The last installment of the Roundtable left off with Jeff Ford’s comment about how schools seem to fail to turn kids into lifetime readers. This opened the discussion out in interesting directions, and it’s where we’ll start off today.
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I think American education has a lot to answer for in its disenfranchisement of young people from reading. I remember the stuff they wanted us to read in school, and thought most of it really beat. Did every kid in America have to read Death of a Salesman? What a sad sac affair. Like Nick said, they could have been reading Jack Vance or something that interested them. The message of DOAS was we were all headed for lives of misery, to be sucked dry by the system. Most kids response to that is, “Wake me up when it’s over.” The need for society at large to control the reading of kids squeezes all the excitement out of it. There’s always got to be a lesson to be gotten out of it. Dragsville. Because society squeezes the life out of reading, when it does offer a kid a really great book, there’s no desire to read it. Interesting politically is the fact that schools disenfranchise kids from reading — the perfect tool for teaching yourself and a passport to all the places they never mention in school.
I was unusual in actually enjoying most of the stuff we were forced to read in high school, Shakespeare, Dickens, Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn. Almost everybody else in my large class hated them, though, and many swore that they’d never read anything again. (I was scolded for reading the books all in one night, rather than the approved chapter-a-day-with-lessons pace we were supposed to be following. And God help you if you disagreed with the teacher’s official interpretation of What The Book Meant.)Science fiction was forbidden fruit in those days, when adult strangers would actually snatch an SF book or magazine out of your hands on a bus and throw it away to save you from the corruption of this “mind-rotting junk.” (This happened to me twice, in the late ’50s.) All the teachers hated it, and many forbid you to read it. All the librarians hated it, and were reluctant to let you take an SF book out of the library, especially the school library.This, of course, made it deeply appealing. It was an outlaw literature, outside the bounds. If it had been being forced down our throats in school, in the same regimented, lifeless, authoritarian way all the other stuff was, I wonder if I would have gotten into it as passionately as I did.
Guy Gavriel Kay
I am going to float a dissent (does dissent float?). Jeffrey, we read the same books in our day. We were angry (stoned!) kids, too and dark books didn’t ‘disenfranchise’ us from books. I take it pretty much the other way: the pedagogic lust to be ‘relevant’ to ‘connect’ is enfranchising the ‘tudes of the students, embedding the notion that books (and learning and teachers) have to be FUN, to be COOL to be about ‘me’ and ‘now’. That’s the ‘mirror’ angle I’m getting from librarians again.
The question becomes, why does ‘wake me when it’s over’ deserve validation? (It is possible to say that Death of a Salesman is overrated, or Murder in the Cathdedral which I remember doing in Grade 11. But that’s a very different discussion. The Crucible is all about sex so it ‘sells’ better.)
Actually, there’s an earlier question about the Willy Loman play: why is tragedy (Such a downer, man!) wrong for students, and why that kind of tragedy in a possible recession? The message doesn’t have to be ‘life sucks!’ in a tragic play or book, it can be ‘where does empathy take us as we read this?’ … and I’ll add that an underlying thesis of Alone Together, Sherry Turkle’s really, really powerful commentary on all of this (and more), is the erosion of empathy in society.
If the reading lists are just going to be fun stuff, where does that take us? When do the fifteen year olds GET to Miller? By way of Jack Vance? And remember all this discussion started with books (Heinlein) that WERE fun stuff for some of us, and can’t even be read today by most!
PS: I am not (quite) as oppositional here as I sound. I have been tracking, for example, a trend to introduce non-fiction in high school literature courses, not just poems, short stories, plays, the occasional (short!) novel. The idea being that fiction is more and more for women these days, and so boys will engage better with non-fiction on the curriculum. (A prelude to reading political biographies! Oops. Irony slipped back in.)