There was an interesting thread on Twitter this morning about the pros and cons of teaching "the classics" in high school (or younger grades). Some people felt the dead white male canon was no longer relevant, others thought there should be a new "mixed" canon, and so on. Some tweeters made comments regarding whether or not the classics should be enjoyed on their own or just as cultural icons.
I'm not sure exactly when we began to have assigned readings of full-length novels in school. In eighth grade (age ~13) I remember being assigned Conrad Richter's A Light in the Forest. I never read it. We also had to read Robert Louis Stevenson's The Black Arrow, but I'm not sure exactly what grade that was. I didn't read that one either. Somewhere along the line was Esther Forbes' Johnny Tremain. I had seen the Disney movie on TV, so I didn't read that one either. Oh, yeah. And we had to read The Pearl by John Steinbeck. It got the same treatment from me.
In high school we had the usual: Dickens' Great Expectations in an abridged version in our literature book along with Romeo and Juliet. Nope and nope on those, too. I think Julius Caesar came in sophomore year. Another nope. Junior year was American literature, with Miss Cobb, which meant Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. Maybe The Scarlet Letter was thrown in for good measure, but I'm not sure. I didn't read them. Senior year I had Miss Leonhard with her Thomas Hardy obsession, so that meant The Return of the Native. I managed maybe 40 pages of it before I gave up.
This was not an issue of getting a student to read or to like reading. I loved reading, and I devoured books like potato chips. I read Michener's Hawaii during American history class because Miss Black's teaching was too boring. For my senior English research paper, I read most of Tolstoy's major works -- Anna Karenina, War and Peace, The Cossacks, The Kreutzer Sonata -- and even if I didn't completely understand them, I read them.
Later, years later, I read The Return of the Native and found it fascinating enough that I've reread it several times. I read an unabridged version of David Copperfield and loved it.
Why is it that more than 50 years after I graduated high school, these same issues keep coming up? Why are kids still being taught depressing "life's a bitch and then you die" crap like Steinbeck and Hemingway and Shakespeare? Why can't the canon be expanded to include women writers and writers of color and books written in the 20th and even 21st centuries?
I clearly remember hating The Old Man and the Sea because there was absolutely nothing in it I could relate to. Not the fish, not the old man, not the lions that Miss Cobb said had such immense symbolism. I didn't get it, and I didn't like it, and I couldn't concentrate on it. The same with Thomas Hardy. Egdon Heath was a living, breathing entity to Miss Leonhard, so much so that she and her two equally unmarried English teacher sisters made biannual pilgrimages to England and Hardy country to collect fresh specimens of gorse and heather and other plant to show their students.
Johnny Tremain probably had more relevance to our teenaged selves, but The Pearl sure didn't. Yet these stories are classics. There's something about them that has transcended the popular culture of their time to become universal. Why didn't the teachers then -- or the teachers now -- manage to convey that universality to their students?
When my daughter was in high school and her freshman English teacher handed out a list of acceptable books for book reports, there were virtually no women authors on the list. Not even Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte. Just a bunch of dead white guys. When I confronted the teacher, she looked at me like I was nuts. These were the books that had always been on the list and no one had ever complained before. Well, honey, I complained.
The following year, when my son was a freshman, the high school canon had been expanded, but not by much.
And the kids still didn't read it.
I'm not sure kids are even capable of understanding most of the themes of classic adult literature unless the teacher knows how to make it relevant to their limited experience.
There's a certain similarity between The Pearl and a silly horse story I read in fifth grade, Silver Saddles. The ending is the exact opposite, of course, because the horse story ends happily and the Steinbeck classic is a monumental tragedy. But is the tragedy the whole point of the story? Is that what eighth graders should be taught, that life is a never ending struggle and you shouldn't hope to have anything good come of it because more than likely you'll just end up worse than you were before?
Romeo and Juliet is another tragedy. Why is it still being taught to teenagers who are maybe just starting to experience romance and love and sexual desire? I still remember that English teacher's rapt expression when I said I didn't think kids needed to see love and suicide in the same context without some kind of warning. "Oh, but I just love Romeo and Juliet!" she exclaimed. "It's so romantic!"
Yeah, suicide at 14 is so romantic.
We're a diverse society and we need a diverse canon. But if we're going to impress the importance of that canon or any canon on young readers, don't we have to make it relevant to them? If Jane Austen's universal truth is truly universal, shouldn't there be other examples from literature, from popular culture, from the news, from the kids' real lives?
Maybe I just see all this through the lens of 70 years, or maybe I'm just nuts.