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REVIEW I KNOW WHY THE GAGED BIRD CANNOT READ How American high college students learn to loathe literature By Francine Pclimbed I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. Bantam Books, 1983. 256 peras. $5.50. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Warner Books, 1988. 288 pperiods. $4-99. Teaching Values Thturbulent Teaching Literature by Margaret Dodson. ERIC/EDIN- FO Press, 1993. 168 peras. $16.95. Teaching the Novel by Becky Alano. ERIC/EDINFO Press, 1989. 88 pages. $14.95. Teaching Literature by Woguys Authors by Carolyn Smith McGowen. ERIC/ED- INFO Press, 1993. 224 peras. $16.95. Books debated in this essay include: L ike the majority of paleas who have, versus all odds, preserved a lively and still evolving passion for good books, I uncover myself, each Sep- tember, increasingly appalled by the dismal lists of texts that my sons are doomed to waste a institution year reading. What I get as compensation is a mea- sure of understanding right into why our culture has pertained to admire Montel Williams and also Ricki Lake so much more than Dante and Homer. Given the dreari- ness via which literature is taught in many American classrooms, it appears miraculous that any kind of sentient teenager would watch reading as a source of plea- sure. Traditionally, the love of reading has actually been born and also nurtured in high college English course — the last time many type of students will find themselves in Francine Prose’s essay “Scent of a Woman’s Ink: Are Womales Writers Really Inferior?" appeared in the June 1998 concern of Harper’s Magazine. Her new novel, Blue Angel, will be publiburned in April. a roomful of civilization who have actually all review the very same text and are, in theory, pre- pared to comment on it. High institution — even more than college — is wright here literary tastes and also allegiances are formed; what we read in adolescence is imprinted on our brains as the dreamy notions of childhood crystallize right into hard information. The intense loyalty adults harbor for books first encountered in youth is one probable factor for the otherwise baffling longevity of vintage mediocre novels, publications that teachers might them- selves have actually read in adolescence; it is al- so the most plausible explacountry for the strange Modern Library list of the “100 Best Novels of the 20th Centu- ry,” a roster conquered by robust sur- vivors from the tenth-grade syllabus. Darkness at Noon, Lord of the Flies, Brave New World, and also The Studs Loni- gan Trilogy all stop, in various means, to the vestigial teenage psyches of guys of a certain age. The parallel list attracted up by students (younger, even more of them female) in the Radcliffe Publishing Course reflects the equally romantic and tacky tastes (Gone through the Wind, The Fountainhead) of a later genera- tion of adolescent girls. Given the truth that these early en- counters via literature leave such in- delible impressions, it would seem dou- bly crucial to make certain that high college students are actually reading literature. Yet every opportunity to instill teenagers through a lifelengthy affin- ity for narrative, for the means in which the vision of an artist can percolate with an idiosyncratic usage of lan- guage, and also for the supple gymnastics of a mind that exercises the mind of the reader is being squandered on reg- imens of trash and also semi-trash, taught for reasons that have actually nopoint to perform with just how well a book is written. In reality, much less and also much less attention is being passist to what has actually been written, let alone how; it’s come to be a rarity for a teacher to suggest that a book can be a occupational of art created of words and also sentences, or that the choice of these words and sentences deserve to increate and also delight us. We hear that even more publications are being bought and sold than ever before before, yet no one, as much as I recognize, is suggesting that we are produc- ing and becoming a nation of avid readers of serious literary works. Much has actually been made of the lem- mingchoose fervor through which our uni- versities have rushed to sacrifice com- plexity for diversity; for years now, doubters have actually decried our plummeting scholastic requirements and also mourned the death of cultural proficiency without hav- ing done one appreciable point to raise the educational bar or revive our mori- bund society. On the other hand, scant alert has been paid, except by exasperated parents, to the missed methods and misindevelopment that develop the true curriculum of so many high college English classes. My very own 2 sons, now twenty-one and also seventeenager, have review (in public and also exclusive schools) Shakespeare, Hawthorne, and also Melville. But they’ve likewise slogged repetitively with the manipulative melodramas of Alice Walker and also Maya Angelou, via sentipsychological, middlebrow favorites (To 50 76 HARPER’S MAGAZINE /SEPTEMBER 1999 conversation of racism; her victory over poverty and also abuse can be provided to ad- dress what one fan, in a customer book evaluation on Amazon.com, commemorated as “transcfinishing that pain, illustration from it deeper levels of meaning around be- ing truly humale and truly alive.” Many type of chapters finish via sententious epigrams essentially begging to serve as texts for sophomoric rumination on such ques- tions as: What does Angelou suppose when she writes, “If prospering up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being mindful of her displacement is rust on the razor that threatens the throat”? But much even more terrifying than the prospect of Angelou’s pieties being dissected for their deeper meaning is Kill a Mockingbird and also A Sepaprice Peace), the weaker novels of John Steinbeck, the fantasies of Ray Bradbury. My older son spent the initially several weeks of sophomore English mentioning the class’s sum- mer assignment, Ordinary People, a weeper and also previous bestseller by Judith Guest around a “dysfunc- tional” household recovering from a teenage son’s suicide attempt. Neither has actually heard a teacher indicate that he read Kafka, though one might mean that teenagers might enjoy the transfor- mative science-fiction elements of The Metamorphosis, a story about a young man so alienated from his “dysfunc- tional” household that he turns — embar- rassingly for them — right into a gigantic bee- tle. No instructor has actually ever before asked my came amethod via might not be a scien- tifically exact survey. Such surveys have actually been done by the National Coun- cil of Teachers of English (published in the 1993 NCTE study report, Lit- erature in the Secondary Schools), with outcomes that both underline and fail to reflect what I discovered. What emerges from these pho- toduplicated peras dispersed in pub- lic, private, and also Catholic schools and also in armed forces academies, in Manhattan and also Denver, in rur- al Oregon and urban Missouri, is a numbing sameness, uninfluenced by location, area, or neighborhood dimension. Nearly on every list includes at leastern one of Shakespeare’s plays. Indeed, in the NCTE report, Shakespeare (followed closely by John Steinbeck) tops the rosters of “Ten Most Frequently Required Authors of Book-Length Works, Grades 9-12.” Yet in various other genres — fiction and memoir — the news is far more upset- ting. On the lists sampled, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Maya An- gelou’s 1 Kcurrently Why the Caged Bird Sings are among the titles that appear a lot of often, a grisly fact that in itself should inspire us to study the works that conquer our children’s lit- erary education and learning. First publiburned in 1970, 1 Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is what we have actually because learned to identify as a “survivor” memoir, a first-per- boy narrative of victimization and also recoextremely. Angelou transporting activities us to her childhood in segregated Arkansas, wright here she was raised by her grandmom and also was most- lyjjWent, despite the unpleas- aitgrtess of her white neighbors, until, after a relocate to St. Louis, eight- year-old Maya was raped by her moth- er’s boyfrifinish. One can view why this memoir can appeal to the lazy or uninspired teacher, who have the right to conduct the course as if the students were the studio audience for Angelou’s guest appearance on Oprah. The author’s generally vent- ed distrust of white society might rousage also the most slow or understand- ably disinfluenced ninth-graders to join a sons to review Alice Munro, who writes so lucidly and beautifully around the hypersensitivity that provides adoles- cence a hell. I n the hope of finding out that my youngsters and my friends’ children were exceptionally unfortunate, I recently collected eighty or so analysis lists from high colleges throughout the country. Since of exactly how overworked teachers are, exactly how difficult to reach throughout the institution day, and the odd, paranoid defen- siveness that pervades so many schools, obtaining these papers seemed to require more time and dogged perseverance than obtaining one’s FBI sur- veillance files — and also what I Photographs by Alikid Rossiter, from the series The Stacks, 1997 / Yancey Richardboy Gallery, New York REVIEW 77 the idea of her language being supplied as a design of “poetic” prose style. Many kind of of the disastrous mysteries that confront teachers of college freshman complace have the right to be resolved simply by looking at Angelou’s composing. Who told students to incorporate a dozen combined metaphors in one paragraph? Consider a typical passage from An- gelou’s opaque prose: “Weekdays re- volved on a sameness wheel. They turned right into themselves so steadily and inevitably that each seemed to be the original of yesterday’s rough draft. Saturdays, yet, always damaged the mold and also dared to be various.” Where do students learn to create stale, inprecise similes? “The man’s dead words dropped prefer bricks approximately the au- ditorium and too many settled in my belly.” Who seriously believes that murky, turgid, convoluted language of this type constitutes good writing? “Youth and social approval allied them, selves with me and we tram- meled memories of slights and also insults. The wind of our swift passage re- modeled my functions. Lost tears were pounded to mud and then to dust. Years of withdrawal were bruburned aside and left behind, as hanging ropes of parasitic moss.” To hold up this book as a paradigm of memoir, of assumed — of literary works — is akin to inviting physicians convicted of malexercise to instruct our clinical students. If we want to usage Angelou’s job-related to educate our kids, let’s invite them to parse her language, sentence by sentence; ask them specifically what it implies and also ask why one would certainly bother obscuring ideas that might be expressed so a lot even more simply and felicitously. Narrated affably sufficient by a nine- year-old girl called Scout, To Kill a Mockingbird is the perennially beloved and treacly account of prospering up in a little Southern tvery own in the time of the De- pression. Its hero is Scout’s father, the saintly Atticus Finch, a lawyer that represents everything we cherish about justice and also democracy and also the Amer- ideserve to Way, and who defends a babsence man falsely accsupplied of rape by a bad white womale. The novel has a shad- ow hero, as well, the descriptively called Boo Radley, a gooney recluse that be- comes the occasion for yet one more leschild in tolerance and also compassion. Such summary reduces the book, yet not by all that a lot. To read the novel is, for many, an exercise in wish- fulfillment and also self-congratulation, a chance to think about thorny problems of race and also prejudice from a safe distance and also through the comfortable certainty that the reader would certainly never before harbor the racist mindsets espoprovided by the lowlifes in the novel. We (the readers) are Scout, her childhood is our childhood, and Atticus Finch is our brave, infi- nitely patient American Daddy. And that creepy substantial male living alone in the scary house transforms out to have been watching over us via protective benevolent attention. Maya Angelou and Harper Lee are not the only authors on the lists. The other the majority of renowned books are The Great Gatsby, The Scarlet Letter, The Adven - tures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Catcher in the Rye. John Steinbeck (The Pearl, Of Mice and also Men, The Red Pony, The Grapes of Wrath) and also Toni Morrichild (Song of Solomon, Sula, The Bluest Eye, Beloved) are the authors — after Shakespeare — stood for by the largest variety of titles. Also commonly stupassed away are novels of more dubious lit- erary merit: John Knowles’s A Sepa- price Peace, William Golding’s Lord, of the Flies, Elie Wiesel’s Night, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 45 1 , Dandelion Wine, The October Country , and also Some- point Wicked This Way Comes. Trailing behind these favorites, Orwell (Nine- teen Eighty-Four and also Animal Farm) is still being check out, as are the Brontes ( Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre). How astonishing then that students exposed to such a broad array of mas- terpieces and knowledgeable middlebrow entertainments are not mobbing their libraries and also bookstores, demanding heady diets of major or semi-severe fiction! And just how puzzling that I must so often uncover myself teaching bbest, eager college undergraduate and grad- uate students, would-be writers hand- icapped not simply by exactly how little liter- ature they have read yet by their utter incapability to read it; many kind of are nearly incapable of doing the cshed line-by- line reading vital to discshed the most standard indevelopment in a story by Henry James or a seemingly more straightforward one by Katherine Mansfield or Paul Bowles. The explanation, it transforms out, lies in how these publications, even the finest of them, are being presented in the class- room. My dogged search for analysis lists flushed out, in addition to the lists themselves, course descriptions, teach- ing guides, and anecdotes that expose exactly how English literary works is being taught to high school students. Only rarely carry out teachers propose that creating can be worth analysis very closely. Instead, stu- dents are indeveloped that literary works is principally a vehicle for the soporific moral blather they suffer everyday from their paleas. The present vogue for teaching “values” with literary works provides the novel as a springboard for the kind of discussion previously carried out in civics or ethics classes — areas of examine that, in concept, have been phased out of the curriculum yet that, in truth, have actually been retained and cleverly sub- stituted for what we provided to speak to En- glish. English — and everything about it that is inventive, imaginative, or pleasurable — -is beside the suggest in classrooms, as is whatever that con- stitutes style and also that distinguishes authors, one from an additional, as precise- ly as fingerprints or DNA mapping. The question is no much longer what the writer has composed yet fairly who the writer is — particularly, what ethnic team or gender identity an author rep- resents. A motion passed by the San Francisco Board of Education in March 1998 mandays that “works of literary works read in class in grades nine to elalso by each high institution student must encompass functions by writers of shade which reflect the diversity of society, race, and also course of the students of the San Francisco Unified School District. . . .The authors that are known to be lesbian, gay, bi- sexual or transsex, shall be appro- priately established in the curriculum.” On the other hand, aesthetic beauty — felici- tous or precise language, images, rhythm, wit, the satisfaction of recog- nizing something in fiction that seems fresh and also true — is simply as well frivolous, suspect, and elitist even to mention. Thus the vulnerable To Kill a Mocking- bird is freighted with tons of sociopo- litical ballast. A “Collaborative Pro- gram Planning Record of Learning Experience,” which I derived from the Web, outlines the “as a whole goal” of teaching the book (“To understand also difficulties relating to discrimination and prejudice that exist in our pres- ent-day society. To understand also and also HARPER’S MAGAZINE / SEPTEMBER 1999 use these ethics to our own lives”) and also argues topics for student discussion: “What type of world make up your community? Is there any kind of group of world ... a person (NO NAMES PLEASE) or form of perkid in your community that you feel uncomfort" able around?” A summary of “The Family in Lit- erature,” an elective offered by the Princeton Day School — a course including works by Sophocles and Eu- gene O’Neill — begins: “Bruce Spring- steen as soon as tried to make us think that, ‘No one deserve to break the ties that bind/You can’t for say-yay-yay-yay- yay-yay-yake the ties that bind.’ He has actually because divorced his wife and married his back-up singer. So what are these ties and also just exactly how solid are they, after all?” With its chilling echoes of New Period psychobabble, Margaret Dodson’s Teaching Values Through Teaching Lit- erature, a sourcebook for high college English teachers, increates us that the suggest of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is “to display exactly how progression has been made in the treatment of the mental- ly disadvantaged, and that more and better duties in culture are being de- vised for them create that mentally retarded civilization are humans with the very same requirements and feel- ings that everyone else experiences.” An eighth-grader studying Elie Wiesel’s overwrought Night in a course taught by a passionate gay-rights ad- vocate came residence through the complying with notes: “Many kind of Jews eliminated throughout the Holocaust, however many kind of many kind of homosex- uals murdered by Nazis. Pink trian- gle — Silence equates to death.” It’s cheering that so many type of lists in- clude The Adendeavors of Huckleberry Finn — yet not when we find that this relocating, funny novel is being taught not as a work-related of art however as a item of damning proof against that bigot, Mark Twain. A friend’s daugh- ter’s English teacher indeveloped a team of parents that the just factor to examine Huckleberry Finn was to decide whether it was a racist message. Instructors con- sulting Teaching Values Thunstable Teach- ing Literature will certainly have refixed this conflict lengthy prior to they walk into the classroom to supervise “a cshed reading of Huckleberry Finn that will certainly expose the assorted ways in which Twain undercuts Jim’s humanity: in the minstrel rou- tines through Huck as the ‘directly man’; in generalities about Blacks as unreli- able, primitive and slow-witted — ” Luckily for the teacher and students compelled to confront this fictional indistinguishable of a minstrel display, Mark Twain have the right to be rehabilitated — that is to say, revised. In classes that sound choose test screenings offered to position unreleased Hollyhardwood films, focus teams in which viewers are invited to pick among variant endings, stu- dents are polled for possible alterna- tives to Huck’s ancTTom Sawyer’s ac- tions — must Tom have brought out his arrangement to “free” Jim? — and also asked to speculate on what the fictional char- acters might have or need to have actually done to come to be much better human being and atone for the sins of their creators. In the a lot of unpurposely hilarious of these leskid plans, a chapter entitled “E than Frome: An Avoidable Tragedy,” Dodson alerts teachers to mean re- sistance to their initiatives to reform Whar- ton’s characters and also thus enhance her novel’s outcome: “Students vigorously disfavor the mere suggestion that Ethan have to have honored his commitment to Zeena and also encouraged Mattie to date Dennie Eady, yet this would certainly sure- ly have demonstrated better love than the self-destruction attempt.” Hence one more puzzle confronting col- lege and also graduate school instruc- tors — Why execute students so despise dead writers? — is partially defined by the ad- versarial stance that these sourcebooks adopt toward authors of timeless messages. Teachers are counseled “to aid stu- dents rise above Emerson’s style of stat- ing an concept bluntly, announcing reser- vations, and sometimes even negating the original idea” and to existing “an approach of contrasting the drab, utili- tarian prose of 1 984 via a lyric poem ‘To a Darkling Thrush,’ by Thomas Hardy.” Why not cite that such works have been check out for years — for a reason! — and also urge students to figure out what that factor is? Doesn’t it seem less practical to review Emily Dickinson’s job-related as the brain-damaged mumblings of a demented agoraphobic than to ap- proach the topic of Dickinboy, as Richard Sewell argues in his biogra- phy of her, on our knees? No one’s sug- gesting that canonical authors need to be immune to criticism. Dickens’s anti- Semitism, Tolstoy’s overly romantic principles about the peasantry, Kipling’s racism, are all problematic, and also merit discussion. But to treat the geniprovides of the past as naughty children, amallow to reeducation and learning by the children of the present, evokes the educational theo- ry of the Chinese Cultural Radvancement. No wonder students are hardly ever asked to consider what was actually written by these hopeless racists and so- ciocourses. Instead, they’re told to compose roughly the publications, or, better yet, compose their own books. Becky Alano’s de- pressing Teaching the Novel advises readers of Sylby means of Plath’s The Bell Jar to construct a therapeutic testimonial of its suicidal heroine (“Do you think she is all set to go home? What is your prognosis for her future?”) and also lists records to be written as supple- ments to Macbeth (a manuscript for the TV evening news announcing the mur- ders; a psychiatrist’s report on Lady Macbeth, or her self-destruction note to her husband; Macbeth’s enattempt in Who’s Who, or his obituary). How must prospective readers of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl prepare? Carolyn Smith Mc- Go wen’s Teaching Literature by Wom - en Authors suggests: “Give each stu- dent a paper grocery bag. Explain that to stop being sent to a concentra- tion camp, many kind of human being got in hiding. Often they can take with them just what they might carry Ask your students to pick the items they would certainly take right into hiding. These items have to fit into the grocery bag.” A course attempting to translate an Emi- ly Dickinkid poem can be separated in- to three groups, each group interpret- ing the poem based upon among Freud’s levels of consciousness; therefore the little ids, egos, and also superegos have the right to respond to the Dickinson poem according to the category of awareness to which their group has actually been assigned. Those who might have expected that one purpose of fiction wregarding deploy the powers of language to affix us, directly and also intimately, through the hearts and souls of others, will certainly be disappoint- ed to learn that the whole suggest is to make us study ourselves. According to Alano, The Catcher in the Rye will certainly doubtmuch less imply an event “in which you felt yourself to be an ‘outsider’ choose Holden. Why did you feel outside? What lastly adjusted your situation?” Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage have to make us compare our anxieties (“Describe an occasion that you anticipated through are afraid Was the actu- al occasion worth the dread?”) via those of its Civil War hero. And what does The Great Gatsby lead us to consider? “Did you ever before pursue a goal with single- minded devotion? . . . Would you have actually got your finish in any various other way?” Are we to believe that the average eleventh- grader has had actually an experience compa- rable to that of Jay Gatsby — or F. Scott Fitzgerald? And is it any type of wonder that teenagers should complete these exer- cises through little bit however contempt for the writer who so pointlessly complicated and also obfuscated an individual true story that sixteen-year-olds might have told so a lot more interestingly themselves? T remember when it dawned on me that I might, someday, grow old. I was in the eleventh grade. Our marvelous and also inexplicable English teacher had actually assigned us to review King Lear — that is, to read eexceptionally line of King Lear. (As I respeak to, we were asked to circle every word or metaphor having to carry out with eyes and vision, a tedious procedure we grumbled around but that succeed- ed in concentrating our attention.) Al- though I knew I would certainly never ever before re- semble the decrepit adults about me, Shakespeare’s genius, his poeattempt, his prouncovered, encyclopedic understand- ing of personality, managed to per- suade me that I can be that mythical king — an imagiindigenous identification extremely various from whatever before result I might have actually derived by persuading myself that my very own endure was the exact same as Lear’s. I recall the halluci- natory sense of having left my heat bedroom, of finding myself — old, en- raged, alone, despised — on that heath, in that dangerous storm. And I re- member realizing, after the storm sub- sided, that language, that mere words on the page, had raised that howling tempest. Lear is still the Shakespeare play I prefer best. I recheck out it periodically, in- creasingly moved currently that age is no longer a theoretical possibility, and also now that its portrayal of Lear’s behav- ior so regularly appears favor reportage. A frifinish whose elderly boss is ruining his company via irrational tests of feal- ty and refusals to cede power needs 50 80 HARPER’S MAGAZINE / SEPTEMBER 1999 only 6 words to describe the situa- tion at work: King Lear, Act One, Scene One. Another high school favorite was the King James Version of the Publication of Revelation. I don’t think I’d ever before heard of Armageddon, nor did I be- lieve that when the seals of a book were opened up steeds would fly out. What delighted me was the language, the cadences and the rhythms, and the power of the images: the 4 horseguys, the beast, the woguy clothed through the sun. But fairly than exposing students to functions of literature that expand their capacities and also vocabularies, sharpen their comprehension, and also deepen the level at which they think and also feel, we either offer them “easy” (Steinbeck, Knowles, Angelou, Lee) publications that “anyone” deserve to understand, or we serve up the tougher functions predigested. We no longer believe that books were writ- ten one word at a time, and also deserve to be check out that means. We’ve forgotten the distinction between a student that has actually never review a nineteenth-century nov- el and also an idiot incapable of reading one. When my boy was assigned Wuthering Heights in tenth-grade En- glish, the facility sentences, ar- chaisms, multiple narrators, and also in- terwstove stories appeared, at first, like a foreign language. But soon sufficient, he captured on and also reported being moved virtually to tears by the cruelty of Heath- cliffs treatment of Isabella. In reality, it’s not difficult to discover fiction that combines clear, beautiful, acces- sible, idiosyncratic language via a narrative that conveys a complex worldcheck out. But to use such literature might need teachers and college boards to make fresh choices, selec- tions uncontaminated by fads, cliches, and obtained principles. If educators continue to assume that teens are interested solely in publications around adolescents, tright here is engaging, truthful fiction about childhood and adoles- cence, composed in methods that remind us why someone can choose to read. Tright here is, for instance, Charles Baxter’s exact and evocative “Gryphon.” And tright here are the carefully liked details, the complex sentences, and the down-to- earth diction in Stuart Dybek’s great Chicago story, “Hot Ice.” If English course is the just forum in which students deserve to talk around racism and also ethnic identity, why not teach Hilton Als’s The Woguys, Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” or any type of of the stories in James Alan McPherson’s Hue and also Cry , every one of which eloquently and also di- rectly attend to the subtle, effective methods in which race affects every tiny decision and gesture? Why not present our kids to the clarity and power of James Baldwin’s excellent story “Sonny’s Blues”? My suspicion is that the factor such texts are not offered as frequently as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is specifically the factor why they need to be taught — that is, because they’re complex. Baldwin, Als, and also McPherson reject evident “lessons” and also acquainted arcs of abuse, self-realization, and also recovery; they proactively refute simplistic pre- scriptions about exactly how to live. Great novels deserve to aid us master the all-too-rare skill of tolerating — of be- ing able to organize in mind — ambiguity and contradiction. Jay Gatsby has actually a shady previous, however he’s additionally sympathetic. Huck Finn is a liar, however we concerned love him. A friend’s student when wrote that Alice Munro’s personalities weren’t people he’d choose to hang out with but that reading her occupational al- means made him feel “a little less pet- ty and also judgpsychological.” Such benefits are denied to the young reader exposed only to publications via banal, simple- minded ethical equations and to the student motivated to come up with reductive, wrong-headed read- ings of multilayered texts. The narrator of C aged Bird is great, her rapist is bad; Scout and also Atticus Finch are good, their bigoted neigh- bors are poor. But the characters in James Alan McPherson’s “Gold Coast” are a great deal even more lifelike. The can- tankerous, bigoted, elderly white jan- itor and also the young African Amerideserve to student, his short-lived assistant, that puts up via the janitor’s bullshit and also is all at once cheered and sad- dened by the knowledge that he’s headed for better success than the janitor will ever accomplish, both em- body mixtures of admirable and also more dubious characteristics. In other words, they’re even more favor humans. It’s tough to imagine the leskid plans telling stu- dents precisely how to feel around these two facility plausible characters. N o one’s saying that eincredibly existing syllabus be shredded; many publications on the present lists are good functions of art. But why not tell the students that, instead of suggesting that Mark Twain be posthumously reprimanded? Why not point out exactly how convincingly he cap- tured the wormajesties of Huck’s mind, the inner voice of a boy trying des- perately to sew a crazy quilt of self to- gether from the ragged scraps roughly him? Why not celebprice the accuracy and vigor via which he analyzed the rhythms of Amerideserve to speech into composed language? In simplifying what a book is enabled to tell us — Twain’s novel is wholly around racism and also not at all about what it’s choose to be Huck Finn — teachers pre- tend to spark discussion but actually proccasion it. They claim to relate the civilization of the book to the world of ex- perience, yet by concentrating on the student’s very own history they narrow the human being of endure dvery own to the per- sonal and also deny students other sorts of experience— the suffer of what’s in the book, for starters. One reason we review writers from other times or cul- tures is to challenge alternatives — of feeling and also sensibility, of history and psyche, of information and concepts. To suffer the heartbreaking matter- of-factness with which Anne Frank de- scribed her instance seems more valuable than packing a document bag via Game Boys, cigarettes, and CDs so that we can go right into hiding and also stop being sent to the camps. The pleasure of surrender to the world of a book is just among the pleasures that this new means of read- ing — and teaching — denies. In blur- ring the line between fact and also fic- tion (What happened to you that was exactly like what occurred to Hester Prynne?), it reduces our respect for creativity, beauty, art, believed, and for the method that the huguy heart ex- presses itself in words. Writers have no option yet to be- lieve that literary works will endure, that it’s worth some initiative to maintain the many beautiful, meaningful lyrics or narratives, the document of who we were, and are. And if we desire our children to begin an extended love affair through reading and also via what good creating deserve to carry out, we desire them to obtain a very early HARPER’S MAGAZINE / SEPTEMBER 1999 begin — or any start, at all. Teaching students to value literary masterpieces is our ideal hope of awakening them to the boundless capacities and also complexities of human endure, of helping them acknowledge and also accept complexity and ambiguity, and also of making them love and also respect the language that ah lows us to smuggle out, and send one an additional, our urgent, eloquent dis- patches from the prichild of the self. That might be what writers — and readers — desire. But if it’s not occur- ring, maybe that’s bereason our cul- ture desires it much less urgently than we execute. Education, after all, is a process in- tended to create a product. So we have to ask ourselves: What kind of product is being developed by the cur- rent system? How does it readjust as soon as certain components are included to, or removed from, our literature curriculum? And is it really in the ideal interests of our customer economy to develop a well- educated, smart, highly literate culture of fervent readers? Doesn’t our epi- demic dumbing-down have undeni- able advantages for those establishments (the media, the declaring market, the government) whose interests are better offered by a population not trained to review too closely or ask too many type of questions? On the the majority of obvious level, it’s worth noting that publications are among the few continuing to be forms of entertainment not sustained by, and also meant to better, the interests of proclaiming. Television, newsrecords, and magazines are busily instilling us via brand-new desires and pre- viously unsuspected demands, while publications sell just themselves. Additionally, the moment we spend reading is time spent amethod from media that have a better opportunity of alchemically transmuting attention into money. But of course what’s happening is more complicated and subtle than that, more very closely associated to how we conceive of the relation in between in- tellect and spirit. The new-design En- glish-course graduate — the one who has actually been force-fed the gross oversimplifi- cations prreadily available by these leskid plans and teaching manuals — worths empa- thy and also imagination less than the abil- ity to make quick and irreversible judg- ments, to entertain and also preserve simplistic immovable opinions around guilt and innocence, around the possi- bilities and limitations of humale na- ture. Less comfortable through the gray locations than via sharply delineated babsence and also white, he or she have the right to occupational in teams and also operate by agreement, and has actually a resultant, residual distrust for the eccentric, the idiosyncratic, the an- noyingly. . . individual. What I’ve explained is a salable product, tailored to the demands of the financial and also political moment. What results from these educational methods is a mode of thinking (or, more accurately, of not thinking) that equips our kids for the future: Future McDonald’s employees. Future cor- poprice board members. Future distinct prosecutors. Future machines of 100- best-books lists that fondly recontact what they first read in high institution — and that may not have check out anything since.
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And so the roster of literary masterpieces we pass along to future generations will certainly proceed its down- ward shift, and also those lightweight, mediocre high school favorites will certainly continue to climb, unburdened by grav- ity, to the top of the list. ■