Saturday, August 28, 2010

"I was locked up in the world until I learned to read." - Milton Whitley

An interesting conversation popped up yesterday, based around the question - what is the value of an American literary canon?  Or is there a value at all? 

Concerning education, what is more important - getting students to love reading, however unelevated the subject matter might be, or getting them to read classics, however culturally irrelevant those works might seem to a middle-schooler? 

I tend to incline toward favoring a distinct literary canon.  A literary canon shapes cultural identity.  It unites us with our compatriots.  What do we who have grown up in the East know of California except that which John Steinbeck has told us?  Just having moved 3,000 miles across the country to a city whose people with whom I presumably should have nothing in common, I find it telling that within the first few days my fellow interns and I began talking about books that we've read.  Coming from very different parts of the country, we all have very little actually in common, but literature provides a platform for common understanding. 

But enough of my argument for the value of classic literature - the question is can we get students to read it?  Recently teachers have been experimenting with using popular literature - things like Harry Potter and Twilight - to inspire students to read.  They put Steinbeck and Hemingway back on the shelves in favor of Rowling and Meyer.  Is this a good way to get kids to read for the sake of reading, or should we be concerned with whetting their palates for the classics?

And what about students who aren't encouraged to read at home?  I heard a story recently from a friend of mine who was working as a tutor who said that her student's parents took away their child's study materials because they were embarassed that their child was more advanced than them.  How do teachers combat that? 

A study done in 2003 showed that 14% of American adults (about 30 million people) had "below basic" literary skills, and of those with "below basic" skills, 55% did not graduate from high school.  Literacy is incontestably important, so what is the best way to get students to learn to read and think critically?  By teaching books like Twilight?  Or by sticking to our guns?

Interesting conversation to have as I'm about to embark on a yearlong adventure to help students to learn to read. 

- More food for thought - Check out


  1. PART 1

    Anna, please pardon me for this unpardonably long comment. :)

    King Azaz of The Phantom Tollbooth says, "with [words] you may ask all the questions which have never been answered and answer the questions which have never been asked...All you must learn to do is use them well and in the right places.” Ben Jonson said a long time before that, "Language best shows man; speak, that I may see thee." Jonson didn't write for children, but Norton Juster definitely did. Words not only define but help create who we are. How you read, speak, and write shows your attention to your own mental organization and how much you care about your subject. The only way to learn to write and speak well is by exposure to others who have taken care to do so - i.e. writers like Oscar Wilde or John Updike. Equally important are their characters, who exhibit parts of human nature that we can recognize, analyze, and learn from with better hope of objectivity than we can ever hope to get from any real-life encounter.

    Take Henry James' Isabel Archer. It is possible, even probable, that many people would find it difficult to relate to her as she flees her own happy ending simply because the choices that have led to her current horrible situation were her own and made freely, though mistakenly. Still, we can recognize Isabel's determination to be an independent agent and her dismay as she finds this to be harder than she thought. We can judge Isabel for ourselves: Do we understand and respect her desperation to live up to her own ideal, or do we wish she would reconsider? How important is it that she should present a consistent portrait of herself? Do the other characters appreciate her as a curiosity or care for her regardless of her failure to be as wise as she wanted? Is her society’s focus on human aesthetics admirable? Reading James not only gives us an example of perfectly (almost annoyingly) articulate language, but raises questions that are worth consideration. Such is the case with classic literature.

  2. Part 2

    Does Twilight raise these questions, or equally important ones? Does Harry Potter? Probably not. Harry Potter is wonderfully entertaining; I have read all seven books. Yet Harry, no matter how impressive his feats, is at the end of the day a rather flat character. His relationships are eventful but uncomplicated. The other characters resent him for his fame, hate him because they serve his enemy, or admire him for his flawless character and extraordinary destiny. Everything from the magic that protects Harry to the loyalties of the darkly ambiguous Snape can be explained in a sentence or two - except the plot, which is admirable in its ability to remain interesting for thousands of pages. But confusing "what is the book about" with "what happens in the book" is a common and gross mistake. What happens in HP is creative and entertaining, but what it is about - the power of love, good versus evil, the importance of having good character and of remaining invisible when you are sneaking around school in the middle of the night - are themes found in any coming-of-age movie from Dirty Dancing on. They're important, but you don't need an artful, objective context to learn them; they're generally not complicated enough to require examination.

    Should kids read Rowling and Dan Brown? Sure. In their own way, those books are great. No one starts out reading Othello or The Idiot. (I personally went the Amelia Bedelia route through a lot of Tamora Pierce; I still love Christopher Moore.) But these books aren't the end goal. They don't raise questions that we are otherwise too afraid to ask, they don't create characters with whom our relationships are intimately stormy, and they don't show us the incredible things of which our language is capable. Salman Rushdie is an artist; his sentences are interminable but the literary equivalent of a Kandinsky painting. Classics aren't easy to tackle; their difficulty teaches us to think critically. That’s why we make kids read them, even if they grab Louis Sachar the minute they get home.