Well my post in 2009 about a Kentucky school that required a teacher to cut the teen pop literature in a college preparatory course in favor of books that, like, actually belong in a college prep course has apparently made it on some teachers’ loop and I’m getting comments on the post once again, so I thought I’d bring the discussion back out on the current main page.

Here is the comment from one teacher (Paige):

Sir, have you ever actually spoken to any of your students? Have you ever asked them what they’re thinking about, what worries them at night, what makes them smile in the morning?

Maybe some of these books won’t land on a 100 Best Ever list, but if kids can relate to them and learn a little more about their own world, then by all means they should read them.

I’m an English teacher and I LOVE reading “The Classics”. I loved Shakespeare in high school, but I also read a lot of YA, I still do. I saw myself in them and – as cliche as it may be – felt a little more normal and less alienated.

Classics are important but not at the expense of turning kids away from books forever.

Never mind my original point–that schools should bring children to the great works of Western culture, not leaving them in the debased culture they already inhabit– but, as I noted this in the original discussion, notice the assumptions behind these remarks:

1. That teen fiction is more easy to relate to than great literature. Any English teacher worth anything knows that this is simply not true. One of the reasons great literature is great is because you can relate to it–because it speaks to the human in all of us. The only thing that prevents children from relating to it is the idea among some teachers that children can’t relate to it. If students are not called upon to stretch themselves in their reading and rise above the immediately gratifying world of contemporary teen books, they will never even be able to approach the deeper, richer world of great literature. “You cannot be uplifted,” said Mortimer Adler, “by something that is not above you.”

2. That focusing on the classics detracts from a child’s love of literature. I’m sorry, but any English teacher who thinks this needs to find another job. If you can’t teach literature in a way that captures the minds and hearts of your students, then you don’t belong in the profession. Go get a position as a cashier at Wal-Mart or something, but stay away from the classroom. I have taught English literature for a number of years. We read great literature. My students fall in love with these books. For many of them it literally changes their lives. Ask my students about the experience of reading Flannery O’Connor, G. K. Chesterton, or Wendell Berry and they will talk your ear off. Ask them about the short stories of O’Henry, Jack London, or Saki, or the short novels of John Steinbeck, George Orwell, or F. Scott Fitzgerald. None of them would say that these works detracted from their love of literature. Not a one.

Here is another teacher (Ally):

I’d just like to point out:

On here, many times, it’s been said that students should be expected to relate to the classics. Going through high school, you’re absolutely right. I should much rather relate to

a) the suicide of two teenagers and the heavy violence that led to this. (Romeo & Juliet)

b) A father who holds his daughter hostage until she falls in love with the right man. (The Tempest)

c) backstabbing mothers and fathers who know nothing of their children and cause their ensuing insanity. (Hamlet)

What? Is this not what these stories are about? Am I not seeing the bigger picture? Because neither are you. Every book is imperfect. Why not go ahead and ban all of Jane Austen too because, apparently, she’s also non-Christian and corrupting the youth. (Quote from a quarterly in the 1800s)

The short answer to Ally is, “No, you are not seeing the bigger picture.”

Ally seems to think that my problem with teaching pop teen literature in college preparatory classes has something to do with objectionable content. If she reads the literature in her classes as well as she read my original post, then we may have identified her problem. Great literature isn’t great because of the content it deals with; it is great because of how it deals with it. And to say that pop teen literature deals with these issues better than classic literature does is to simply betray a lack of familiarity with great literature.

It is a measure of the plight of our schools that we would even be having a debate like this. When the people running our schools cannot even distinguish between the great and the mediocre, then we have finally arrived at what is wrong.


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