My daughter started high school last year in the International Baccalaureate program at a local school, one that we`ve always heard great things about. Sure enough, she has very much enjoyed her classes there. She`s been challenged, she`s had fun, and we have noticed some great leaps in the maturity of her writing.
But I have a complaint. In her English class last year, the main novel the class studied was The Chrysalids. Now it`s not entirely that I have a complaint about this specific novel (though I do: I find it incoherent, a novel that begins as a cautionary tale about religious extremism justifying intolerance and genocide, then ends with a much more likeable character using bungled Darwinism to — that`s right — justify intolerance and genocide).
The problem, in part, is that I read the same novel in grade nine English thirty years before. Ugh. And in grade ten for my daughter, it was Lord of the Flies — that brilliant social experiment of a novel that leaves out half of the human race in its broad conclusions about human nature. That was grade ten for me as well.
There have been, around these parts, three major changes in secondary school curriculum since I started high school, and yet some English teachers are using the same old tired novels that were taught to them. This bugs the hell out of me.
Don`t get me wrong: I actually enjoyed the above-mentioned novels when I read them. They weren`t exactly new at the time, but they weren`t ancient either. Both had been published about twenty-five years before my teachers brought them to my attention. Considering what I remember about the age of the dusty copies we were reading in the early eighties, they had probably been around the school for ten or fifteen years at the time. So had my teachers.
For me, here`s the point: at some point, my teachers, and I was lucky enough to have creative and innovative teachers, had the idea of bringing those somewhat fresh novels into the high school curriculum. They might have, I imagine, found resistance from some of the older teachers at the time, but they persisted. They, who had probably read those novels (and others, The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, all of the greats of the fifties) when they were new, had the vision and the courage to get those novels on reading lists and in book-rooms. The way I imagine it, those teachers, mostly children of the countercultural revolutions of the sixties, challenged the staid curriculum that was in place when they came in.
It`s time for that kind of challenge all over again, because the kids they taught have grown up, become teachers, and are just parroting much of what they were taught. My wife and I started teaching at a new school this year, and what did we find on the reading lists? Lord of the Flies, The Catcher in the Rye, Of Mice and Men, The Chrysalids, Go Ask Alice, Fifth Business, The Great Gatsby, Brave New World, 1984. It`s obvious that there are some great books in there; I`m not denying that. And I`m cherry-picking a little here, because scattered here and there were a few novels written more recently than fifty years ago, but they were few and far between.
The thing is, there`s less and less time for literature in English classrooms these days. As English teachers are asked to deal with media literacy, Internet literacy, and with preparing students for standardized tests, we sometimes have to choose only a single major novel for a class to read. That`s four novels in a high school education. Why is it that all of those novels just happen to be the same ones that were on the curriculum when the teacher was in high school?
This has become rather a long rant, so I`m going to cut it here. I want to follow it up with another in which I`ll talk about books that I would like to see high school students reading, ones representing better the diversity of our student body. In the meantime, can I ask for some comments? What novel do you wish schools would have teenagers read? What novels did you get introduced to in your high school days that still resonate with you today? Which ones could you do without? Thanks in advance for your thoughts.