I’ll credential-up here first so it’s clear that I’m not coming from a sort of lowbrow buffoonery only capable of consuming words in the amount typical of your average Buzzfeed article. I’ve read The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Animal Farm, 1984, Brave New World, The Odyssey, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, Lolita, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Dybbuk, The Greatest Generation, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, and a bunch of other so-called “classics” that I can’t remember because they just didn’t resonate with me.
I read a lot of them on my own (that is without being required to for English class), and I enjoyed most of them. So I’m not coming at you as some hater of “the classics” who thinks that Shakespeare or Dickens or whomever has no place in modern society. But articles like this one piss me off because they remind me so much of my own experiences with misguided teachers. My sixth grade teacher criticized me for reading books that I was “too smart for,” which, however noble-intentioned, was criminally stupid. My reading level being above that of the books was not the problem, the problem was my passion level. There can be immense value in “easy” literature so long as you’re consuming it as an inquisitive and intelligent person. That’s why grown ass men and women still read things like Animorphs, or Star Wars, or The Lord of the Rings despite being “above” them. These are fun worlds to dissect and we better ourselves by exploring them, regardless of how childish the vocabulary might be.
teachers aren’t assigning difficult classics as much as they once did.
Notice that the article doesn’t say that teachers aren’t assigning difficult classics at all, merely that they’re assigning them less. Part of the value of English classes is an appreciation for where the English language has been. In that, the works of Shakespeare, and other authors are invaluable. But there is also value in studying where the English language is going, and contemporary literature is essential to understanding that. The only contemporary literature I was exposed to in high school was through an elective that I had to fight tooth and nail to ditch AP English for called Contemporary English Literature.
If teachers are wondering why students appear dumber and dumber, maybe they should look at how they’re hamstringing them with too much outmoded shit from the past. It’s not like engaging and nuanced writing suddenly stopped a hundred years ago. (And yes, my use of words like ‘shit’ and ‘ass’ is absolutely intentional to prove that words by themselves do not drive the intelligence-meter of a discussion.)
And students like Megan Bell are reading some heavy-duty books in their spare time. “I like a lot of like old-fashioned historical dramas,” Bell says. “Like I just read Anna Karenina … I plowed through it, and it was a really good book.”
News flash: it doesn’t matter if what you read requires an IQ of 300 just to open if what you take away is, “it was a really good book.” This student’s reaction and analysis may have been more nuanced than the article’s word constraints allowed, but do you really think she’s doing herself more of a service by reading a “hard” book than this person? Or these people? That Walter Dean Myers, the article’s token author quote, had this to say is a good summation of the real problem.
Asked what exactly is discouraging, Myers says that these juniors and seniors are reading books that he wrote with fifth- and sixth-graders in mind.
No no no no! Okay yes a little bit, but he’s missing the point. Saying that the problem with readers is what they read is like saying that the problem with certain sports fans is who they’re a fan of. Granted things in these realms are on unequal stages, but vastly more important is not who you’re attaching your passions to, but how you’re doing it. As a writer myself, I can tell you emphatically that the biggest failing of my high school English teachers was when they were more interested in stoking the fires of vocabulary than those of passion. It’s no wonder these kids stop reading; their teachers impress upon them that it’s a chore, a battle to be won, not a journey to travel.
“Every single person in the class said, ‘I don’t like realism, I don’t like historical fiction. What I like is fantasy, science fiction, horror and fairy tales.’ “
None of these things are bad in themselves! Or are we forgetting the genres of Frankenstein, Dracula, 1984, and countless others? And it’s not like historical fiction lives without sin. Many classic works are overtly irrelevant because they rely on outmoded social norms and fail to address or explore advances in how our society views sexism, misogyny, racism, homophobia, chronic disease, and other social issues. These are real, concrete examples of how modern literature has value, which the article’s author couldn’t even provide in her lame apologist paragraph towards the end.
“There’s something wonderful about the language, the thinking, the intelligence of the classics,” says Anita Silvey. She acknowledges that schools and parents may need to work a little harder to get kids to read the classics these days, but that doesn’t mean kids shouldn’t continue to read the popular contemporary novels they love. Both have value: “There’s an emotional, psychological attraction to books for readers. And I think some of, particularly, these dark, dystopic novels that predict a future where in fact the teenager is going to have to find the answers, I think these are very compelling reads for these young people right now.
Really? Teens are going to have to “find the answers?” That’s all she can
come up with quote? She can’t select a novel that outlines the difficulties of growing up gay in a conservative town? Because I could probably find hundreds of those on Amazon right now. She can’t cite novels that deal with the growing issue of human euthanasia as medical advances prolong life, but not quality of life? She can’t bring up books that deal with rape culture, or whatever wave of feminism we’re on? Come on Lynn Neary, you’re not even trying.
Neither are, I suspect, far too many English teachers. Don’t get me wrong, there are good and bad teachers and good and bad students, and no one group should shoulder more blame than the other. I only lean in one direction here as a counter to Ms. Neary, who triggered a series of flashbacks to the creativity-stifling atmosphere of high school. And here’s another question I have while I’m on the general topic: so much energy is put into encouraging students to consume these works, and yet almost no energy is put into encouraging them to create some. Why is that?