Sunday, February 6, 2005

The study of literature in public schools

I wonder what my impressions of literature would have been had I been taught by an english teacher in today's classes. I say this as one who is barely 13 years out of high school and who has fond memories of my high school english courses. I credit Mr. Errol Hogan with instilling in me a deep appreciation for literature and poetry, neither of which were immediately attractive to a science-nerd like me.

I recall some of the authors and books we studied: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, The Red Badge of Courage, The Scarlet Letter, and others. We were also allowed to choose from a variety of books that we would then be called upon to review in a book report. This was not your usual "what happened, who were the major characters" sort of book report. Mr. Hogan required that we think about the meaning of the book and attempt a statement of the book's theme and overall purpose. Tough stuff for a 17-year-old high school student.

Now enter the current debate over what is "appropriate" for teen readers to study in their arts classes in high school. I ran across a somewhat exasperated blogger who was irritated at the "small-minds" (direct quote) who would ban books from being appreciated by thoughtful students of literature. Normally, I would probably side with this guy. I remember reading of people who would have the nerve to ban books like Huckleberry Finn because it contained the word "nigger" and depicted a world in which the United States still had slaves. These kind of arguments I found profoundly stupid and managed only to produce students who were woefully unfamiliar with the formative literary history of our nation.

But I decided to follow the provided link to "the ravings of these people" (another direct quote) just to see what they were trying to ban now. I was expecting to see advocates for a ban on Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln or something equally politically correct and silly. But instead, I ran across this list:

1. All the Pretty Horses

2. Animal Dreams

3. The Awakening

4. The Bean Trees

5. Beloved

6. Black Boy

7. Fallen Angels

8. The Hot Zone

9. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

10. Lords of Discipline

11. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

12. Song of Solomon

13. Stotan

14. This Boy’s Life

I only recognized a few of these books (Cuckoo's Nest, All the Pretty Horses). Yesterday I was in Borders briefly (no I never bought anything...) and saw Song of Solomon displayed as a recommended read (and an Oprah book club title, no less). So naturally, when I saw that on the list, I clicked through the link to see why that book had been "banned". This is the rationale for banning given by the "raving" people:

The novel begins and ends with suicide. The main character, Macon Dead, nicknamed, “Milkman,” is the youngest child and only son of a failing marriage. He learns his family history from his father, mother, and aunt, which leads him on a search for gold. His friend, Guitar, needs gold to fund his band of assassins who get revenge on a white person each time a black person is killed. Guitar follows Milkman to Virginia, where Milkman discovers his great grandfather’s name, Solomon.

The novel contains an enormous amount of profanity, sexually explicit discussions, vulgarity, violence (murder), and racial slurs. In addition, the plot is disingenuous and the characters are far-fetched. The overall tone of the book promotes a depressing, animalistic view of the nature of man.

Types of sex include:

  • - Breast feeding a boy (not a baby, not a toddler) for pleasure
  • - sex with dead people
  • - oral sex
  • - discussions of sexual relations between a daughter and father
  • - descriptions of foreplay and undressing
  • - teen sex at 16 with multiple partners
  • - fantasies of sex between a mother and her son
  • - sex with whores
  • - sex between cousins
  • - anal sex
  • - oral sex between men
  • - sex using objects forced into each other
  • - discussions of sex with various animals and plants
And it kept getting better. The whole bottom of the page was filled with excerpts from the book. I have to say I didn't get far before I couldn't read any more. I found myself rapidly backpeddling, wondering if this book shouldn't be "banned". Oprah book club title? Acclaimed black author? Required (!) reading for high school students?!

Then I went back to the original page. It turns out they weren't on some please-ban-these list at all. The folks posting the "raving" web site were asking for alternatives for their children, preferring that they not have to wade through this on some pretext for passing the SAT's. The fact that they expect children to know material specifically from this book for the SAT's is a rant for another day.

Admittedly, I only followed one link on the page to information about one of the books. Perhaps the others are all being lumped unfairly in the same category. But is there better stuff our children could be reading for the study of literature? Does this represent the pinnacle of literary art (is it even in the top ten or fifty)? Does the need to include African American authors mean that this is the best literature African Americans can produce?

I often complain about the lack of good science fiction and fantasy out there because so much of it seems to contain material (weird sex and perverted social schemes) that I just don't want to have to wade through. I had no idea that "mainstream" literature was quite this bad. And I find myself seething over the fact that literature teachers are holding up this garbage ("well written" or not) as high art before the eyes of high school students who may have never been meaningfully exposed to decent literature prior to this.

I'm hardly an advocate of censorship and I have no desire to shelter children from the real world. But I wonder what it will be like when my kids are going through school. To what abyssal depths will literature have sunk by then? And with what joy and sense of social responsibility will the literature teachers rub their noses in it?


Daniel said...

You know perfectly well (don't you?) that to wrench a novel so thorougly out of context as the CLSS does Morrison's novel is purely a polemical ploy. I'm surprised you would accept their characterization of the novel (adding that it's "garbage") without having read the book yourself. I assure you you'll find it is far from garbage.

Furthermore, I specifically named Morrison as a writer high school students might not "get" anyway, and thus finding an alernative to Song of Solomon could be entirely justified simply on literary grounds.

Karen said...

To me, books are having lower quality and interest compared to older books because what is happening to movies is also happening to books. When one movie comes out and it is raved to be astounding, all other movies set that as it's standard. After that they have to add to the story line so it appeals to everyone. Apparently you have to have romance and you have to have at least one action sequence where there is much destruction.
After going through, well, all of the extra stuff on RotK EE, someone did actually say that the battle of the Pelennor Fields "is what every other fight scene has to equal", or something to that effect.
It also seems like the publisher is over powering the editor in a way. Like when the editor wants to take something out becasue it has nothing to do with the story, the producer wants it in for more appeal.

High Schools aren't quite in the dump yet. The books you named I will/have to read in my high school life because they are required (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, The Scarlet Letter), and other "classics" like Great Expectations and Jane Eyre.

Also, even if the english program is getting worse, maybe your kids might come across an english teacher that teaches english like yours did. That's always a good thing to think about.

You better start reading you kid some of that good science fiction and fantasy out there.

Alien Shaman said...

Do kids still read in High School? I read some great novels, The Great Gatsby, being one of my favorites - but Cliff Notes was a requirement for many people I knew. In some cases they wouldn't read the book, just grab some info from the notes and call it a day.

I actually have Black Boy on my bookshelf - one of about 30 books we got from Kelley's brother when he was graduating college and didn't want to keep all of his books. I will have to read it and let you know what I think.

Where is the list of what is required reading?

Is this 14 of 20, or 14 of 200 books?

Is it a must read list, or a suggested reading list?

When I was in Hogan's class, I believe we had approximately 75 books to choose from, so while some "controversial" books could have been on the list - I wasn't required to read them, and I bet these kids aren't forced to read these either.

Regarding the AP III issue, I would like to see all of the books that are commonly on the AP III test. I have a feeling the spin of that website is to make this look worse than it really is.

AP classes are supposed to be at collegiate level - in which case a book such as Song of Solomon is perfectly valid. Part of college is about challenging students to become open minded individuals that can have an opinion and defend it. If a student is asked to do this progressive thinking in High School, then more power to them.

Banning books is as bad as burning them. We live in a capitalistic society, so if a book is bad - don't buy it. If our children are forced to read controversial books in school - then take up an open dialogue with the teacher and other parents to find out why.

It comes back to the basics. Parents should be involved with their children, and if an issue like this comes up - why not have the parent read the book at the same time so the child and parent can openly discuss it?

CapitalistPig said...

Tom Wolfe has some interesting essays in his book about American Culture "Hooking Up" where he discusses the sorry states of the Modern Novel and Modern Art. He says that there is a huge disconect now-a-days between the literature that academics say is relevent and the literature that the public actually reads. The novels, now-a-days, that "intellectuals" favor never sell many copies to the public. Probably the only people who buy the novels that are favored in Acedemic circles are college professors and the poor students whom they make buy this modern crap.

This wasn't always the case. 50+ years ago, those novels which were aclaimed by Acedamia were also best sellers to the public. The novels which won their authors nobel prizes in literature back then were also WIDELY READ BY THE PUBLIC. Think about the authors that were on Mr. Hogan's list your Junior year...Nobel prize winning American authors like Steinbeck and Hemmingway.. The literature these guys won their Nobel prizes for weren't obscure texts that only college professors read. These were as popular with the general public as any Tom Clancy novel would be today.

Great literature isn't just great because it's full of nuanced points that acedemics can discuss ad nauseum, or because it makes popular (or unpopular) political statements. To be great it has to be relevent to a large segment of humanity as well.

The problem is that acedemics sequester themselves in universities, insulating themselves from humanity at large and are thus incapeable of writing a novel that most people would care about.

In the "good 'ole days" serious authors lead colorful and intersting lives that gave them the perspective which enabled them to write novels that were both menaingful and relevent. Take Hemmingway for example: He drove an ambulance in the Crimean War, was in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. He spent his life among people doing things that were interesting and important, so it's no suprise that he wrote novels that were interesting and important to a large amount of people, and that have continued to be important after he was dead. Modern acedemics write novels for other acedemics that have no relevence to anyone else, and will be forgotten by history.

These novels you write about shouldn't be taken off of AP Reading lists, because they are obscene and disgusting. They should be banished from highschools because they are irrelevent crap that won't teach students anything. No highschool student should be studying any novel that hasn't stood the test of time. What makes great literature "great" is that it gives the reader an opportunity to experience something important and unique about humanity. Only thousands of readers over the years can determine which novels do this. Some of these novels may be important but really we have no way of knowing yet. It's too soon.

It's tragec that modern acedemics are abe to side-step this long historical process of vetting novels and force every modern piece of crap that THEY think is important on their students. This is especially tragic because the modern college prophesor, isolated from the masses like never before, is probably the least qualified to make such judgements.

By the way, I feel so fortunate to have been tought by Mr. Hogan. I can't think of any teacher in highschool or College who prepared me for life than he did. He tought us how to communicate effectively. As an adult now, few skills are more important than that. I rarely have to speak in public now-a-days (He told my parents once that whatever I end up doing in life, it would be a tragedy if I'm not speaking in front of people.), but there have been a few pivitol moments in my life when it was extremely important to get up in front of a group of people and speak pursuasively. Thanks to Mr. Hogan in those moments it just came naturally and easily to do so. It still hurts my ears any time I hear someone mis-pronounce "be CAUSE"..."becuz".

Tim Lewis said...

I see a few on that list that pose some worth to the average high school reader. One of which was required when I was in high school was "I Know Why the Caged Birds Sings" by Maya Angelou. Thinking back to then, it may have even been before she was "cool" or on Oprah's book club, but most likely one of the real reasons it was required reading in that English class was because I grew up in Stockton, CA, where she was a prostitute and fry cook, and where some of her story takes place.

A literary alternative to Song of Solomon would be very easy considering its location in literature. Perhaps Psalms or Proverbs may be better for high school teachings. People of all ages can definitely use some of its wisdom. Everyone must admit that it is, at least, literature.