Censorship, boredom in high school lit!

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 27, 2021

Examples seem to abound: We graduated from high school in 1965. 

We were living in suburban San Francisco, in a world which was much more culturally progressive than the more cloistered world of suburban Boston, from which our family had escaped in the summer of 1960.

Still, when we read several of Hemingway's short stories as part of a high school literature class, one story had literally been cut out of all copies of the book our class was issued. 

Our teacher made a big deal of noting this fact. Up in Michigan was no longer there to offend our inquiring eyes.

Why had Up in Michigan been removed from the books we were issued? You can read Up in Michigan here, and it's a short short story.

Should the story have been excised—physically removed—from the books we were issued? We don't have a huge opinion on that. We're more interested in a topic which appeared in the comments to Kevin Drum's post about Beloved.

The topic in question is boredom, or perhaps "relatability."

Several commenters mentioned books they were assigned in high school—books they couldn't relate to. The topic started with this early comment:

COMMENT: I am not a fan of the way adult books are assigned to teenagers. I understand that most people no longer read books as adults, so it is high school or never. But I don't think we do kids or the novels themselves any favors when we assign books that kids just aren't mature enough or have enough life experience to read and appreciate.

The commenter cited an example of a book her husband was too young to appreciate or understand when he was 17. (Their Eyes Were Watching God.) She herself read (and admired) the book when she was 40. He was assigned it too young.

Other commenters extended the theme:

COMMENT: We read Our Town. If I thought I had to read that again, I think I'd hang myself.

Followed up with Spoon River Anthology, Sherwood Anderson and Bartleby the Scrivener. It's a miracle anyone lived through it.

COMMENT: We read the Scarlet Letter in 10th grade. It's a wonder anyone in my class ever read anything ever again. I believe the lesson we were expected to learn was: reading sucks! It could not possibly have been anything else.

COMMENT: We had to read Heart of Darkness. My entire AP class hated it, and we all bought the Cliff Notes because the only parts we didn't hate we flat out couldn't make heads or tails of.

We had a similar experience. Our class received good instruction in the skills of "literary analysis." Top grades in AP tests were common within our set.

That said, we began to feel alienated from the whole reading experience. We didn't have any idea why we were reading most of the books we were assigned, and we felt we were being trained in a cynical type of performance.

Why were we reading Moby Dick, or The Scarlet Letter? We had no real idea. Should we have been reading those books? We're not sure how to answer.

One commenter described an English teacher who maybe didn't have the perfect bedside manner. Should parents be involved in the public school education of their children? Here's the commenter's tale:

COMMENT: This reminds me of one of my favorite English teachers back in high school, who frequently commented on parents visiting him to complain about the assigned reading material. He told us his standard response was to let them know that his job was dealing with their children's reading problems, not theirs.

I don't recall any of the assigned books from back in those days, but "Huckleberry Finn" was probably one of them. Now banned everywhere, apparently, for using verboten terms.

We're fairly sure that Huckleberry Finn isn't banned everywhere. That said, when black kids, sometimes in middle school grades, feel humiliated and embarrassed by discussion of the book's text in their public school classrooms, that's an important concern which ought to be treated with respect.

Regarding that teacher's bedside manner, way to insult the parents! Our guess would be this—high school kids tend to lionize the chesty teacher who is willing to talk back to their parents, or who at least is willing to say that he does. The teacher who taught us all those skills was perhaps a bit like that.

Should high school kids be forced to read books to which they can't relate? We have no idea. "I believe the lesson we were expected to learn was reading sucks!," that one commenter said. "It could not possibly have been anything else."

Out there in the Golden State, we were well trained in certain techniques, but was it just a game? It seemed to us that it pretty much was. On the bright side, it was a way to get into college. But what would we do once we got there?

We'd also make a recommendation. Parents should be listened to and treated with respect. Controversially, we think parents should be treated that way even if they're one of The Others.

Breaking! Every time we call them those names, another Trump voter is born!


10 comments:

  1. "Breaking! Every time we call them those names, another Trump voter is born!"

    Don't worry, dear Bob: more dead voters will rise, to keep the liberal banner flying high.

    ReplyDelete
  2. When my wonderful 7th grade English teacher Mrs. Wise, had a few spare minutes at the end of the day's lesson, she would read to us a few paragraphs of Moby Dick. We weren't to young to understand it. And, the writing is, of course, superlative.

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  3. At what point do public servants become public masters? Members of Congress already tend to behave like royalty. Non-elected public servants tend to believe that their specialized knowledge should immunize them from public oversight

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  4. Not every kid reacts like Somerby himself or those kids he describes today who disliked literature. I find myself wondering why a kid is taking an AP English class if he doesn't know why he is reading such books and doesn't like them. He clearly isn't going to study literature in college.

    You find the same attitudes described by kids about math, science, and other subjects. Many of them hate algebra and chemistry and physics and even biology. These are kids who don't seem to have much intellectual curiosity and aren't mature enough for college, whether they plan to attend or not. There is no point in pursuing higher education if you have no interest in the foundations of each field. Somerby proved that with his disdain for philosophy and his apparent lack of interest in any other discipline.

    I loved Moby Dick. I found the details fascinating. I also loved War and Peace (not assigned in high school but regularly mocked as an unreadable book). I loved Nabokov and liked Pale Fire better than Lolita, but he too is a superb writer. I disliked Scarlet Letter but not for the writing, for the attitudes of the characters. The point of reading that book is to compare such attitudes with parental views and societal views of sexual behavior in the teen's current world. It is supposed to spark such discussions.

    The kinds of books that teens like to read have no symbolism, shallow character development, are mostly plot driven, are not well written (no figurative language), work only on a single level, and leave the reader with nothing to think about. Good books haunt you and you return to them in your thoughts at unexpected moments, perhaps even dreaming about them. Teachers are supposed to communicate the virtues of such books, not teach students how to play academic games. I suspect that Somerby's high school teachers tried to do so, and the failure is partly Somerby's, since he seems to excel at evading responsibility and thwarting the intentions of his mother (projected onto teachers, no doubt).

    Many kids form a love of literature through exposure to great books. The ones who don't love such books nevertheless gain important information about their own likes and dislikes, which should guide their future choice of career.

    Those who truly love books become either college literature professors or writers themselves. Some become collectors, rare book sellers, or book store owners, editors or publishers. Those who don't love books have plenty of other fields to choose from. But such books will leave them with better vocabularies, higher SAT test scores (because it is far easier to learn the meanings of words in a novel's context than by memorizing them off of lists in a test prep class), and a deeper understanding of how language works and what it was like to live in other time periods. In other words, better developed imagination. That is not nothing.

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  5. “Parents should be listened to and treated with respect. Controversially, we think parents should be treated that way even if they're one of The Others.”

    Who is saying they disagree with this? Not Drum, not his commenters.

    And surely this admonition goes both ways?

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  6. Reminds me of my high school lit class. We studied Emerson and Thoreau. On the test we were asked what we learned from our study of Emerson and Thoreau. I wrote a couple paragraphs that stated that I learned that I hate Emerson and Thoreau.

    The teacher read that essay to the class, while I was away at the State Basketball tournament.

    Later I was thinking that they were pretty cool, and then Bob quoted some Thoreau a month or two ago, and my thought was "sheesh what a load of dreck that is."

    ReplyDelete
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