Monday, August 31, 2009
I can still remember the books I was assigned in ninth grade. We read Nectar in a Sieve, an incredibly depressing portrait of life as an Indian sharecropper; Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe's response to Heart of Darkness and other European representations of Africa; Kaffir Boy, Mark Matahbane's autobiography of apartheid in South Africa; and Siddartha, Herman Hesse's story of enlightenment through asceticism. I can't overstate how much all of the students hated these books. The kids who weren't "readers" hated them the way they hated all assigned reading, but the "smart" kids, the ones who read difficult books for pleasure, hated them too--these books are so fucking boring, who cares what life in India was like a hundred years ago, why are we reading so goddam much about Africa anyway?
It turned out we were reading about Africa because our parents' generation hadn't read anything about Africa, instead focusing on the "classics"--novels written by dead white men and occasionally dead white women who wrote under masculine pseudonyms. The Seattle Public Schools were committed to making our worldview less Eurocentric, so we were stuck reading books we had no chance of enjoying or understanding.
For instance, to understand what Achebe was attempting with Things Fall Apart, you had to have an understanding of colonialism and the traditional depiction of Africans in white fiction. It's not difficult to read at the level of language, but if you come into it without at least some experience with racist undertones in literature, it will be hard for you to give a shit--and by and large, my classmates and I didn't.
I read a lot on my own back then, and I still do. I love books and fiction in particular, but I got this way despite, not because of, my education. Language Arts classes--that's what they call "English" now, in deference to foreign authors who of course we read in English translation--seem designed to suck all the joy out of reading. Students are given books they have no reason to care about and asked to discuss characters and situations that have no relation to their own experiences. They read Dickens and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Of Mice and Men because someone, somewhere, has decided that these are the books that should be read. Students who have trouble grasping the language in these novels will be doubly confused, because they have to deal with unfamiliar words in addition to unfamiliar settings that aren't often explained--Dickens's London might as well be Mars to them.
If you come into high school believing that "literature" is something that doesn't have anything to do with your life, you'll usually come out believing the same thing. And that's too bad, because literature is far more interesting than high school reading lists make it out to be. There are plenty of books that can attract non-readers and act as a gateway drug: RIchard Price's novels with their depictions of working-class young men (although the girls would probably hate them); Dave Eggers's What is the What, which might interest some kids in current events in Africa (which my ninth-grade reading list never did); Home Land, by Sam Lipsyte, which would appeal to the freaks and outcasts and is way funnier than Catcher in the Rye. Kids who don't read can start reading if you bother to show them that books can be appealing in the same way that TV and movies--don't turn them off books forever by forcing Joyce and Faulkner down their throats. Unfortunately, shoving things down kid's throats is what public school curriculums are all about.
There's no reason at all to teach kids "canon" literature. Knowledge of "great" books will not help them the same way a knowledge of arithmetic will--but it might help them to know that books aren't boring, and maybe some of them will seek out the harder stuff on their own. But this would require teaching something different and purchasing new books, neither of which public schools can do.
Here's an example of what I'm talking about: I had a friend who read maybe one book total in high school (he got decent grades in class thanks to Sparknotes), but one day he borrowed Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude and read all 400 pages in about 72 hours, because he was actually interested in the subject matter: friendships across racial lines, graffiti, drug use and drug dealing.
Plenty of kids at my high school would have liked that book for the same reasons, yet we slogged through Great Expectations just like every class before us since 1937. Well, a few bookish souls slogged through it. Everyone else just went on Sparknotes, bullshat a few half-hearted journal entries, and went back to getting high in the parking lot--learning that books are something you have to work around. And man, that sucks.
POSTSCRIPT: Some schools are (gasp!) changing the way they teach "Language Arts," mostly by allowing the students to pick which books they read. This gets the students reading more, and some of them are excited about it, but the downside is the kids mostly read books that don't challenge them or force them to think. They also can't discuss the books in class, because they're all reading different things. What if instead of just giving up and letting everyone re-read Captain Underpants, teachers just assigned better--non-boring--books? Isn't there some middle ground between hidebound dead-white-man literature and a classroom reading different James Patterson novels? Will we ever get this right? Why don't we just say fuck it and replace "Language Arts" with Sitcom Studies? Would anyone notice the difference?