I’m beginning to wonder if the high school “reader” I had to plow through my second or third year of high school (1973, 1974) wasn’t progressive. Tucked among the usual classic short stories was Ray Bradbury’s “The Wilderness.” Granted, its one of the least science fictional stories by Bradbury, but there you have it: a story intended for The Martian Chronicles mixed in with stories and excerpts of novels by Steinbeck, Hemingway, William Saroyan (is he relevant reading anymore?), etc.
There’s dated, and then there’s dated. 20,000 Leagues was interesting to me when I was a kid, aside from the subject matter, because it was dated enough in setting and sensibility that it seemed fresh and strange–the story took place in a past so remote from my everyday experience, it might just as well have been the future. Or a kind of timeless fictional space located at an oblique angle to real life and history–like a fairy tale.
Paul’s point here is important. For me, and I suspect for quite a lot of SF readers of my generation, the appeal of SF was precisely its lack of obvious relevance. SF took us out of ourselves, not just in the sense of escapism, but also by offering us a larger context for the present: time, space, future and past, the laws of physics and the laws of history. School science and school history paled, and ultimately taught far less. The difference between young readers now and then may simply be that circumstances have blunted curiosity about the other and the strange, or shifted it onto another track–the Internet and social networking, perhaps.
I suspect what Gardner is seeing in his son’s contemporaries and his grandchildren is what my wife sees every day in her university English classes: a multi-generation decline in basic reading skills, with an accompanying impoverishment of imagination. There were always college students who didn’t read for pleasure (our combined teaching experience reaches back to 1966), but now there is a significant portion who can’t read for pleasure–or, sometimes, for simple content.
Chasing the conversation ball away from Heinlein…
Regarding the curricular debate, I’m all for assigning books that your average middle-class American teenager will find “fun” and “relatable.” But I don’t think those should be the only books teenagers are taught to read. (“Taught” being an important word here.)
One of the great things about literature is its ability to develop people’s capacity for empathy. Fiction requires us to intepret described situations, empathize with characters, and speculate as to characters’ motives. In research in human development there appears to be growing interest in literature and empathy (see http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/sep/07/reading-fiction-empathy-study). There’s also at least one study indicating that, in a prison population, psychopaths are the group most likely to have diffiiculty interpreting literature.
If understanding how other people think is a valuable skill, and if reading and interpreting fiction helps people develop this skill, then should we be limiting teenagers’ literary exposure to books about people “just like them”?
It may be what teens want — adolescence is a notoriously self-aborbed age, after all. But I think there’s value to practicing empathizing with people (even middle-aged salesman in the 1940s) who are not “just like you.”
Death of a Salesman isn’t a rave fave of mine either, but I have to say it helps if your own father was a salesman. But again, I never read it until I was in college. I’ll add that students are, in my experience, much more responsive to Shakepeare than they are to 20th-century drama. But they’d always rather watch the movie.
Here’s something I’ve never understood–why teach Shakespeare’s plays by reading? They’re plays, and I’ve loved every one I’ve seen staged. Needless to say, the reading assignments in high school didn’t leave me with as favorable an impression. Even the puns based on archaic language come across when spoken by an actor instead of sitting on a page.
Because we can’t let students think that watching movies is an acceptable approach to literature? I mean, then they might watch movies of novels, too, which of course they never do right now.
To be fair, my high school English teacher also quibbled with pretty much every available adaptation of Hamlet, whether movie or filmed stage production. But it isn’t as if the way in which she taught the play was devoid of the kinds of interpretive decisions that go into performance; that’s part and parcel of any reading/viewing and discussion, not avoidable under any conditions. I benefited quite a lot from watching Branagh’s version before I read the play.
In high school, we approached Shakespeare at least in part by reading aloud from scenes in class. Parts were divided up and then divided up again so that everyone could participate. That was helpful in parsing the (to us) strange language and phrasing. But of course there wasn’t time to read through an entire play this way. So we did have to read them to ourselves–but I enjoyed that and still do, though I had to learn the skill of it like any other. To me, the experience of reading the plays may be different than watching them on stage or on the screen, but it is not inferior.
I have to admit I liked most of what I was forced to read in high school — I liked Lord of the Flies, I liked A Farewell to Arms, I liked Catcher in the Rye (indeed, my son, no reader or not much of one, liked it when he was assigned it a year or two ago).
Heck, I was assigned Lucky Jim in one class (also Heart of Darkness, which I liked a lot), and The Illustrated Man in another (but also Dandelion Wine, which I didn’t like). Being introduced to Amis, in particular, was very important to my future reading arc.
I didn’t like everything — some books I didn’t like because I think they really were crap — A Separate Peace, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden — and others (like, indeed, Death of a Saleman) are doubtless very good but not anything I wanted to read at that age.
I don’t know the answer — I think there ought to be set texts, really. Maybe better set texts, but I do think high school kids should be reading “classics” (it’s OK if the “classics” are broadly interpreted, mind you) … nothing worse, really, than trying to decide what will be relevant for them (that way lies A Separate Peace). But on the other hand, it’s easy to see why the urge to look for “relevance” comes up.
I did have one HS class called “Independent Reading” in which I could read anything I wanted — just had to write short essays on them (and one long essay at the end — mine was on Earthsea).
You’re younger than me. I tried to do an essay on an SF novel in high school English, and received a flat failing grade on it and the scrawled comment that “science fiction is not a fit topic for literary evaluation.”
I read all of Shakespeare by myself (first) in High School — that, and the Divine Comedy (Ciardi translation) — was my main first entrance into poetry. And I liked them plenty in reading.
The only play of his I remember being taught in my school was Romeo and Juliet — and indeed we were taken on a field trip to see the Zeffirelli movie as part of the process.
Anyway, for a long time I only knew Shakespeare from reading, and from the occasional movie. When I finally saw live plays they were a revelation — much better (to me) even that movies.
Gardner: You’re younger than me. I tried to do an essay on an SF novel in high school English, and received a flat failing grade on it and the scrawled comment that “science fiction is not a fit topic for literary evaluation.”
My teacher was somewhat bemused at my choice of Earthsea, but she agreed that since the course was Independent reading, she had to let me. (Anyway she liked me, and I mollified her by doing shorter pieces on Oedipus Rex — and also Out of the Silent Planet, which I guess didn’t count as SF somehow.)
I got really bawled out in the 10th grade for doing an oral book report on From Russia With Love.