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Pap for the Course

By Jonathan Yardley

Monday, September 13, 1999; Page C02

Literature was, is and always will be an endangered species. It deals with the greatest mysteries and deepest truths of human existence, and it is as difficult and elusive as the subjects it addresses. The natural human inclination to take the easy way is confounded by literature's insistence on the hard way. Thus it has always been an uphill fight for literature, but never more so than now, when the forces arrayed against it are more numerous, importunate and powerful than ever before.

Beyond a doubt the largest of these is technology, with its ability to deliver information and pleasure at speeds so great and in forms so seductive that the printed word on the paper page seems a hopeless anachronism, and clearly is regarded as just that by millions of nonreaders. But literature has other enemies as well, not least among them the prevailing assumption--especially among those who run the nation's schools and colleges--that it exists not to provide its own pleasures and riches but to serve the selfish interests of those who are forced to read it and to reinforce the "soporific moral blather" that our self-satisfied age has embraced.

That quotation comes from an essay in the current issue of Harper's magazine by Francine Prose, a respected novelist and occasional writer of literary criticism. Under the provocative title "I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read," Prose argues that in high school, "where literary tastes and allegiances are formed," American teenagers are being fed "regimens of trash and semi-trash, taught for reasons that have nothing to do with how well a book is written." Taking as her text "80 or so reading lists from high schools throughout the country," she found "a numbing sameness, unaffected by geography, region or community size," which she describes as follows:

"Rather than exposing students to works of literature that expand their capabilities and vocabularies, sharpen their comprehension, and deepen the level at which they think and feel, we either offer them 'easy' . . . books that 'anyone' can understand, or we serve up the tougher works predigested. We no longer believe that books were written one word at a time, and deserve to be read that way."

Thus students are assigned "the manipulative melodramas of Alice Walker and Maya Angelou," along with "sentimental favorites" such as "To Kill a Mockingbird" and the "weaker novels of John Steinbeck"; these books, with their "banal, simple-minded moral equations," rest side by side on the high school shelves with "reductive, wrong-headed readings of multilayered texts" like "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," taught "not as a work of art but as a piece of damning evidence against that bigot, Mark Twain."

In high school these days, as in college, "the question is no longer what the writer has written but rather who the writer is--specifically, what ethnic group or gender identity an author possesses." Like the movie directors of World War II who filled every foxhole with a cast of ethnically (albeit not racially) heterogeneous characters, the makers of today's curricula are far less concerned with literary merit than with the "diversity" of the writers studied and the "self-esteem" of the students who read them. Books are chosen not on their merits but on their usefulness as tools of social engineering and individual therapy.

In making her argument Prose relies heavily on the reading lists and the texts, but also on three guides along the lines of "Teaching Values Through Teaching Literature." The study programs and literary interpretations these books prescribe are scary in their bubble-headed utilitarianism, but they are not quite so universally or slavishly followed as Prose believes them to be. Just as not every college English professor is the handmaiden of deconstruction and political correctness (a generalization to which I, alas, am susceptible), so not every high school English teacher is laying down the law as set forth in these volumes.

Prose also dances rather evasively around a central problem implicit in what so distresses her: that a substantial percentage of these books deals, in one way or another, with questions of race. As a result of the desegregation of the public schools and the attendant white flight from them, the black presence in the schools is far larger than ever before. There exists a felt need to offer black students reading that connects with their own lives. Though it certainly is true that feeding them third-rate, "manipulative" books such as those of the egregious Angelou is hardly the way to address the problem, it remains that the problem does exist. The world has changed since Prose (and I) were in high school, a reality that would not go away even if the collected works of Alice Munro were crammed down every student's throat, a remedy that Prose clearly regards as salubrious but that seems, to my way of thinking, no better than the disease.

Which is to say that, as is usually true when such matters arise, in some measure it boils down to taste. Prose admires Munro's work and would have the schools teach it; I admire Peter Taylor's work and would have the schools teach it. For all I know she disagrees with my taste in this regard as much as I disagree with hers. But both judgments are based on literary convictions and standards rather than the educationist wisdom of the day. It is possible (though by no means probable) that the gurus of high school English have their hearts in the right place, but what they teach has absolutely nothing to do with literature as the word is properly understood.

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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