My numerous teaching positions, which span from college English courses to adult education to afterschool writing programs, mean that at any given time I have students whose ages span decades. This wide range offers a considerable yet enjoyable diversity of skill, talent, and discussion that never leave me bored. However, my teen writers have me concerned. Though young adult literature has arguably never enjoyed the celebrity status it has now and popularity at school can even be judged by whether you’ve read the latest “it” novel, I wonder at what grave cost have we exchanged a greater enthusiasm for reading amidst today’s youth.
Few if any of my tween and teen students are able to recognize, even by name, the classics of the American literary canon – and never mind international authors. I remember when The Catcher in the Rye was passed around in middle school hallways, like a precious tablet translating our experience into the written word, and Holden Caulfield was the beloved anti-hero of young adult fiction for generations. And then after Salinger, core reading brought us Faulkner where we ached with the ghastly love in the Sound and the Fury; the nature and nurture of Whitman, the father of modern poetry; the absurdity of Kafka; and the breakdown of civility in Lord of the Flies.
When I mention these novels and writers to my students, some of whom are poised to graduate, there is a blank look in their eyes. These students have somehow passed through their entire American high school career without having been given a solid foundation in the “classics” and I use the word loosely, as many of these “classics” date as recently as the mid-century. This lack of knowledge includes a complete ignorance of African American authors of great significance like Richard Wright or Ralph Ellison. As Americans, it essential that authors of minority groups are read and discussed by students to fully understand our history and our culture.
I have been told that many schools have changed their core reading curriculum to include more modern commercial novels, recognizing this generation’s addiction to fantasy. Of course, I remember when I was a freshman in high school and first assigned Grapes of Wrath and thought the only wrath was my teacher’s because no one would assign such a thick book without punishment in mind. But the weight of the word informed me of the weight of the world and I loved the engulfing experience of reading such an epic work. By the time García Márquez was assigned my senior year, a good sense had matured within me, that a real treasure would be found. The end of One Hundred Years of Solitude left me breathless. The lesson is that though it may be a difficult start, young readers will eventually adjust to more advanced literature and as with any skill, learn how to study these works with finesse. To “make it easier” is only a benefit to teachers and an indolent benefit at that which deprives students of a quality education.
I believe there are serious consequences to the exchange of commercial writing for classic literature in curriculum. We are graduating students from American high schools, some on their way to four-year universities, with a limited and vapid literary foundation of vampires, werewolves, and wizards. This ignorance means that they will neither be able to complete a New York Times crossword puzzle nor receive mercy from an English professor who’s been teaching before Stephenie Meyers was even an idea in her parents’ heads. At its worst, this American generation will go forth into a world with a great dearth of general knowledge, undoubtedly inferior to their contemporaries overseas who have had a more meaningful education, that will detract from many aspects of their lives. Literature is not just an exercise in creative expression, it reveals and resolves, it engenders compassion and understanding; it expands our world far beyond the borders of the written page.
As mass shootings by angry young men with intense fantasy worlds (vis a vis video games and internet addiction) rise, the predilection towards fantasy in this generation has a dark side that cannot be ignored. We all have a fantasy world but for many, our hopes and dreams remain grounded in reality, operating within the confines of our best case scenarios for love and fortune. When a mind is saturated with zombie apocalypse romances and sparkling fairy worlds, where is the room for real life humility and responsibility, in our conduct with each other, our environment, and our lives?