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REVIEW I KNOW WHY THE GAGED BIRD CANNOT READ How Amerideserve to high school students learn to loathe literature By Francine Pincreased I Kcurrently Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. Bantam Books, 1983. 256 pages. $5.50. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Warner Books, 1988. 288 pages. $4-99. Teaching Values Thturbulent Teaching Literature by Margaret Dodchild. ERIC/EDIN- FO Press, 1993. 168 peras. $16.95. Teaching the Novel by Becky Alano. ERIC/EDINFO Press, 1989. 88 peras. $14.95. Teaching Literature by Woguys Authors by Carolyn Smith McGowen. ERIC/ED- INFO Press, 1993. 224 pperiods. $16.95. Books discussed in this essay include: L ike most parental fees who have actually, against all odds, maintained a lively and also still evolving passion for excellent publications, I uncover myself, each Sep- tember, significantly appalled by the dismal lists of messages that my sons are doomed to waste a institution year analysis. What I obtain as compensation is a mea- certain of insight right into why our culture has actually concerned admire Montel Williams and also Ricki Lake so much even more than Dante and also Homer. Given the dreari- ness through which literary works is taught in many kind of American classrooms, it seems miraculous that any kind of sentient teenager would certainly watch analysis as a source of plea- certain. Traditionally, the love of analysis has actually been born and nurtured in high school English class — the last time many kind of students will find themselves in Francine Prose’s essay “Scent of a Woman’s Ink: Are Womales Writers Really Inferior?" showed up in the June 1998 problem of Harper’s Magazine. Her new novel, Blue Angel, will certainly be published in April. a roomful of people who have all review the very same message and are, in concept, pre- pared to comment on it. High institution — even even more than college — is wbelow literary tastes and also allegiances are formed; what we review in adolescence is imprinted on our brains as the dreamy notions of childhood crystallize right into hard data. The intense loyalty adults harbor for books first encountered in youth is one probable reason 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 the majority of plausible explacountry for the strange Modern Library list of the “100 Best Novels of the 20th Centu- ry,” a roster dominated 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 soptimal, in various means, to the vestigial teenage psyches of men of a certain age. The parallel list attracted up by students (younger, more of them female) in the Radcliffe Publishing Course shows the equally romantic and also tacky tastes (Gone via the Wind, The Fountainhead) of a later on genera- tion of adolescent girls. Given the fact that these early on en- counters with literary works leave such in- delible impressions, it would seem dou- bly crucial to make certain that high college students are actually reading literary works. Yet eexceptionally chance to instill adolescents with a lifelengthy affin- ity for narrative, for the ways in which the vision of an artist deserve to percolate via an idiosyncratic use 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 semi-trash, taught for factors that have actually nopoint to perform via just how well a book is composed. In truth, much less and much less attention is being phelp 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 composed of words and also sentences, or that the option of these words and sentences deserve to inform and delight us. We hear that even more books are being bought and also offered than ever prior to, yet no one, as far as I understand, is suggesting that we are produc- ing and also becoming a country of avid readers of severe literary works. Much has actually been made of the lem- minglike fervor via which our uni- versities have actually rumelted to sacrifice com- plexity for diversity; for years now, critics have decried our plummeting scholastic criteria and mourned the death of cultural proficiency without hav- ing done one appreciable thing 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 avenues and misindevelopment that develop the true curriculum of so many kind of high college English classes. My own 2 sons, now twenty-one and also seventeen, have check out (in public and also private schools) Shakespeare, Hawthorne, and Melville. But they’ve additionally slogged consistently via the manipulative melodramas of Alice Walker and Maya Angelou, through sentipsychological, middlebrow favorites (To 50 76 HARPER’S MAGAZINE /SEPTEMBER 1999 conversation of racism; her victory over poverty and also abusage deserve to be supplied to ad- dress what one fan, in a customer book review on Amazon.com, commemorated as “transcending that pain, drawing from it deeper levels of meaning around be- ing truly huguy and also truly alive.” Many chapters end with sententious epigrams basically begging to serve as texts for sophomoric rumicountry on such ques- tions as: What does Angelou intend once she writes, “If prospering up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being conscious of her displacement is rust on the razor that threatens the throat”? But a lot even more terrifying than the prospect of Angelou’s pieties being dissected for their deeper meaning is Kill a Mockingbird and also A Separate Peace), the weaker novels of John Steinbeck, the fantasies of Ray Bradbury. My older boy spent the initially several weeks of sophomore English mentioning the class’s sum- mer assignment, Ordinary People, a weeper and former bestseller by Judith Guest about a “dysfunc- tional” family members recovering from a teenage son’s suicide attempt. Neither has actually heard a teacher suggest that he review Kafka, though one might mean that teens could gain the transfor- mative science-fiction facets of The Metamorphosis, a story about a young male so alienated from his “dysfunc- tional” family members that he turns — embar- rassingly for them — into a gigantic bee- tle. No instructor has actually ever asked my came away with may not be a scien- tifically exact survey. Such surveys have been done by the National Coun- cil of Teachers of English (publimelted in the 1993 NCTE study report, Lit- erature in the Secondary Schools), via results that both underline and also fail to reflect what I found. What emerges from these pho- toreplicated peras spread in pub- lic, personal, and Catholic schools and also in armed forces academies, in Manhattan and also Denver, in rur- al Oregon and metropolitan Missouri, is a numbing sameness, unimpacted by geography, area, or area dimension. Nbeforehand eexceptionally list consists of at least among Shakespeare’s plays. Without a doubt, 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 also memoir — the news is much more upset- ting. On the lists sampled, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and also Maya An- gelou’s 1 Know Why the Caged Bird Sings are among the titles that show up the majority of frequently, a grisly truth that in itself need to inspire us to research the functions that dominate our children’s lit- erary education. First published in 1970, 1 Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is what we have since learned to identify as a “survivor” memoir, a first-per- kid narrative of victimization and also recovery. Angelou transporting activities us to her childhood in segregated Arkansas, where she was increased by her grandmom and also was most- lyjjWent, despite the unpleas- aitgrtess of her white next-door neighbors, until, after a relocate to St. Louis, eight- year-old Maya was raped by her moth- er’s boyfriend. One can watch why this memoir can appeal to the lazy or uninspired teacher, that 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 frequently vent- ed distrust of white society might rouse even the many sluggish or understand- ably disaffected ninth-graders to join a sons to review Alice Munro, that writes so lucidly and also beauticompletely around the hypersensitivity that renders adoles- cence a hell. I n the hope of finding out that my youngsters and also my friends’ kids were exceptionally unfortunate, I newly accumulated eighty or so analysis lists from high colleges throughout the nation. Because of exactly how overfunctioned teachers are, how hard to reach throughout the school day, and the odd, paranoid defen- siveness that pervades so many kind of schools, obtaining these documents appeared to call for more time and also dogged perseverance than obtaining one’s FBI sur- veillance documents — and what I Photographs by Alison Rossiter, from the series The Stacks, 1997 / Yancey Richardkid Gallery, New York REVIEW 77 the notion of her language being supplied as a design of “poetic” pincreased style. Many type of of the damaging mysteries that challenge teachers of college freshguy complace can be addressed sindicate by looking at Angelou’s composing. Who told students to combine 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 into themselves so steadily and also inevitably that each seemed to be the original of yesterday’s turbulent draft. Saturdays, but, always broke the mold and dared to be different.” Where perform students learn to compose stale, inprecise similes? “The man’s dead words fell choose bricks around the au- ditorium and also too many kind of settled in my belly.” Who seriously believes that murky, turgid, convoluted language of this type constitutes great writing? “Youth and also social approval allied them, selves with me and we tram- meled memories of slights and insults. The wind of our swift passage re- modeled my attributes. Lost tears were pounded to mud and then to dust. Years of withdrawal were brushed aside and also left behind, as hanging ropes of parasitic moss.” To hold up this book as a paradigm of memoir, of believed — of literature — is akin to inviting physicians convicted of malpractice to instruct our clinical students. If we want to usage Angelou’s work to educate our youngsters, let’s invite them to parse her language, sentence by sentence; ask them exactly what it implies and ask why one would certainly bvarious other obscuring concepts that might be expressed so a lot more simply and also felicitously. Narrated affably sufficient by a nine- year-old girl named Scout, To Kill a Mockingbird is the perennially beloved and also treacly account of flourishing up in a little Southern town in the time of the De- pression. Its hero is Scout’s father, the saintly Atticus Finch, a lawyer who represents everything we cherish about justice and democracy and also the Amer- ideserve to Way, and also that defends a black male falsely accsupplied of rape by a poor white womale. The novel has actually a shad- ow hero, as well, the descriptively named Boo Radley, a gooney recluse who be- comes the occasion for yet an additional lesboy in tolerance and also compassion. Such summary reduces the book, but not by all that a lot. To review the novel is, for the majority of, an exercise in wish- fulfillment and self-congratulation, a chance to take into consideration thorny issues of race and prejudice from a safe distance and also with the comfortable certainty that the reader would certainly never harbor the racist attitudes esposupplied 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 significant guy living alone in the scary house transforms out to have been watching over us with protective benevolent attention. Maya Angelou and also Harper Lee are not the just authors on the lists. The other many popular books are The Great Gatsby, The Scarlet Letter, The Adven - tures of Huckleberry Finn, and also The Catcher in the Rye. John Steinbeck (The Pearl, Of Mice and Men, The Red Pony, The Grapes of Wrath) and Toni Morrison (Song of Solomon, Sula, The Bluest Eye, Beloved) are the writers — after Shakespeare — represented by the biggest variety of titles. Also widely studied are novels of even more dubious lit- erary merit: John Knowles’s A Sepa- rate Peace, William Golding’s Lord, of the Flies, Elie Wiesel’s Night, and also 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- teenager Eighty-Four and also Animal Farm) is still being read, as are the Brontes ( Wuthering Heights and also Jane Eyre). How astonishing then that students exposed to such a large variety of mas- terpieces and proficient middlebrow entertainments are not mobbing their libraries and also bookstores, demanding heady diets of serious or semi-severe fiction! And how puzzling that I need to so frequently uncover myself teaching bright, eager college undergraduate and also grad- uate students, would-be writers hand- icapped not just by just how little bit liter- ature they have check out however by their utter incapability to check out it; many kind of are nearly inqualified of doing the close line-by- line analysis vital to discshed the the majority of basic information in a story by Henry James or a seemingly more straightforward one by Katherine Mansfield or Paul Bowles. The explanation, it turns out, lies in exactly how these books, also the finest of them, are being presented in the class- room. My dogged search for reading lists flumelted out, in addition to the lists themselves, course descriptions, teach- ing guides, and also anecdotes that expose exactly how English literary works is being taught to high school students. Only seldom execute teachers propose that writing might be worth analysis closely. Instead, stu- dents are increated that literary works is principally a vehicle for the soporific ethical blather they endure day-to-day from their parents. The existing vogue for teaching “values” with literary works provides the novel as a springboard for the sort of conversation previously carried out in civics or ethics classes — areas of examine that, in concept, have been phased out of the curriculum but that, in fact, have actually been preserved and cleverly sub- stituted for what we offered to contact En- glish. English — and also everything about it that is inventive, imaginative, or pleasurable — -is alongside the suggest in classrooms, as is whatever that con- stitutes style and also that distinguishes authors, one from another, as precise- ly as fingerprints or DNA mapping. The question is no much longer what the writer has actually created however quite who the writer is — especially, what ethnic team or gender identity an author rep- resents. A movement passed by the San Francisco Board of Education in March 1998 mandates that “works of literature check out in class in grades nine to eleven by each high institution student have to incorporate works by writers of color which reflect the diversity of society, race, and also course of the students of the San Francisco Unified School District. . . .The writers that are known to be lesbian, gay, bi- sex-related or transsex, shall be appro- priately identified in the curriculum.” On the other hand, aesthetic beauty — felici- tous or accurate language, images, rhythm, wit, the satisfaction of recog- nizing somepoint in fiction that seems fresh and also true — is simply too frivolous, suspect, and elitist also to mention. Thus the delicate To Kill a Mocking- bird is freighted with lots of sociopo- litical ballast. A “Collaborative Pro- gram Planning Record of Learning Experience,” which I acquired from the Internet, outlines the “as a whole goal” of teaching the book (“To understand also troubles relating to discrimicountry and prejudice that exist in our pres- ent-day society. To understand also and also HARPER’S MAGAZINE / SEPTEMBER 1999 apply these values to our own lives”) and also argues topics for student discussion: “What type of human being consist of your community? Is tright here any type of group of world ... a perkid (NO NAMES PLEASE) or form of perchild in your neighborhood that you feel uncomfort" able around?” A summary of “The Family in Lit- erature,” an elective offered by the Princeton Day School — a course consisting of works by Sophocles and Eu- gene O’Neill — begins: “Bruce Spring- steenager when tried to make us believe that, ‘No one have the right to break the ties that bind/You can’t for say-yay-yay-yay- yay-yay-yake the ties that bind.’ He has actually given that divorced his wife and married his back-up singer. So what are these ties and also simply how strong are they, after all?” With its chilling echoes of New Age psychobabble, Margaret Dodson’s Teaching Values Thturbulent Teaching Lit- erature, a sourcebook for high school English teachers, indevelops us that the point of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is “to display just how progress has been made in the therapy of the mental- ly disadvantaged, and that even more and also much better duties in culture are being de- vised for them establish that mentally retarded people are people via the very same requirements and also feel- ings that everyone else experiences.” An eighth-grader researching Elie Wiesel’s overwrought Night in a class taught by a passionate gay-civil liberties ad- vocate came house via the adhering to notes: “Many Jews killed in the time of the Holocaust, yet many many kind of homosex- uals murdered by Nazis. Pink trian- gle — Silence equates to fatality.” It’s cheering that so many kind of lists in- clude The Adendeavors of Huckleberry Finn — but not once we uncover that this relocating, funny novel is being taught not as a job-related of art yet as a item of damning proof versus that biacquired, Mark Twain. A friend’s daugh- ter’s English teacher informed a team of parental fees that the only factor to examine Huckleberry Finn was to decide whether it was a racist message. Instructors con- sulting Teaching Values Thturbulent Teach- ing Literature will have reresolved this dispute lengthy before they walk right into the classroom to supervise “a cshed analysis of Huckleberry Finn that will reveal the miscellaneous methods in which Twain undercuts Jim’s humanity: in the minstrel rou- tines with Huck as the ‘right man’; in generalities about Blacks as unreli- able, primitive and also slow-witted — ” Luckily for the teacher and also students compelled to confront this fictional tantamount of a minstrel show, Mark Twain have the right to be rehabilitated — that is to say, revised. In classes that sound prefer test screenings provided to position unreleased Hollywood movies, focus groups in which viewers are invited to pick among variant endings, stu- dents are polled for feasible alterna- tives to Huck’s ancTTom Sawyer’s ac- tions — should Tom have actually brought out his plan to “free” Jim? — and asked to speculate on what the fictional char- acters might have or have to have actually done to end up being much better world and also atone for the sins of their creators. In the many unintentionally hilarious of these leschild plans, a chapter entitled “E than Frome: An Avoidable Tragedy,” Dodkid advises teachers to mean re- sistance to their efforts to redevelop Whar- ton’s personalities and hence improve her novel’s outcome: “Students intensely disprefer the mere tip that Ethan need to have honored his commitment to Zeena and motivated Mattie to day Dennie Eady, yet this would certainly sure- ly have demonstrated better love than the suicide attempt.” Thus one more puzzle confronting col- lege and also also graduate school instruc- tors — Why execute students so despise dead writers? — is partly explained by the ad- versarial stance that these sourcebooks embrace toward authors of timeless messages. Teachers are counseled “to assist stu- dents rise over Emerson’s style of stat- ing an concept bluntly, announcing reser- vations, and also occasionally also negating the original idea” and to existing “an approach of contrasting the drab, utili- tarian prose of 1 984 with a lyric poem ‘To a Darkling Thrush,’ by Thomas Hardy.” Why not cite that such functions have actually been read for years — for a reason! — and urge students to number out what that reason is? Doesn’t it seem less practical to review Emily Dickinson’s occupational as the brain-damaged mumblings of a demented agoraphobic than to ap- proach the topic of Dickinson, 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 around the peasanattempt, Kipling’s racism, are all problematic, and also merit discussion. But to treat the genioffers of the previous as naughty youngsters, ampermit to reeducation and learning by the children of the current, evokes the educational theo- ry of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. No wonder students are rarely asked to think about what was actually created by these hopemuch less racists and so- ciopaths. Instead, they’re told to write roughly the publications, or, much better yet, write their very own books. Becky Alano’s de- pushing Teaching the Novel advises readers of Sylby means of Plath’s The Bell Jar to construct a therapeutic review of its suicidal heroine (“Do you think she is all set to go home? What is your prognosis for her future?”) and lists files to be created 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 suicide 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. Exordinary that to protect against being sent to a concentra- tion camp, many type of civilization went into hiding. Often they might take via them only what they can lug Ask your students to choose the items they would certainly take right into hiding. These items have to fit right into the grocery bag.” A course attempting to translate an Emi- ly Dickinkid poem have the right to be split in- to 3 teams, each group interpret- ing the poem based on among Freud’s levels of consciousness; hence the little ids, egos, and superegos have the right to respond to the Dickinchild poem according to the category of awareness to which their group has been assigned. Those who could have expected that one function of fiction wregarding deploy the powers of language to connect us, directly and intimately, through the hearts and souls of others, will certainly be disappoint- ed to learn that the whole allude is to make us study ourselves. According to Alano, The Catcher in the Rye will doubtless imply an incident “in which you felt yourself to be an ‘outsider’ like Holden. Why did you feel outside? What ultimately changed your situation?” Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage must make us compare our anxieties (“Describe an event that you anticipated via are afraid Was the actu- al event worth the dread?”) through those of its Civil War hero. And what does The Great Gatsby lead us to consider? “Did you ever before seek a goal through single- minded devotion? . . . Would you have actually gained your end in any type of various other way?” Are we to think that the average eleventh- grader has actually had an suffer compa- rable to that of Jay Gatsby — or F. Scott Fitzgerald? And is it any type of wonder that teenagers must complete these exer- cises via bit however contempt for the writer that so pointlessly facility and obfuscated a personal true story that sixteen-year-olds can have told so a lot even more interestingly themselves? T remember once it dawned on me that I could, sooner or later, grow old. I was in the eleventh grade. Our marvelous and also inexplicable English teacher had assigned us to check out King Lear — that is, to check out every line of King Lear. (As I recall, we were asked to circle eexceptionally word or metaphor having actually to do through eyes and also vision, a tedious procedure we grumbled about however that succeed- ed in focusing our attention.) Al- though I knew I would never before ever re- semble the decrepit adults roughly me, Shakespeare’s genius, his poetry, his prodiscovered, encyclopedic understand- ing of personality, managed to per- suade me that I can be that mythical king — an imaginative identification extremely various from whatever before result I can have derived by persuading myself that my very own experience was the very same as Lear’s. I recall the halluci- natory sense of having left my warmth 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 web page, had elevated that howling tempest. Lear is still the Shakespeare play I like ideal. I rereview it periodically, in- creasingly moved currently that age is no longer a theoretical opportunity, and also now that its portrayal of Lear’s behav- ior so regularly seems prefer reportage. A frifinish whose elderly boss is ruining his company with irrational tests of feal- ty and refusals to cede power needs 50 80 HARPER’S MAGAZINE / SEPTEMBER 1999 only six words to describe the situa- tion at work: King Lear, Act One, Scene One. Another high institution 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 horses would certainly fly out. What delighted me was the language, the cadences and the rhythms, and the power of the images: the 4 horsemales, the beast, the woman clothed through the sun. But quite than exposing students to works of literary works that expand also their capacities and vocabularies, sharpen their understanding, and deepen the level at which they think and also feel, we either offer them “easy” (Steinbeck, Knowles, Angelou, Lee) publications that “anyone” have the right to understand, or we serve up the tougher functions predigested. We no longer believe that publications were writ- ten one word at a time, and deserve to be check out that means. We’ve forgained the distinction in between a student that has actually never read a nineteenth-century nov- el and also an idiot incapable of analysis one. When my boy was assigned Wuthering Heights in tenth-grade En- glish, the facility sentences, ar- chaisms, multiple narrators, and in- terwoven stories appeared, at first, favor a international language. But soon enough, he captured on and reported being relocated almost to tears by the cruelty of Heath- cliffs therapy of Isabella. In reality, it’s not difficult to find fiction that combines clear, beautiful, acces- sible, idiosyncratic language via a narrative that conveys a facility worldwatch. But to usage such literary works might call for teachers and institution boards to make fresh options, selec- tions uncontaminated by fads, cliches, and received principles. If educators proceed to assume that teenagers are interested exclusively in publications about teenagers, tbelow is engaging, truthful fiction around childhood and adoles- cence, composed in methods that remind us why someone can prefer to read. Tbelow is, for example, Charles Baxter’s precise and evocative “Gryphon.” And tbelow are the carefully favored details, the facility sentences, and also the down-to- earth diction in Stuart Dybek’s excellent Chicearlier story, “Hot Ice.” If English class is the only forum in which students can talk about racism and ethnic identity, why not teach Hilton Als’s The Women, Flannery O’Connor’s “Everypoint That Rises Must Converge,” or any of the stories in James Alan McPherson’s Hue and also Cry , every one of which eloquently and also di- rectly deal with the subtle, powerful methods in which race affects eexceptionally tiny decision and gesture? Why not present our kids to the clarity and also power of James Baldwin’s good story “Sonny’s Blues”? My suspicion is that the reason such texts are not provided as regularly as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is specifically the reason why they need to be taught — that is, bereason they’re complex. Baldwin, Als, and McPherboy refuse noticeable “lessons” and also familiar arcs of abusage, self-realization, and also recovery; they proactively refute simplistic pre- scriptions around just how to live. Great novels deserve to help us grasp the all-too-rare ability of tolerating — of be- ing able to host in mind — ambiguity and also contradiction. Jay Gatsby has a shady previous, yet he’s additionally sympathetic. Huck Finn is a liar, however we come to love him. A friend’s student when created that Alice Munro’s personalities weren’t human being he’d select to hang out via but that reading her occupational al- methods made him feel “a tiny much less pet- ty and also judgpsychological.” Such benefits are denied to the young reader exposed only to books with banal, simple- minded ethical equations as well as to the student urged to come up with reductive, wrong-headed read- ings of multilayered texts. The narrator of C aged Bird is good, her rapist is bad; Scout and also Atticus Finch are great, their bigoted neigh- bors are bad. But the personalities in James Alan McPherson’s “Gold Coast” are a good deal even more lifechoose. The can- tankerous, bigoted, elderly white jan- itor and the young African Amerideserve to student, his short-lived assistant, who puts up with the janitor’s bullshit and also is all at once cheered and also sad- dened by the knowledge that he’s headed for better success than the janitor will ever achieve, both em- body mixtures of admirable and more dubious attributes. In other words, they’re even more like people. It’s tough to imagine the leskid plans informing stu- dents exactly just how to feel around these 2 complex plausible characters. N o one’s saying that eincredibly existing syllabus be shredded; many type of publications on the existing lists are great functions of art. But why not tell the students that, rather of saying that Mark Twain be posthumously reprimanded? Why not allude out 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 approximately him? Why not celebrate the accuracy and also vigor with which he interpreted the rhythms of Amerihave the right to speech right into created language? In simplifying what a book is enabled to tell us — Twain’s novel is wholly around racism and not at all around what it’s choose to be Huck Finn — teachers pre- tend to spark discussion but actually prevent it. They claim to relate the civilization of the book to the world of ex- perience, but by concentrating on the student’s own history they narrowhead the people of experience down to the per- sonal and deny students various other sorts of experience— the endure of what’s in the book, for starters. One factor we review writers from various other times or cul- tures is to face choices — of feeling and sensibility, of background and psyche, of information and principles. To experience the heartbreaking matter- of-factness via which Anne Frank de- scribed her instance seems more helpful than packing a document bag with Video Game Boys, cigarettes, and CDs so that we deserve to go right into hiding and also avoid being sent out to the camps. The pleacertain of surrender to the people of a book is only one of the pleasures that this new means of read- ing — and also teaching — denies. In blur- ring the line between fact and also fic- tion (What happened to you that was exactly choose what occurred to Hester Prynne?), it reduces our respect for imagination, beauty, art, assumed, and also for the means that the human heart ex- presses itself in words. Writers have no option however to be- lieve that literature will certainly survive, that it’s worth some initiative to maintain the the majority of beautiful, coherent lyrics or narratives, the record of who we were, and are. And if we want our youngsters to begin a prolonged love affair through analysis and also through what good creating deserve to perform, we want them to gain a very early HARPER’S MAGAZINE / SEPTEMBER 1999 begin — or any kind of begin, at all. Teaching students to value literary masterpieces is our finest hope of awakening them to the unlimited capacities and complexities of huguy suffer, of helping them acknowledge and also accept complexity and ambiguity, and of making them love and respect the language that ah lows us to smuggle out, and sfinish one one more, our urgent, eloquent dis- patches from the priboy of the self. That may be what writers — and also readers — desire. But if it’s not occur- ring, possibly that’s because our cul- ture desires it less urgently than we execute. Education, after all, is a procedure in- tended to produce a product. So we have to ask ourselves: What type of product is being produced by the cur- rent system? How does it adjust as soon as certain components are included to, or removed from, our literature curriculum? And is it really in the ideal interests of our consumer economic climate to develop a well- educated, smart, highly liteprice culture of fervent readers? Doesn’t our epi- demic dumbing-dvery own have undeni- able advantages for those institutions (the media, the heralding industry, the government) whose interests are much better offered by a population not trained to check out too closely or ask as well many type of questions? On the most obvious level, it’s worth noting that books are among the few staying forms of entertainment not continual by, and also supposed to additionally, the interests of proclaiming. Television, newsrecords, and magazines are busily instilling us via brand-new desires and pre- viously unsuspected demands, while publications offer just themselves. Moreover, the moment we spfinish reading is time spent amethod from media that have actually a better possibility of alchemically transmuting attention right into money. But of course what’s happening is even more complex and subtle than that, even more closely connected to just how we conceive of the relation between in- tellect and also heart. The new-design En- glish-class graduate — the one that has been force-fed the gross oversimplifi- cations proffered by these lesboy plans and teaching manuals — values empa- thy and imagination less than the abil- ity to make quick and also irreversible judg- ments, to entertain and maintain simplistic immovable opinions around guilt and also innocence, around the possi- bilities and limitations of huguy na- ture. Less comfortable with the gray areas than with sharply delineated babsence and white, he or she have the right to work in groups and operate by agreement, and also has a resultant, residual distrust for the eccentric, the idiosyncratic, the an- noyingly. . . individual. What I’ve described is a salable product, tailored to the needs of the economic and political minute. What outcomes from these educational methods is a mode of reasoning (or, more accurately, of not thinking) that equips our kids for the future: Future McDonald’s employees. Future cor- poprice board members. Future special prosecutors. Future devices of 100- best-books lists who fondly recontact what they first check out in high institution — and who might not have read anypoint because.
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And so the roster of literary masterpieces we pass alengthy to future generations will certainly proceed its down- ward shift, and also those lightweight, mediocre high college favorites will certainly continue to climb, unburdened by grav- ity, to the peak of the list. ■