhythms of the English language as it changed with time. Do not throw this away. Yes, have a free reading period. But NO, do NOT tell them it ain’t important for them to read Anne Frank (in the original translation, as selected by her dad–not the new translation that has much more material and far less lovely cadenced prose), Harper Lee, and Shakespeare! And I believe a lot of students need help with advanced materials, and benefit from a group discussion period with others who’ve read the same text. (We have book clubs now for those who have never gotten away from enjoying that.) What if you don’t teach a classic one year, and in the class was a person who could have been set afire as soon as he/she understood it and got exposed to it? Now that’ll probably never happen for that student.
There’s a side benefit to this innocent, civic-minded, make-them-like-it dumbing-down. Ignorant masses who are mired in a simplistic pop culture and pulp fiction and sensationalized TV and faux spindoctored “news” are easy to lead like sheep. Real critical thinking happens when you suddenly realize that you connect with this author from the 17th century. “He thought just like I do! Even if he talks funny!” People have always been the same, as you can see in ancient histories and stories even in the Bible–they’ve experienced the same kinds of passions, flaws, mistakes, courage, victories. History repeats itself. Literature encapsulates this.
To promulgate only the reading of “whatever you like” will cheat students. To not offer help (in the guise of “making them do it,” which saves them from having to be uncool nonconformists in voluntarily doing it) in seeing deeper stuff in subtext or increasing comprehension of more archaic language will mean that students just shrug and dismiss classics that might teach them much. It is a tragic mistake. But anyway, it doesn’t matter. The ones who seek more will find it . . . or will they?