January 10th, 2008


All I Really Need to Know About Literature I Learned Years and Years after High-School Graduation

I've just found Will Okun's New York Times blog. He's a schoolteacher in Chicago who was chosen in a contest to travel around Africa with Times columnist Nick Kristof, and now he's back to work and still blogging. Today he writes about how his students fall asleep every time he tries to work on traditional literary classics with them, no matter what he does or how he approaches it. He has better luck with books they can understand and relate to, like I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Push, The Outsiders, and The Color Purple:
There is nothing as satisfying as when a class discussion becomes so intellectually and emotionally charged that a security guard enters to make sure everything is okay.
He makes a pretty good argument for giving up on teaching the first kind of book in favor of the second kind. Otherwise, he says, students will decide that they hate reading and never get the chance to go back and enjoy the classics when they're better able to appreciate them, the way he did himself with The Stranger, after learning to love novels from the Norman Mailer, Tom Robbins, and Tom Wolfe his parents had around the house.

No doubt that's a controversial position, but I see what he's saying here, and I grew up in a house where every free bit of wall was lined with bookshelves. The only assigned reading I enjoyed in high school was All the King's Men, Heart of Darkness (mostly because we watched Apocalypse Now alongside), some things by Carson McCullers, and the odd sonnet. I dragged myself through plenty of Homer, Dickens, and Shakespeare, but I didn't learn to enjoy any of them until just a few years ago. Other than that I got more out of my Rolling Stone subscription than from anything I read in school. I know the classics are a priceless heritage, but I have to wonder: what's the point of paying for students to sleep through class when they could be learning something?