Great Literature in the Public Schools, Part 1
Anybody who doesn't have children in the public schools of America right now probably isn't aware that there is a low-level, under-the-radar "cold war" going on there between some parents and some schools regarding what constitutes appropriate or desirable literature to be taught to young people and to be stocked on the shelves of the school libraries.
With my son now in 9th grade and my daughter in 4th, I've had my children in public schools for some years now, and I wasn't aware of this development until this past fall, when I was hit with a triple whammy.
The first third of the whammy came home with my son during his first week of honors literature. "Mom, here's the list of books we'll be reading this semester, and you need to buy me the first one by the end of this week."
I wasn't familiar with the book, but went promptly to fetch a copy of the paperback from the local bookstore. It was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, a contemporary novel published in 2003. The story of an autistic teenager in England dealing with the breakup of his parents' marriage, it seemed to be highly praised for the clever artfulness the author used in revealing the many-layered tale humorously yet realistically from the teenaged narrator's unique and quirky viewpoint. I could see why the teacher would want to assign a book with humor and a teenaged narrator, as appealing to the class. I started riffling through the book to get a feel for the writing, and in under 15 seconds encountered one of the nastier four-letter words you can use (the derogatory term for a woman). Despite growing up in the turbulent late-sixties and early seventies, I hadn't learned that one until I was in college. And frankly, I didn't see the need for my son to learn it now.
In a couple of minutes more I could see for myself that the novel was larded with profanity and the baldest four-letter words throughout. The opening scene of the boy discovering a neighbor's dog slaughtered by a “garden fork” still sticking out of him didn't put me in a better mood. What was the teacher thinking, I wondered, in assigning a book with language so over the top; language that was clearly outside the realm of civilized educational discourse and that, if used by a student or a teacher in the classroom (or anywhere at the school or on the bus), would be grounds for censure?
As odd timing would have it, I was then just due to attend the Open House at my son's high school, the parents' chance to meet their children's teachers.
"Maybe you should read a passage from the book at the Open House and ask what the deal is," my Dreamboat said dryly as I left the house. "Maybe the other parents would be interested in hearing that!"
But Open House clearly was not the forum for parental questions of this sort. We were shuffled from class to class, following our students' schedules, and given only 5 minutes in each class, that time filled entirely by each teacher handing out contact information and giving a very rushed presentation of what they planned to cover in their course. At the end of the evening's schedule we were cordially thanked and invited to leave by the administration, addressing the visiting parents over the P.A. system.
I knew I had no right to properly critique the book without reading the whole thing, which I soon did. It was a well-written novel, with a unique and amusing, funny/sad viewpoint. I enjoyed it as a work of art, and as an adult, was not shocked by the language (though it was extreme, the language was meant to serve as a reflection of the narrator's lower-class environment --the old verisimilitude argument). But I did remain shocked that a teacher would assign this particular novel, with this amount and level of profanity, to be read by ninth graders in a literature class. Why? Certainly there were equally amusing, appealing novels my son could read (as if this were the primary qualifier for a literature study!)--and indisputably there were greater novels, and more time-tested ones, that my son could be devoting his guided attention to.
Instead I contacted the teacher by email, and therein wondered politely and deferentially, one English major and literature lover to another, and at the self-avowed risk of sounding like a dinosaur, why she chose to assign this particular book with its extremely graphic language, and how she planned to handle the discussion of the profanity in class.
In short, I have always urged them to pay attention to what they choose to put into their stomachs, their hearts, and their minds, since what you pay attention to grows, and what you neglect withers, and what you give your precious time and attention to affects you in profound ways. I have always encouraged them to challenge themselves, to make the effort to learn and grow, to reach and take the upper, higher road, saying that it is all too easy to take the low road and fall down at any time, but it is so much harder to recover from a mistake or bad habits than it is to start out and stay on the right track.
That is why, for example, as role-modeling parents, we don’t use profanity in our house, because as I’ve always told the kids, it brands you in the public ear where you will be judged as a certain kind of person, and it indicates a lack of imagination, for there is always a better way to express what you really mean than a common expletive.
And I have always told my children to enjoy and savor each year of being a child, and not to push the envelope toward adulthood any faster than they absolutely need to, since adulthood is very, very, very long, and childhood is fleeting and each year should be savored, for every year of childhood and teenhood is unique and special and won't come again.
And we began watching old re-run episodes of “Law and Order” (rated TV-14) on TV in the evenings together. It was clear to me that my son was mature and experienced enough to view profanity as a vernacular (and he had clearly internalized our family’s values of using appropriate language in the right settings and at the right times). Now I had to face that despite how we lived our lives at home, in life, literature and the media, including at school, he was going to be more exposed to "adult" language and today's "adult" topics, perforce including a more detailed awareness of varieties of violence, evil, profanity, and gross stuff. Since the teacher had taken upon herself the right to "push the envelope" at school for our son, I decided to take the initiative to sit down with him as another adult guide, a parental guide, to some of the meaner aspects of the world.
I must admit, it is quite different watching "Law and Order" as a visual aid for helping your child lose some of his innocence than it is watching by yourself as dramatic entertainment. Though it also teaches about the law enforcement and legal systems (my son now knows what a "Twinkie defense" is, for example), "Perry Mason" it is not. Thankfully the series is not excessively gory, but the topics and the references in some of the episodes watched with my son made this mom squirm at times. Luckily Detectives Lennie Briscoe and Ed Green, and Prosecutors Jack McCoy, Claire Kincaid, and Abbie Carmichael are good people to have on our side.
I wonder if Motherhood has always been like this.
What I learned from all of this:
- Until now it had never occurred to me to worry about or question this, but it is not exactly clear how my public school teachers, academic departments, and/or the school board choose which texts to assign in classes. I spent some time trying to determine this and it seems to be a very closed and secretive process with no parental input or overview either encouraged or allowed. The assigned texts are sprung on the parents with no real indication of what's in the books. It never occurred to me to worry before, but now I do.
- A parent can request that a student be assigned a “parallel text” (substitute) for a given book in some cases, once the parent is notified of what text is assigned, but the consequences of this in any given situation for the student are not clear. In some cases no time is given for the parent to review the book in advance.
- Some teachers or administrators evidently insist that a high school student is required to read a given text in order to be prepared for the AP (Advanced Placement) exams to attain college credit. Not true. At the AP website (see Course Descriptions) it states clearly "There is no recommended or required reading list for the AP English Language and Composition course." and
"There is no recommended or required reading list for the AP English Literature and Composition course." The website does offer long lists of authors that teachers may choose from or they "may choose others of comparable quality and complexity." A student may well fill four years of profitable study of the works of Shakespeare, Browning, Blake, Poe, Pope, and all the other classics without being required (by the AP exam, anyway) to stray into contemporary authors of questionable worth.
- Some of the books being assigned in literature classes by the public schools in the
are clearly outrageously age-inappropriate, inflammatory, and dreadful, and parents are beginning to take to the internet to network for better standards in their schools: U.S.
I had no idea. Further Google searches will reveal the current war of values going on, with the parents often branded not just as prim or ignorant old fogeys but as religious bigots, bad guys, book-burners, or censors, for wanting their children to be taught classic and/or traditional literature instead of trendy, trashy, dumbed-down contemporary texts. Goosebumps! is the least of it. As taxpayers expecting our children to receive the quality education we're being billed for, we certainly have the right to be respectfully heard on this.
For more reading:
For more reading:
To be continued.... Part 2: "Mommy, this is a really weird book with bad words in it."