I can’t be the only one who feels like the schools pulled a sort of bait-and-switch job on us when it came to reading. When I was in elementary school, they went to a lot of trouble to make sure we thought reading was fun, with bookmobiles and read-a-thons and tons of fun books about mice and motorcycles and phantom tollbooths. I had confidence that I could go to the library and pull anything off the shelf except a Baby-Sitters Club book and I wouldn’t be disappointed.
That was the bait. In junior high and high school, they made the switch. I guess they heard about how drug dealers give you free doses of the good stuff until you are addicted, and then once you are hooked, they start cutting it with 50 percent baby powder or something. Actually, junkies notice when you do this. And kids notice when you swap their fun books for boring crap.
So one summer you are reading A Wrinkle in Time or Fantastic Mr. Fox or whatever, and then you show up for your first day of school and BAM, The Scarlet Letter. And get on that pronto, kid, because we are going to talk about metaphors and symbolism in Chapter 1 tomorrow. I opened these books thinking they would be great and rewarding, like the books I was used to, but it was like biting into a delicious-looking cake and finding a bear trap. After my face had been so destroyed by so many bear traps (to continue the metaphor) that the greatest reconstructive surgeon in the world could do nothing to save it, I stopped looking at books as wonderful presents I couldn’t wait to open and started looking at them with a sort of low-level PTSD.
Let me be clear: I still love reading good books, but since experience has taught me that there’s about a 95 percent chance that a random (adult) book I pick up is going to be unenjoyable, I spend more time researching a book before I read it than I spent researching my house before I bought it. It’s crazy to have to be so scared and wary of something I used to look forward to so much.
I think this kind of experience is part of why only 50 percent of American adults have read any novel, short story, poem or play in the past year, and only 54 percent have read any kind of book at all that wasn’t required. There was a bump up from 2002 to 2008, which they think was related to Oprah’s book club, or Harry Potter — you know, things reminiscent of the “Reading Is Fun” campaigns they targeted at kids, which I guess we need for adults now.
And as a disclaimer, I know there’s going to be people out there who loved The Scarlet Letter or A Separate Peace or what have you and feel like they got a lot out of it, and teachers who manage to get kids really engaged in discussing literature, and that is cool, but I don’t think that’s the common experience. Here are the sorts of things I think are going on a lot more often:
Funny… and relevant. Number 2 and 3 are the ones to really be taken seriously (and yes, I’m advising taking a Cracked article seriously — because they do make significant, well-argued points).
I lucked out with (mostly) good teachers in high school and what we read was generally a mix of the ‘good’ classics and the ‘bad’ classics. (Seriously, Wuthering Heights should not be exposed to over-emotional, hormonal teens who don’t know what horrific specimens of humanity Catherine and Heathcliff are because they and their peers are too similar to see the flaws.) I was taught critical thinking and we were encouraged to express what we thought while being able to textually and historically back it up. But I went to a private school and had all advanced/AP classes. I’m not the norm, at all.
The reading curriculum for most high school students hasn’t changed much in decades, unless you have a really forward-thinking teacher (and one who circumnavigates traditional state-approved materials). It’s the literary equivalent of using science textbooks from the 1970s. High schoolers should absolutely be learning about classic literature and how it relates to history and humanity, but there comes a point where you have to adjust the content and method to reflect shifts in how a culture absorbs information and what is relatable for students. Literature is not a fact-based medium and cannot be instructed as such.
The author is right: we do it with film critiques ALL THE TIME. Why can we not teach and apply those concepts to reading?